Faux Sheepskin: The President of a Real University Attended a Fake One

When Eric Gravenberg was last summer named interim president of the College of Alameda, it elicited a flurry of articles in the hyperlocal press. All mentioned Gravenberg's long history in academic administration, with some going on to note his bevy of awards and status as an "innovative, passionate, and committed leader for educational equity."

A far less laudatory mention came in 2012, when Gravenberg was listed in a chapter titled "Time Bombs: People with Fake Degrees" in the book Degree Mills — an exposé of the shady schools offering diplomas for a fee and little more.

Gravenberg's competence isn't being questioned. But the competence of those who signed off on his Ph.D. is another matter. Gravenberg's doctorate was granted by the unaccredited Columbus University, described within Degree Mills as "a classic example of an institution that moves from one state to another as state laws or licensing requirements change ... when its license was revoked in one place, it changed its address, not necessarily moving at all."

That book's co-author, John Bear, at one point visited the New Orleans address the university listed as its "campus." He found, instead, a martial arts dojo.

The history of this Louisiana-, Alabama-, Tennessee-, and Mississippi-based school reads like something lifted from an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard. Its 1997 "faculty wanted" submissions to the Chronicle of Higher Education listed the school's name as "Colgate University." This rankled the established-in-1819 Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.; the fly-by-night institution was pressured into going with "Columbus."

In 2010, FBI agents raided the two-story New Orleans duplex housing the university and the sole faculty member overseeing all 128 degree programs. In an affidavit, an agent claims the school is clandestinely run by former Louisiana State Sen. Michael O'Keefe, "currently incarcerated at a federal correctional facility."

Messages left for Gravenberg were not returned. Abel Guillen, the president of the Peralta Community College District board, had never heard of Columbus University; this was not a topic of discussion when Gravenberg was tapped for his interim position. Guillen says candidates for upper administration positions ought to "go through a thorough screening." When asked what happened in this case, he says this is a task "usually done by our HR department."

Gravenberg's Columbus University degree, in fact, is reported in press release after press release, even those announcing his appointment to prestigious state educational advisory boards; he's never obscured it.

In any event, only a master's degree is required to teach at (or lead) College of Alameda and the three other Peralta Community College District schools. Gravenberg states his M.A. and B.A. were granted by Chico State University.

Among its other attributes, this is a school whose campus won't be mistaken for a dojo.

 
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