A Matter of Degrees...

The complainant, Dubravko Zgrablić, was one of the people featured on a Marketplace episode called “Fake Degrees.” He complained that his side of the story was not presented and he was portrayed in an unnecessary negative light. His perspective was present and the programme was accurate. There was no violation of policy.

COMPLAINT

You were included in a Marketplace programme entitled Fake Degrees broadcast September 15, 2017. You had a range of complaints about the way you were treated. You said you were unfairly portrayed and mistreated by the Marketplace journalists. You stated they “twisted the facts” and used “blatant lies” about your Master’s Degree obtained from the Faculty of Information Technology, Almeda University, in 2004. The net-effect was a “smear campaign” against you.

The Marketplace episode dealt with the online presence of bogus universities - referred to as degree mills - which grant degrees with no academic requirements. Many of them grant the degrees based on “life experience.” The programme revealed there are 800 Canadians working in a wide array of professions with these questionable PhDs and Master’s degrees. You were one of several people featured on the broadcast because your Master’s was from one of the universities that is part of this global scam. You said your situation was different, that it simply isn’t true that you had a “fake degree” from a “diploma mill.” In your case, the degree was granted - not based on life experience but for equivalence - of coursework done in a graduate programme at the University of Zagreb. You said the journalists were provided the particulars of your situation, and they chose to ignore and distort the facts to support the narrative that Almeda degrees are not valid. You elaborated on what the process was to grant you the equivalence:

I called the number listed on the site and explained my situation and my needs, and I was pleasantly surprised when they offered to PLA my completed Master’s courses from my alma mater in Zagreb (PLA stands for Prior Learning Assessment – the process that an education institution uses to equivalence another institution's courses). I was familiar with the process, and I was very pleased with their attitude in recognizing there was no learning value in repeating the same courses again. I was requested to send them the breakdown of my grad and post-grad courses, along with the resume. The documents got provided to Almeda mid-December.

It was not until late February, early March, that I found a message on my answering machine – the information I provided met Almeda’s standards and they would be proceeding with the PLA process.

About a month later, a message was left to call them back. I did and the counselor explained that one of the professors had reservations regarding applicability of my completed courses to his one and would like to test and verify my knowledge. Oral examinations were a common part of my previous academic life, though I never completed one over the phone, and that made me feel uneasy. I selected one of the dates/times the professor stated he was available and I was asked a thorough, open-ended question and was told to elaborate on different aspects of my answer. The conversation went on for some 15-20 minutes and, at the end, the professor advised he would equivalence his course.

This same scenario, with minor variations, repeated itself another three to five times, over the course of nine months.

In late November, early December, I found the message congratulating me for having completed the PLA process successfully. I called Almeda and asked about the thesis, and was told that the work I had done exceeded their expectations and that a thesis was not a mandatory requirement in North America. I remember feeling mixed emotions at the time, as I was really looking forward to finishing the research and filling this void in my past, but I was also pleased to hear this journey was over.

You pursued your degree with Almeda in good faith. There were limited choices of online universities and you said at the time this one “looked most respectable, with a list of accreditations on their site.” You acted based on the knowledge available to you at the time, and in the belief that this was a bonafide institution and process. You pointed out that CBC had the help of a former FBI expert and months of internet research to uncover the activities of Almeda and other diploma mills. You suggested that it is unreasonable to expect that you would have had the ability to find this information on your own in 2002. The internet did not have the same databases as it does now and was not as effective a research tool as it is today, nor could you have been expected to know that it was not properly accredited. In fact, you said that the statement in the piece that the institution was never accredited is “badly imprecise.” You accused the programmers of withholding the time frame in which you got your degree from, from the FBI expert featured in the broadcast:

Almeda was accredited, just not by the right accreditation agencies. When this whole CBC attack started, I did the research and learned the ins and outs of the accreditation system south of the border. The way accreditation works in the States is not by the government, federal or state, doing this job – it was outsourced to a select number of government-vetted private accreditation agencies that do this work for the government. This list is now publicly available, but I’m sure 15 years ago it either was not, or it was not easy to find. And there is a large number of non-government approved accreditation agencies in U.S., partly to deal with the interests of the special groups, partly to do the dirty work for Trump University and its likes.

You added that the programme implicated the HR departments of the four institutions where you have been employed, since they were aware of, and checked out, your credentials.

You also questioned the ethics of the undercover nature of their approach to you. At the outset, Marketplace staff approached you with a hidden camera, posing as students considering taking one of your courses at Seneca College. You thought this level of deception was unacceptable and unjustified.

You thought that Asha Tomlinson presented information about you in a way to design to ridicule you. You questioned the use of a sequence in which you were asked but couldn’t remember the name of the university where you got your Master’s degree:

The sarcastic comment that I couldn’t even remember the name of the institution I graduated from.

