School official resigns amid Sun investigation into his college degrees

A high-ranking city school official, whose resume includes degrees from institutions that require little or no classroom work and which academic watchdog groups have referred to as "diploma mills," resigned abruptly Thursday after questions about his credentials were raised by The Baltimore Sun.

Kevin Seawright, deputy chief operating officer with an annual salary of $135,200, said he resigned his post to enter the private sector. Schools CEO Andrés Alonso revealed the resignation in an email to school system staff Thursday, saying that Seawright "worked tirelessly during my administration to improve our responsiveness to schools."

Seawright's resignation from the position, which he has held since 2008, came one day after The Sun asked school officials to explain Seawright's academic credentials, which include a bachelor's degree in accounting from Rocklands University and a master's degree in business administration from Almeda University.

Rocklands, which is believed to be based in the United Kingdom, and Almeda, which offers degrees based on "life experience," are not accredited or recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, according to a department spokeswoman.

Because they are not accredited, they are not eligible for federal funds and are often not recognized for employment eligibility by public agencies. In addition, private agencies are not required to accept them for employment. Degrees from both universities have also been banned in several states.

Almeda "is a diploma mill for sure, no doubt about it," said George Gollin, a board member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, an organization of degree-granting colleges and universities and national accreditation oversight body.

"It should be a tremendous embarrassment to the Baltimore schools, and the person who vetted these things should really have their head on a plate," said Gollin, who is a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This is pretty serious."

The city school system said that while it could not comment on specific personnel issues, it believes that during the hiring process, a candidate's experience should be taken into consideration along with educational qualifications. A spokeswoman said that online degrees may meet requirements for some jobs.

"As long as a person is honest about their credentials, and the value of their performance is proven, the online credentials might be appropriate for some high-ranking positions, but not others," said schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster.

"Clearly, they would not be appropriate for educational leadership positions," she said. "But they might have a different significance in the context of a person's experience for operational leadership positions. Ultimately, the question should be what can a person do to serve our kids."

On Wednesday, The Sun asked Seawright about his education, and he provided copies of his degrees and transcripts from both universities. He said he included the information on his resume to the school system as well.

Seawright said he had no reason to believe his degrees were illegitimate. He said Thursday that his resignation was not related to questions surrounding his academic record, adding that he was leaving the district to head project management at a private firm.

"I appreciated working with the district, and I am moving on to the private sector," said Seawright shortly after his resignation. "I feel as though I have served the children of Baltimore to the best of my ability. It was pleasure serving under Dr. Alonso and [chief operating officer] Keith Scroggins and improving operational facilities for Baltimore City children."

On Wednesday, Seawright defended his credentials and qualifications for the deputy chief operating officer position, saying they fit the job description — overseeing, among other things, school facilities, maintenance, transportation, food and nutrition. The deputy COO's responsibilities include managing up to 1,500 personnel, a $150 million operating budget and a $52 million capital budget. The deputy position is the only one of its kind throughout the school system.

According to public personnel reports, Seawright was hired as a special assistant in the Office of the Chief Operating Officer on Jan. 24, 2006, at a salary of $96,000. Seawright had previously worked as the chief fiscal officer for Baltimore City's Department of Parks and Recreation for about six years.

In 2008, he was promoted to the deputy chief operating officer at a salary of $130,000 and received a cost-of-living adjustment that brought him to his current salary of $135,200, city school officials said. City school officials said that Seawright was promoted based on his performance, not his credentials.

Both positions require a bachelor's degree in business, management, finance or a related field, but a master's degree is preferred, according to the job descriptions. On Wednesday, Seawright said he believed he was "more than qualified to do the job."

"There's nothing about accredited degrees in my job," he said. "It was based on experience, too."

Rocklands University, where Seawright said he graduated in 1998, has no current website. A search of Internet archives yielded a website with no description of when the university operated or who operated it, nor any information on how to enroll or obtain a degree. The website also did not indicate if or when the university stopped operating.

An inquiry to the college using an email address on the archived website, the only contact information available, resulted in a return error message.

When asked why there was no record of Rocklands University, Seawright said, "It must have gone out of business."

"When I got [the degree], they did exist," Seawright said. "I paid for the classes, and I don't know if it's accredited."

The Nevis-based Almeda University, where Seawright said he obtained his master's degree in business administration in 2006, awards degrees after staff use a "reliable Prior Learning Assessment method to review your life experience, competencies, skills and knowledge to determine your level of mastery in your field," according to its website. "Based on this evaluation, you can earn a degree commensurate with your level of experience."

Almeda University did not return phone calls and emails requesting information about its academic programs.

The school converts life experience into coursework to provide a transcript. According to Seawright's transcript, his experience equated to 10 courses, including Quantitative Management; Law, Business and Society; and Economics of the Firm.

The enrollment form notes that "college experience is not required to receive your college degree … but could be helpful if you do not have the work experience required by the degree you are seeking." A master's degree assessment costs $499, Almeda's website says.

Degrees from Almeda University have been banned in several states, including Oregon, Michigan, Maine, Florida and Connecticut. Rocklands University degrees have also been banned in Oregon.

Education experts said that both schools are clear examples of "diploma mills" — which have made national headlines as a result of employees in various public sectors receiving raises and promotions based on false degrees.

Almeda University was also the source of a 2004 controversy after a New York man was able to obtain an associate's degree in childhood development for his 7-year-old dog. The university responded on its website that the man had created a false identity to prove a point.

Several state government agencies indicated that Rocklands was operating out of the United Kingdom, and Seawright said he believed it was based in London. Philip Vine, an official with the United Kingdom Department for Education and Skills, responded to an inquiry about Rocklands University by pointing to the department's list of recognized university programs. The list did not include Rocklands University.

"If Rocklands was a legitimate school at some point, or went belly up, I would expect some news story that said Rocklands went belly-up," Gollin said.

"If Rocklands had changed its name, then I'd expect to see that, too. And I would certainly expect to see some information telling people who to contact to get transcripts from their alma mater."

While Almeda University is accredited by private agencies, none of the accrediting bodies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The school also warns that "Almeda University is unable to guarantee acceptance of its degree programs in other postsecondary institutions; public sector employers will not recognize a degree accredited by a private accreditor."

The Baltimore City school board approves appointments via a personnel, employment and payroll agenda, but the school system staff is responsible for vetting candidates to ensure they meet the necessary experience and education for a position, according to Neil Duke, the school board president.

Duke said he could not comment on a personnel matter, but added that "the confirmation of a candidate's credentials and references has been a particular point of emphasis for the district during the last two years."

In 2009, The Sun revealed that Brian D. Morris, a city school board president whom Alonso hired to an unadvertised, $175,000-a-year deputy CEO position, had not been awarded a degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, which was listed on his official resume.

That detail, which resulted from two incomplete classes in his final semester and which Morris said he had been unaware of, was apparently not discovered by city and state officials on multiple levels.

The district then pledged more scrutiny of credentials. The school system said it has checked the credentials and references of every person on a PEP report after establishing the protocol in July 2009.

Seawright was hired before Alonso came to the district, and House-Foster said "it is possible that under a former administration the credentials were checked by [human resources]."

She said that when he was promoted, because "his credentials had been vetted in the past, they were not vetted anew."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.

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