Education | Sports | World

April 22, 2005

George Weah in Diploma-Mill Scandal

For the African Footballer of the Century, the Liberian presidency is no longer a sure shot.

David Goldenberg

George Weah is a Liberian hero. The greatest soccer player in the history of the West African nation never forgot his roots, even as he racked up footballer-of-the-year awards and won multiple Italian league titles with AC Milan. He has generously and selflessly led his countrymen, as the captain of his country's national team and as a benefactor for his downtrodden countrymen. Throughout it all, he has pretended to have little interest in politics, despite his popularity and his interest in helping his country. (A 2001 Sports Illustrated article predicted that, if he ran, he would take the presidency in a landslide.)

the scene

Now that Weah has changed his mind and decided to enter the 42-man race for the presidency in October, that landslide no longer seems inevitable. If Weah is to win, he will have to overcome the scandal that is unfolding about his educational background—no small irony, considering how negligible the issue is compared to the deep woes enveloping Liberia as it emerges from 14 years of civil war.

His campaign website states that he received his bachelor's degree in Sports Management from Parkwood University in London. This is not a legitimate degree. Parkwood University was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission in 2003 because its owners, among other things, were marketing and selling "phony diplomas issued by fictitious universities via unsolicited commercial email and the Internet."

In other words, Weah's BA comes from a diploma mill that finds "students" with spam, sells them fake degrees, and has never had teachers, buildings, or classes, according to the FTC and published reports. Parkwood University was one of dozens of fake colleges and universities run by the University Degree Program, which at its peak was pulling in over $500,000 a month from degree seekers and may have cleared over $100 million (Chronicle of Higher Education). George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois-Champaign, has compiled a lengthy presentation on what he terms whack-a-gopher UDP university sites—sites that borrow wording liberally from one another and from real schools, so that when one fraud is uncovered, it can easily be replaced by another. The old Parkwood website is gone (see a screenshot on page nine of Gollin's report), but other UPD sites are still functional today (Landford University).

So the fake diploma mill grinds on—another celebrity, "Dr." Laura Callahan has already been outed (Reason), and a Google search of Parkwood University shows a number of workers have included their degrees from the diploma mill in online resumes.

On April 13, the Liberian Observer published the first article casting doubt on Weah's Parkwood degree. The newspaper conducted an investigation into the university and discovered its failings. Weah's press office claimed to have no idea how the degree appeared on the website, and the paper used the generous phrasing that Weah may have "fallen prey" to a bogus diploma scam, though it's hard to see how one could "fall prey" to any scheme that awarded a person a bachelor's degree for no work. (It's also unclear when Weah first obtained the BA or when it was first added to Weah's website. The first mention of it came in November of last year, ironically from a supporter extolling Weah's educational background.)

Then, strangely, Weah's camp decided to dig in its heels about the BA. Two days later, Weah's camp posted this press release, in which the campaign specifically states that Weah did receive a degree from Parkwood based on online training. Even now, Weah's team is sticking to its guns. In the most recent follow-up article from the Liberian Observer, Weah's public-relations man in the United States claims that the degree is genuine and earned "with dignity and respect." (Ironically, the original Liberian Observer article borrows heavily—and without attribution—from a piece on diploma mills that appeared a year and a half earlier in the Spokesman Review. Even more depressing? An article three days later in the Nigerian Sun News appears to rip off over half of the Observer piece).

Perhaps the Weah campaign reversed its tack because of a perceived need to show he had some sort of educational experience after he dropped out of high school. Indeed, that's probably why he bought the degree in the first place. After all, his lack of education has been his biggest obstacle in ascending to the presidency. A typical rant: "How can you decide on how to provide the best educational system for the people when you yourself are limited in that aspect? How can you sell Liberia to the world when you lack the eloquence to be heard?"

Gelf spoke at length Friday by telephone with L. Orishall Gould, Weah's campaign manager and national chairman of his party, Congress for Democratic Change. Gould took a complicated line in the interview, defending Weah's degree while conceding Parkwood may be a suspect institution—all the while maintaining that the issue is unimportant and won't affect the election.

