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Honorary degrees raise eyebrows

Thursday July 15 2010

By MUGUMO MUNENE in Nairobi and KEVIN KELLEY in New York

A string of VIPs in Kenya and around Africa could have paid thousands of dollars to three Americans liberally giving out doctorate degrees to the unsung heroes of Africa.

The letters inviting the selected men and women for the academic honour also asked them to make contributions towards the travel and accommodation expenses of the visiting Americans.

In one instance, the Daily Nation learnt that they asked a potential beneficiary to contribute about Sh240,000 ($3,000) to arrange for the award ceremony. The college’s Chancellor of Educational Development Worldwide, Prof Clyde Rivers, at first told the Daily Nation in an interview that his team paid its own way but later admitted that the group had been asking for money.

“We pay our own way... We feel so passionate about Africa that we do it ourselves,” said had Prof Rivers. The Daily Nation then confronted him with details that the letters they had been sending out to potential beneficiaries would often close with a request for money and he accepted that it was indeed true.

“We do ask people to cover our hotel. We spend $2,500 to $6,000 to fly here. We ask for that to help cost share. If someone says no, we don’t disregard him. I’m just here to truly honour Africa,” said Prof Rivers, flanked by two of his colleagues, a mother and her daughter.

And in an ironic twist of events, the president of the United Graduate College and Seminary, Dr Dorothy Wisor, said that she did not know how many students were enrolled in the university and had admitted that they do not have a physical campus anywhere in the US.

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The college president said she did not have much details about the college because she only took up her job three weeks ago and had only a short while ago married the founder, Dr Martin Wisor.

The representatives of the internet-based institution have been on a spree around Africa, giving honorary doctorate degrees to the high and mighty. The list of those who have been honoured include House Speaker Kenneth Marende and Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka.

Honorary degrees are usually given by universities to men and women for extraordinary achievements and are usually conferred at university campuses during graduation ceremonies.Neither Mr Marende nor Mr Musyoka had commented on the conferment of the degrees or whether they had given any money to the Americans despite repeated attempts by the Daily Nation to contact them through their aides.

Further afield, the Americans claim to have conferred the honorary degrees to Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet, Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano.

The university has also honoured the founder of the anti-jigger campaign in Kenya, Mr Stanely Kamau, former Nairobi mayor Joe Aketch and former Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organisation chairperson Zipporah Kittony.

The university is represented in Kenya by one-time Nairobi mayor Nathan Kahara who signs correspondence as a professor with a string of abbreviated titles after his name.

It is copied to Bishop Arthur Kitonga who is designated as professor and named the Special Advisor Worldwide.Prof Rivers said the institution would honour as many Africans as deserved it and said that they had contacted “Nelson Mandela’s people” for the possibility of issuing him with a honorary doctorate.

He said he had been working in Africa since 2005 and had active programmes in Ghana, Mozambique, South Africa and Ghana.Prof Rivers said he had “discovered” that African achievers were hardly honoured and had decided to fill the gap.

His team was also driven by the realisation that many pastors were operating without academic credentials even though they had devoted their life in service to the Christian ministry. He said that despite the many honorary degrees awarded, they maintained a rigorous process and that through the Internet, their reach was global.

Prof Rivers admitted that his institution’s Web site did not measure up to international standards and turned the blame on “people from the Third World” whom he claimed had hacked into the site and fraudulently made money out of it.

He said the college would be building a new Web site.He was accompanied at the half-hour interview by Prof Michal Pitzl, the colleges Chancellor of Education Development Worldwide and her daughter, Prof Donella Pitzl, the Vice Chancellor for communications. In Burundi, President Nkurunziza has appointed Prof Rivers as the country’s honorary consul to the state of California.

Although the three American professors said that their headquarters were in Jonesborough, Tennessee, their business cards give an address in Victorville California, which is approximately 3,500 kilometres away by road or about seven times the distance between Nairobi and Mombasa.

Though it is at the discretion of a university to confer honorary degrees as they wish, most universities jealously guard the issuance and limit them to maximise their impact. The college’s founder, Dr Wisor, said the “college” was able to operate anywhere because all the courses it offered were conducted online.

He also admitted that the college did not have a physical campus. At first she was hesitant to speak, saying she didn’t know much about the college’s workings because she’d only recently landed the job as its head. She said she was married a little while ago to Dr Martin Wisor, named on the college’s Web site as the college’s founder.

According to her, the college was established in 1985.Dr Dorothy Wisor also told the Daily Nation on telephone that the college did award many honorary degrees, and those that it gave were in recognition of “humanitarian services the recipients have provided to people in their countries” and because of “their service to God.”

She also said that recipients had to be Christians. Asked whether the college was fully accredited, she said it was “fully endorsed.”
It appears that the college was what is referred to pejoratively in the US as a “diploma mill” — meaning students can get a degree without doing much work as long as they paid whatever was required.

On its Web site, it says that the United Graduate College and Seminary is “fully endorsed by the United Association of Christian Churches and Ministries International” (UACCMI). On the UACCMI website, Dr Martin Wisor is listed as the association’s founder and CEO while Dr Dorothy Wisor is listed as president of United Graduate College and Seminary. It turns out that the college that Dr Martin Wisor founded was “fully endorsed” by the association that Dr Martin Wisor founded.