On Tuesday night the newly hired principal of a high school in southeastern Kansas resigned—and it made international news.
Less than a week before, the high school newspaper had published the results of an investigation raising concerns about incoming principal Amy Robertson’s credentials. Among their findings, they discovered Corllins University, where Robertson purportedly obtained her master’s and doctorate degrees, is an unaccredited “diploma mill.”
In a faculty meeting following the article’s release, the superintendent said Robertson could not provide a transcript verifying her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa. Robertson resigned that same day.
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This story appeals to me for a number of reasons. As a former reporter, I look back fondly on my time as a student journalist, and I always enjoy seeing a group of young, dogged reporters succeed. These events also demonstrate the importance of properly vetting people before they are hired in leadership positions—something we stress to our clients at Hillard Heintze all the time.
Verifying people’s education and professional backgrounds is often one of the key parts of our due diligence investigations. Sometimes this includes calling former employers and educational institutions to verify the information a subject has provided. In more discreet cases, we try to confirm people’s professional backgrounds in other ways, like researching mentions of them in press, court records or SEC filings. If a particular education institution a person disclosed raises eyebrows, we’ll look into it and see if it is accredited. If a person claims to have a military background, we’ll often submit a Freedom of Information Act request to confirm that. We also look for gaps in people’s employment histories or for references to employers they did not disclose to our client.
In one case, a subject we were investigating claimed to have obtained bachelor and master’s degrees from two well-known universities. However, he indicated on a social media profile that he earned an undergraduate degree from another lesser-known school. Ultimately, we learned the well-known universities had no record of this person ever attending or earning degrees from their schools. And we were unable to verify the degree from the lesser-known university because it was an unaccredited, for-profit institution that closed following a lawsuit.
These kinds of examples are not uncommon, something this Kansas school learned the hard way. However, school officials are already taking steps to improve. According to the district superintendent, Robertson would have had to eventually supply official transcripts from an accredited institution. But now candidates will need to provide those documents at the start of the hiring process.
If not, a group of determined student journalists are there to hold the administration accountable.