Correct, I couldn’t, and there are multiple reasons, the most important one being the similarity of the two terms that, as I said, “play tricks with my mind” – Almeda University, on one side, and Alameda in California where Wind River, the company I worked for in U.S., was based at. In addition to this, the Almeda chapter of my life was long closed and unimportant to my everyday life. It never was an intense experience, I never walked its campus (now I know there was none), it just wasn’t memorable. I explained this to Eric Szeto and his companion, but this was cut out, as it seems that a part of their process of discrediting me was to make me look as an incompetent joke.

You cited another example of what you considered a deliberate attempt to put you in the worse possible light. You said that in the broadcast, Ms. Tomlinson “accusingly stated I removed Almeda from my LinkedIn profile, implying my guilt.” You said you took it down for other reasons - because while there was nothing wrong with your title, there was “everything wrong with the institution that issued it.” You did not feel guilty, you added, because you “worked within the boundaries of the information available to me at the time.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of Marketplace, Litsa Sourtzis, responded to your complaint.

She disagreed with your assessment that CBC disregarded the fact that your degree was granted on the basis of academic equivalence. She noted that your explanation is part of the broadcast and that the presenter, Asha Tomlinson, repeated it as well. The same information is available in the online piece about you:

Far from being “disregarded”, I think it is fair to say that your view was included prominently in both stories. In fact, the stories also included you saying in the broadcast, “Almeda was legit”, a view Ms. Tomlinson subsequently repeated saying “[Mr. Zgrablić] maintains his degree from Almeda is legitimate.” The online story also included that information, as well as Ms. Tomlinson saying, “[Mr. Zgrablić] mentioned his academic employers did check with Almeda about his master’s degree. ‘You have to provide the name of the institution, you provide their contact. They check directly with the institution. You are not involved in that process’”.

She addressed your question about the accreditation of Almeda, and your statement that it was accredited, but not by the right accreditation agencies:

Here is what former FBI agent Allen Ezell said: “Almeda has never been real. It’s never been legitimately, traditionally accredited by a recognized entity in its life, period”. I think his meaning is clear.

In Canada, degree-granting institutions are accredited by provincial governments. The system in the United States is more complicated, but Almeda University is recognized as an “unaccredited institution”. It has never been accredited by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHIA) or the U.S. Department of Education or any of the accreditation agencies they recognize.

She also did not agree with your assessment that 15 years ago the online research tools did not exist, that virtually nobody knew that Almeda was selling fake degrees, and it was not reasonable to hold you to that standard. She noted the online article quoted you saying you did not know the school was unaccredited. She also told you your assumption that their ex-FBI agent did not know when you had dealings with Almeda was not true; he was aware of the year you got your degree.

She addressed your concern about the airing of the sequence in which you are unable to recall the name of the institution which granted the Master’s. She said she “did not understand Ms. Tomlinson’s comment as being sarcastic.”

Marketplace journalist Nelisha Vellani asked where you did your post-graduate degree. “In … in ...” you hesitated, “forgetting those two things, they’re always messing up in my head … down in the States.” Eric Szeto, who accompanied Ms. Vellani offered “Almeda?” You quickly agreed, “Almeda, yes.” In the broadcast story, after your apparent lapse of memory, Ms. Tomlinson is heard in a voice-over saying: “He can’t remember where he got his degree from?” That is a matter of fact:

She also did not agree that indicating you had removed mention of the degree from your LinkedIn profile was an attempt to malign you. She said this too was a matter of fact, as it is no longer on your profile.

She explained why the CBC crew approached you without your knowledge, posing as would-be students. She told you CBC Journalistic standards allows for the use of clandestine techniques based on certain criteria - that the subject is a matter of significant public interest, and that the information could not be obtained in any other way.

REVIEW

Your complaint touches on several aspects of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices. The technique used in this broadcast is one frequently used by Marketplace. The reporters misrepresented who they were, and used a hidden camera to record the encounter. The default of journalism is to work in the open. The policy does foresee the need, at times, to get at important information that would not be accessible using normal techniques. In the JSP there is policy laying out the general principles of clandestine work. This includes specific policies to address the concealment of identity, hidden recording and then broadcasting that hidden material. In all those cases, it requires sign-off at various levels of seniority. For example, the following is CBC’s policy on “concealment of identity:

We generally practice our reporting openly. However, there are times, while investigating a matter of public interest, a reporter will conceal his or her occupation and true purpose and pose as an ordinary citizen. We will consult with senior news management before doing so. Our overriding priority will be sound public service journalism. Whatever the means used to contact a source without identifying oneself as a journalist (in person, by telephone, by email, through social networks), we will attempt to confront the source and take his or her reaction into account in our report.