"He acquired a bachelor's in sports administration," Gould said. "It was a regular full-year program. It was very intensive. It was also accelerated, [but included] all the regular courses you would do to obtain a bachelor's." He also attempted to reframe Weah's critics as claiming that the subject of his degree was the issue, and not its source. "How can a geologist who studied rocks say he is more educated than [someone with a degree in] sports management?" Gould asked. "How can an accountant say he is more educated than a lawyer?"

So why have the FTC and several articles maintained Parkwood is a diploma mill? Gould was evasive on this point. "There are institutions that you will go to, even in the United States, there are some institutions that have misled people from time to time. I'm not saying that's the case or not [with Weah's degree.] If you are living at a distance, and doing an online course, sometimes these accredited institutions fall into trouble and lose accreditation."

Gould also dwelled on the technical argument that a lack of degree shouldn't derail the campaign, pointing out hat there is no constitutional requirement for a minimal education level. And he argued that Weah has a comfortable lead—citing several admittedly unscientific polls by local media—that won't be diminished by Parkwood.

"Our country has about 85% illiterate persons," Gould said. "Even if you came and said you were the most educated person, our society would be resentful, because they feel the government has kept them uneducated. That will not be an issue. Weah is one of their kind—they will vote him in. Maybe it will be an issue in the western world, or among the intelligentsia. It's not an issue for Liberians. There are people in other parts of the world who were not educated" and became great leaders.

But the point here isn't that Weah will be kicked out of the race, nor that Liberians are unwilling to elect someone without a BA. The reason this has become a campaign issue is that Weah's credibility diminished when he obtained a Parkwood degree, was further hurt when he used it under false pretenses to aid his presidential bid, and has taken an even bigger hit now that his campaign continues to refuse to back down gracefully, even when the forgiving local press gave it an opening to apologize for the mistake and move on.

But it's also important not to overstate the importance of the Parkwood scandal, which pales before Liberia's very real problems. Gould, a 36-year-old who says he has worked as a business administrator and university instructor, was on firmer ground when talking to Gelf about Weah's campaign goals and why his candidacy won't be distracted by the issue. Among the goals; decentralizing government and education ("We would like to take the university out of Monrovia and into all counties. We will have extension campuses so you don't have to pick up the family to go to school."), restoring electricity and water, and getting aid and investment from western governments and businesses.

Gould also referenced Weah's illustrious past as a supporter of his country—as a footballer he paid out of his own pocket for the national team to compete in international cups, and since his retirement he's served as an ambassador for his country. "What we want in Liberia most of all is someone who truly cares for the country," Gould said, "and, God willing, he is going to win, because he truly cares for Liberia."

Gould summarized, "Let's not let the intelligentsia make that an issue, when the real issue is that we're suffering and dying slowly in this country." But Weah ultimately will have to answer for his narcissism and deception, and hope that Liberians are willing to forgive this flaw.

—Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

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- Sports
- posted on Apr 25, 05
Pietro Canetta

The thing I find strangest about this situation is that a bachelor's degree in Sports Management is hardly a credential that one looks for in a leader anyway. What voter is thinking: "Sure, his speed and outside shot are pretty good, and his dribbling skills are wicked as ever, but what really cinches my vote is his degree in sports management????"

What makes Weah so compelling (besides his athletic success) is his public record of devotion to his country, proven by selfless--and at times self-endangering--actions over the years. This is why voters are attracted to him as a leader--not for the wealth of formal education which he obviously doesn't have.

The legitimacy or illigitimacy of this silly degree should not swing anybody's opinion about Weah's academic qualifications. It would be a shame, however, if it were to swing opinion about his personal integrity.

- Sports
- posted on Apr 26, 05

Thanks for filling me in on this story. I've kind of been tracking diploma mill scandals lately. I'll second Pietro's comment though, that's not a very compelling degree for a leader is it. But knowing Liberia's history it's not a stretch.

- Sports
- posted on Apr 28, 05
Theodore Hodge

"The legitimacy or illigitimacy of this silly degree should not swing anybody's opinion about Weah's academic qualifications. It would be a shame, however, if it were to swing opinion about his personal integrity."

