When public figures fudge their academic records

Before Herschel Walker entered Georgian politics as a Trump-backed Republican Senate candidate, he was probably best known in the state for his connections to the University of Georgia. As a star footballer in the early 1980s, he kept the Bulldogs in the national spotlight, helping them win three consecutive SEC championships and becoming the second athlete to win the Heisman Trophy at the College Football Powerhouse.

Walker, who won his Senate primary last month, headlined his alma mater by repeatedly lying about his academic record during his campaign earlier this spring.

The returning former NFL claims he has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and graduated in the top 1 percent of his class at UGA. In fact, he did not graduate at all: he left the UGA in his junior year to play in the short-lived United States Football League before moving to the NFL.

Walker has since denied the claim of graduation, a statement that has itself been disproved.

Walker, who questioned evolutionary theory, asked, “If this is true, why are there still apes?” – Spreads shameless misinformation about more than just his academic record. Last month he said former President Donald Trump never claimed the 2020 election had been rigged, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.

Walker is far from the first U.S. politician to be caught trying to evade his academic record. Oregon and Florida state legislators dropped out of the race after claiming they had never won. Former North Carolina representative Madison Catherine lied about being admitted to the US Naval Academy. And former Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell faced backlash in 2010 when two universities denied she claimed she had a degree.

James Thurber, a government professor at American University who has studied ethics in political campaigns, says the main reason politicians lie about their academic records is because of salesmanship and pride.

“Politicians have arrogance, and sometimes they want to make their narrative a little better than it really is,” he said. “I think one of the reasons they do this is because they feel a little insecure and they want to build their reputation by exaggerating.”

The problem is out of politics. Former CEOs of Yahoo, Bausch & Lomb, and RadioShack have faced professional consequences for lying about their academic credentials. Higher education officials themselves are not immune, either: in 2007, MIT’s long-time Dean of Admissions resigned when he applied for the job, saying he had falsified all three degrees.

So when influential people lie about their academic credentials, what should their alma mater বা or so-called alma mater do?

‘A complex tittrop’

Teresa Valerio Parrot, a higher education communication consultant (and blog contributor) Inside higher ed), Said that when public figures misrepresent their academic credentials, it puts the institutions associated with them in a difficult position. Do they correct claims and risk angering an important alumnus, or remain silent and allow misinformation about the degree to be unchallenged?

“If anyone wants to align with our organization, it’s important, but we have to make sure they are truthful [about] What is their relationship, “said Parrot.” In the end, it’s the reputation and integrity of the organization that is on the line. “

Herschel Walker, for example, is a legend at UGA, an influential figure who has the potential to attract university students, faculty, staff and alumni to the university where he made his name. He has donated at least $ 10,000 to the organization, according to the university’s 2020 Donor Honor Roll.

“I think Georgia is doing a good job of walking a very complex tightrope,” Parrot said. “Statistics like Herschel Walker’s really encourage not just the athletic department of the organization, but the overall admissions process. And their collaboration with the organization, if positive, could benefit their enrollment process.”

Consider FERPA

In many cases, institutions are not legally allowed to correct public figures’ claims about their academic records. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act makes it difficult for colleges and universities to disclose academic information about students and alumni without their explicit consent.

“Institutional hands are tied in many ways from being precise with the details of an individual’s educational record,” said Alexander Bilas, an attorney who advises higher education institutions on data privacy.

One exception is directory information, which universities are allowed to publish unless a student chooses to opt out. This includes a student’s name, principal, and degree status, meaning Walker’s false degree claim may fall outside FERPA’s protection and is a fair game to correct. But for more specific records, such as GPAs or even class rankings, modifying public figures’ statements could lead organizations to disagree with the law.

“There is a tension between the public’s right to know the truth about competing for office and the privacy of public education documents,” Bilas said. “Right now, it’s basically resolved to protect privacy.”

Parrot said that while there are instances when an institution may choose not to disclose information about an alumni’s academic experience, high-profile individuals claim that in the case of a degree they have never earned, colleges and universities publicly invest in discouraging that practice.

“One of the fundamental areas of credibility for an organization is maintaining a record of who has graduated,” he said. “We’re really talking about an organization that lives up to one of its most basic responsibilities as a record holder, which is what it means to have a diploma.”

Stay out of politics

Parrot said that for higher education institutions, correcting a politician’s claim to academic achievement could create unwanted complications – especially for a politician who is actively campaigning for office.

“One thing you want to do is make sure you don’t [as an institution] Playing with the political nature of an election, “said Tota. “It could really be a weakness for the organization if they get involved.”

But when the public interest is played out in a campaign, Parrot said institutions can respond to a politician who lies about their academic credentials in the same way they would to any employer who questions an alumni’s resume.

“It’s not uncommon for organizations to ask employers when they confirm receiving a diploma,” he said. “Inside [Walker’s] In that case, the employers will be the Georgian voters. “

Sometimes, it is in the best interest of an organization to straighten out the record immediately. Kyle Reitenhaus, who shot and killed two protesters in Kenosha, Weiss in 2020, recently claimed in a podcast that he would study at Texas A&M University. The university quickly denied the claim, saying Rittenhouse “is not a student this summer and will not be listed for fall.”

Parrot said Texas A&M’s simple response is a model of how organizations can prevent misinformation while avoiding being caught in a politically charged crossfire. But in other cases, he said, those vulnerabilities could make colleges and universities hesitant to get involved, even when they could easily deny a politician’s false claims.

“Some organizations may want to get out of this and keep themselves away from political conversations that they don’t want any part of,” he said. “Most organizations, I think, try to stay completely away from that conversation.”

Thorber said that higher education institutions often issue brief, declarative statements if requested by the media, but that any major statement regarding a candidate’s academic embellishment is extremely rare.

“Organizations are very, very careful about this,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with being involved in the middle of a political campaign … Silence is better than talking about it.”

The consequences of lying and generally lying about one’s academic credentials have changed since Thorber’s work in politics in the 1970’s and 80’s. He recalled Joe Biden’s first presidential campaign in 1987 and said it was a “big deal” when Biden claimed he had graduated from the top half of his class at Syracuse University Law School when he was actually the 76th graduate. 85’s.

“The lies that are little things now were big then and could end the candidacy,” he said. “The standard of truth has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, especially when Trump was in office.”

Outside of legal and public relations considerations, Parrot said a commitment to truth as a core value of higher education should drive the decisions of an organization.

“Whether we’re talking about stealing, or we’re claiming a degree that hasn’t been earned, much of our credibility has to do with that basic element of truth that is involved in being an honest broker,” he said.

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