The doctoral degree held by James A. Dula, a senior adviser to Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, is often cited in statements from county officials.
"Dr. James A. Dula" is how he was identified in the announcement of his appointment as a $106,000-a-year deputy chief administrative officer in February 2003. It was "James A. Dula, Ph.D" in last month's news release recounting his remarks to visiting Chinese officials.
Dula, who oversees the county agencies administering health and human services, obtained his doctorate from a school not accredited by federally recognized education monitors, and one that has been derided by experts and government officials as a low-cost way to inflate résumés.
Dula got his doctorate in public administration without ever setting foot inside a classroom at American World University, which has no campus and was based in an Iowa City office when he enrolled in 1999. The school left Iowa after state officials in 2000 raised standards for recognizing post-secondary schools. AWU now lists Pascagoula, Miss., as its address.
"Academically, there's nothing there," said John Bear, the author of "Bear's Guide to Earning Degrees through Distance Learning."
"I don't call it a school, I call it a business," he said.
Dula, 54, who received an undergraduate degree from Upper Iowa University and a master's in communications from the University of Oklahoma, said in an interview that the doctorate was legitimate.
"I worked very hard. I did the research. I did all that was asked of me. . . . All my exploratory work said this was a good school," he said.
Dula, a retired Air Force major whom colleagues call "Doc," enrolled at AWU after leaving the service in 1997. He said he took "eight to 10 classes" at AWU. As evidence, he allowed a reporter to look at his 127- page doctoral thesis, on challenges faced by black high school students.
As part of his presentation, AWU officials required written answers to a series of questions. They included, "How will your work help others in the field?" and, "How did you benefit from writing this dissertation?"
Jim Keary, a spokesman for Johnson (D), said that the administration has no concerns about Dula's degree.
"Doc Dula was hired on his credentials and his experience in management," he said. "Over the last year, he has shown great leadership."
Dula, one of four deputy chief administrative officers, worked on Johnson's 2002 campaign and is among a group of supporters he has appointed to top county jobs.
Johnson withdrew an offer last year to William O. Ritchie, a former District deputy police chief, to become director of the county's Office of Homeland Security after questions surfaced about his academic credentials.
While officials at the time declined to specify the reason for withdrawing the offer, Ritchie listed on his résumé a PhD in hypnotherapy from LaSalle University in Louisiana, an unaccredited correspondence school.
The proliferation of unaccredited colleges and universities has attracted increased scrutiny from the government. A U.S. Senate hearing last week focused on a General Accounting Office investigation that found that federal agencies have paid more than $169,000 to send employees to unaccredited schools.
At least one state, Oregon, has made it illegal to present as a credential a degree from a list of unaccredited schools, including AWU. "We don't call them schools, we call them suppliers," said Alan Contreras, the administrator of Oregon's Office of Degree Authorization.
American World University, which was not mentioned at the Senate hearing, was founded by Maxine Asher of California in 1990.
In the early 1990s, Asher started her own accrediting group, the World Association of Universities and Colleges, which granted accreditation to AWU. Neither AWU nor the World Association of Universities and Colleges is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the District-based Council on Higher Education Accreditation.
Asher acknowledged that AWU may not be as rigorous as some schools, but she said that her students do not receive degrees without working. "We're not Harvard, we're not Princeton, but I think we do a very credible job educating people," she said.