Some of us find such statements as the one quoted above to be mind boggling. Yes, the degree is a "silly degree". Nobody should worry about a silly degree. But when a man who wants to lead a whole country decides to do so by deception, I find it distasteful; and so should you!

I think what this shows is Mr. Weah's lack of self-confidence and self esteem. This man apparently feels so insecured about himself that he has proven he can't run our country successfully. "My advice: Apologize and go back to school." And get some better advisors next time.

- Sports
- posted on May 10, 05

It is not the issue of the legitimacy or illigitimacy of the silly degree, but it is about the intent.This is a lie by someone who is aspiring for the highest position in a country.
Is this how the presidency will be? He was aware from the start that the School didn't exist.Why should it be used in the campaign?

- Sports
- posted on May 27, 05

What I find disgusting is that an American is so joyous and is celebrating the end of George Weah's career. George Gollin that University of Illinois Physics teacher purposely and spitefully destroyed George Weah's only chance to become President. He ruined his entire life with his hounding, pushing and butting in where he was not invited, needed or wanted. Who does this abrasive, pushy man think he is? Do we need the Great White American to tell us what or who is best for Liberia? No, I will not defend the use of a "Park" degree. But, I am repulsed by the nose of that pompous US professor. Please Gollin, go home and stay home. Until you have stepped foot in our country we need not any of your so called advice.

- Sports
- posted on Mar 04, 07
alicia gould

i am orishall's bka layfayette emanuel gould's wife.he was born may 15, 1970.we were married january 2001.he abandoned me and my children in 2002 and we only hear from him when he is in trouble or needs something from us.even while together lafayette was unfaithful and sometimes unproviding.i believe he only married me to earn citizenship in family was used and we are all very hurt by this.i never even knew about this situation.we are all shocked!

- Sports
- posted on Sep 12, 07
George Gollin

It is likely that "Taskia" is an American, one of the former operators of a defunct diploma mill, but not one from the "University Degree Program" group. More probable is that "Taskia" had been involved in the grotesque "American Coastline University" and/or one of the "St. Regis" mills that has been closed as the result of an ongoing federal prosecution of its alleged operators.

- Sports
- posted on Oct 19, 07

this web is the best of all i like his photos i am an Liberian i have never seen him but here i see him

- Sports
- posted on Oct 19, 07

This web is the best I have seen it tell so much about Weah when I was in Liberia I have never seen him but here on this site I know who he is and my dream is for me to met him.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 07, 08
De-jusus T Sulonteh


- Sports
- posted on Mar 11, 08

Mr weak thank you for all goodness,you are a stong man of the liberian soccer players.may God bless you once again

- Sports
- posted on Dec 04, 08

For me i can not tell whether George Weah got a fake degree or a standardized degree. But if it is true that he got it, Liberians will know definitely the truth when he return.

- Sports
- posted on Nov 27, 09
Leroy Johnson

i love George Weah 2011 election we elect George as a president of Liberia.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 05, 11
McDonald Teege

Weah is famous and will always win a popular vote based upon his football career. What puzzles most of us is why should Weah leave the football scene? It is a greed for power or more wealth. Weah has been a selfish person. Any money he spends, he usually demand the LFA or the Liberian Gov't. to repay him. It is true, he spent more time on football than school and did not complete his high school education. The fake degree can help him. He has not been an officeboy and does not know office procedures to even think about government functions. It would be a sad event if Liberians like Acarious Gray think that he can better lead this country. I prefer Ellen to stay on.

- Sports
- posted on Jan 08, 11
john s. kangbah

Weah please go and learn more

- Sports
- posted on Jul 12, 14
victor Lewis

People are just trying so hard to bring this great son down, the current president of Liberia probably has a Master degree but what has she and her corrupt government done to Liberia? Liberians don't be fooled, no body loves Liberia more than George Weah, he has done a lot and continues to put Liberia on the map.

- Sports
- posted on Sep 07, 17
Nelson T. Saah


Article by David Goldenberg

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