Pentagon defends appointee who has unaccredited grad degree

A senior Pentagon political appointee lists a master's degree from an unaccredited, unlicensed university on his official biography and in his Senate confirmation statement.

Charlie Abell, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, holds a master's from Columbus University of New Orleans, which requires limited academic work for its degrees and has never been accredited.

Abell received his master of science degree in human resource management from Columbus between 1998 and 1999, according to the Pentagon press office and his confirmation hearing record before the Senate Armed Services Committee. At the time, he was a professional staff member for the committee.

In response to several questions about Abell's qualifications, the Office of the Secretary of Defense issued a statement: "In 1998, while working on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Abell chose to pursue higher education to expand his knowledge of human resource management. His goal was to find a program that allowed him to study while working, and the Columbus University program met his objective. He did ask the university about its accreditation and was told they were accredited.

"Abell has always been forthcoming about his credentials and has clearly demonstrated his commitment and ability to serve in federal government. The Defense Department stands by his service."

Columbus University has never been accredited by a federally recognized organization and was not licensed at the time Abell received his degree, said John Kay, assistant commissioner for research and data analysis of the Louisiana Board of Regents.

The university had operated under a licensing exemption for tax-exempt nonprofit entities, he said, until state legislation required licensing.

"When they got their license in September of 2000, they were required to seek accreditation," Kay said. "They didn't do it, and their license was revoked."

According to Columbus University's admissions packet, obtaining a master's degree requires five courses and a master's thesis. Each course requires a test or paper, and that the student read one assigned book.

But applicants can avoid studying for the five required courses by doing what the university calls "credentializing" a course.

Credentializing means proving to Columbus University faculty that an applicant's life experiences, on-the-job training and other activities have provided similar education as would be gained by taking the course, according to the school's admission's packet.

"You would receive a letter grade that would appear on your transcript," said Debbie Blacksher, admissions counselor for Columbus. "For example, on your transcript it will read, Intermediate Communications, A or B," if you credentialize a course, she told a Government Computer News reporter posing as a prospective Columbus University applicant.

To get a master's degree, an applicant would have to complete two courses?without credentialization?or turn in a 75-page thesis with 20 references.

"They are not real sticklers on the references," Blacksher said. In the case of a master's degree in communications, an applicant could submit press releases or other publicity materials to partly fulfill the thesis requirement, Blacksher said.

The Columbus University master's degree now sells for $2,095; the school allows monthly payments. The applicant must pay $45 for each course passed by credentialization.

The World Association of Universities and Colleges, which accredits Columbus University, is not recognized by the federal Education Department as an accrediting organization. Columbus University of New Orleans appears on a list, maintained by the Student Assistance Commission of Oregon, of diploma mills.

Look with favor

"We certainly do have many students who work for the government and the military," Columbus University faculty adviser Shannon O'Brian said. She added that she thought the government would look favorably on a degree from the school.

Abell's job at Defense requires him to provide advice to the Defense secretary and deputy secretary on "total force management as it relates to manpower, force structure, program integration, readiness" and other aspects of military operations, according to his official biography. He was appointed to the job Nov. 15.

Abell in 1993 began working as a professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He had been in the Army for 26 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel after entering active duty as an enlisted soldier. He has many decorations and medals, including a Purple Heart.

Abell holds a bachelor of science degree from Tampa University, which he attended in 1975 and 1976. Tampa University, an accredited school, confirmed his graduation.

Wilson P. Dizard III writes for Government Computer News

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