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May 13, 2008

Yale goes to court

I'm not sure why, but I find it amusing that our high-minded solons of academia -- those in the Ivy League, in particular -- speak of grand ideals, yet when push comes to shove, they're not above playing a little hardball.

Some quick background: In 2005, a Korean woman named Shin Jeong-ah was hired in the art-history department at Dongguk University in South Korea. When officials there got a little nervous about her bona fides, and especially about her Yale degree, they sent a letter to the Yale Graduate School, enclosing a purported letter from Yale that attested to her degree, and they asked Yale for confirmation that Shin had actually received a doctorate. The reality was that she had not; the letter attesting to the degree was a forgery. For some reason, however -- Yale now calls it an "administrative error" committed in reliance on the forged Yale letter -- the associate dean of the graduate school faxed back a confirmation that the degree was valid. (There's a little more background in a short piece in the Yale Alumni Magazine. My favorite part: Yale denied that its own confirming fax was authentic until the associate dean discovered a copy of it two months later.)

Fast forward: In March, Dongguk filed a $50 million lawsuit against Yale, with the main damages being loss of reputation.

Last week, Yale moved to dismiss the complaint. Although the AP account of Yale's court papers is not terribly clear, the article leads with this statement:

Details of a sex scandal involving a top South Korean official and an art history professor, who lied about having a Yale degree, will be used by the Ivy League school to defend itself against a federal lawsuit filed by the South Korean university that hired the professor.
Don't mess with Yale.

Here are Yale's arguments, according to the AP article:
In court papers Thursday, Yale said the scandal involving Shin and a former aid to South Korea's president goes to the heart of those charges. Yale is seeking to get the lawsuit dismissed.

A South Korean court sentenced Shin, 36, in March to 18 months in jail for faking her Yale doctorate and embezzling official museum funds, a court said.

Shin was convicted for using her fake degree to become an art history professor at Dongguk and acquire financial support from businesses for an art museum she was working for, said Kim Myung-su, a spokesman at the Seoul Western District Court.

The court also handed down a suspended one-year jail term to a 59-year-old former presidential aide, Byeon Yang-kyoon, with whom Shin was romantically linked.

Shin and Byeon made headlines last year after Byeon allegedly used his influence to get Shin hired by Dongguk University. He was forced to step down as an aide to then-President Roh Moo-hyun because of the scandal.

Byeon was ordered to conduct 160 hours of community service for exercising his influence to provide state tax benefits to a Buddhist temple founded by a former Dongguk University official who helped hire Shin as a professor, according to Kim.
Yale insists that Dongguk kept Shin on until way past her story's sell-by date: "Dongguk fired Shin on July 20, 2007, 'long after Shin's lies unraveled,' Yale's attorney, wrote in court papers."

The moral of all of this is: If you ever hear someone say "it's all about sex," don't believe him. Yale knows better: "Yale says Shin's fraud, 'Dongguk's involvement in it and reaction to it' and Byeon's conviction 'will be at the heart of this case.'"