For this, and for the use of a hidden camera and broadcast of that material, there are a set of criteria to be met. Those criteria center around the notion that there is some kind of antisocial behavior, illegal activity or betrayal of public trust at play. In this case, your name was on a list of Canadians who received degrees from institutions that were unaccredited and operated under suspicious circumstances. You and others were in positions of public trust, and in your case, hired by a public institution. The decision to proceed in the fashion used was not a violation of journalistic policy. The programmers had done research and sought the normal approvals before moving forward. Both you and Seneca College were contacted and given the opportunity to explain the situation from your perspective. I appreciate after you discovered you had been initially interviewed under false pretenses you were not inclined to do another interview for the record. It is a choice the journalists had to respect, although they made more than one attempt to convince you to more fully explain your situation. It might have been an opportunity to give them a more detailed perspective, for example, why you were having trouble recalling the name of your graduate school.

In investigative reporting, after rigorous and detailed research, reporters do, in effect, take a position. Since that is outside the norm, it is acknowledged and dealt with in CBC journalistic policy:

Investigative journalism is a specific genre of reporting which can lead to conclusions and, in some cases, strong editorial judgments. A journalistic investigation is usually based on a premise but we do not broadcast an investigative report until we have ensured that the facts and evidence support the conclusions and judgments.

To achieve fairness, we diligently attempt to present the point of view of the person or institution being investigated.

The point of an investigation is to test limited knowledge and see if the facts and further digging bear it out. Once the facts support the research, the case is presented. In this case, the documentation that the institutions were diploma mills was already well established - going back to the early 2000s. The team had a list of Canadians who had degrees from those fake universities. They established criteria they would use to investigate individuals further - choosing professionals who had positions of trust and who had used the degree to boost their credibility.

The process was well thought out and well documented. The balance and fairness come from allowing those who are implicated by the evidence to present their position and explanation. You were afforded that opportunity. You strongly asserted that your degree was granted based on the assessment of the course work you had done in Croatia, and on your knowledge. You pointed to the fact that Ms. Tomlinson questioned the notion of phone exams as a way of assessing your knowledge as bias. You also thought that using the footage in which you couldn’t supply the name of your graduate school was unfair. I appreciate you had previously completed coursework at another university. You followed a process in getting your Master’s that most academics would find highly unusual. You had been a graduate student elsewhere, and it was not unreasonable to assume you would have been aware of generally-accepted levels of rigour in post-graduate programmes. The facts, as you see them, are presented. It is made clear you did not know that Almeda was an unaccredited university. You considered it reasonable you were granted a degree after the process you outlined, and that is reflected in the broadcast and in the article. Based on their research and their knowledge, the reporters were doing their journalistic duty by asking some tough questions and bringing some skepticism to their line of inquiry. Therefore, Ms. Tomlinson asking whoever heard of that, based on her knowledge of academic policy and procedure, does not make it an invalid statement. This is the full exchange:

ERIC:

So I just found a professor, at Seneca College in Toronto here.

ASHA VO:

Dubravko Zgrablić has a Master’s Degree in Computer Science from Almeda University. We’ve heard that school name before.

ERIC:

He teaches computer applications and business applications. He's also taught at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University too.

ASHA VO:

Posing as potential students, our team meets up with him ...

NELISHA:

Hi! Nice to meet you.

ASHA VO:

To find out more about his so-called Master’s from Almeda.

DUBRAVKO:
I did my post-grad online.

NELISHA:
Oh, you did your post grad online? Where did you do it?

DUBRAVKO:
In... in...uh....forgetting those two things, They're always messing up in my head.... Down in the States.

ASHA VO:
He can’t remember where he got his degree from …?!

ERIC:
Almeda...?

DUBRAVKO:
Almeda, yes. I'd already done all the exams back in Croatia. So it basically was just verifying my knowledge so the exams were actually phone discussion. It's basically 11 phone exams.

ASHA VO:
11 phone exams? Never heard of that before …

NEL:
Do you need a master’s in order to pursue your career? Like does it help boost your credibility?

DUBRAVKO:
For me it mattered 4 times in my life. When I started working in 2 colleges and when I started working in 2 universities.

NEL:
And Almeda was legit?

DUBRAVKO:

Almeda was legit.

You strongly stated you thought it unfair to assume you could have had any knowledge of Almeda’s dubious status in 2002 because the internet was not as powerful a research tool at that time. Your assessment of the searchability and the information available on the internet at that time is not one I share. In either case, it is not relevant to the journalistic issues at play here - accuracy and fairness. The time frame is stated. Your position is stated. Those watching or reading are left to draw their own conclusions. It is also left to individuals to assess whether it is reasonable to think the process you followed conforms to usual academic practice in conferring degrees.

The reporters did not only seek accountability from you. The programme exposed the diploma mill itself, and then confronted Canadians who listed their credentials from these bogus institutions. You were not singled out - others were also questioned and asked to explain their situations. In your case, it is not only your personal perspective but that of the institution that hired you and took your degree at face value. In the accompanying online piece, you are quoted as saying your academic employers had checked out your references. While it is you who is left to answer the questions and be put in a difficult situation in a very public way, there is nothing to suggest the Marketplace team treated you differently than any of the others featured in the broadcast. They followed journalistic policy and procedure to create the programme.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman