An official on the Environmental Protection Agency’s hydraulic fracturing scientific advisory board got a doctorate degree from an unaccredited, shuttered online correspondence school that congressional auditors targeted a decade ago in an investigation into diploma mills.
The advisory board member is listed as Dr. Connie Schreppel in EPA records, which highlight her doctorate from Kennedy Western University and a master’s from Greenwich University.
Both schools are unaccredited or unapproved in several states, including Texas, where it’s a misdemeanor crime to cite a degree from either school in seeking a job or a promotion.
EPA officials declined to comment on Ms. Schreppel’s educational credentials and questions about her qualifications for the post. But the scientific panel’s deliberations have drawn intense interest from industry and environmental groups.
In 2011, The New York Times reported that “Dr. Schreppel” was one of two New Yorkers serving on the EPA’s “board of independent scientists” studying the relationship between hydraulic fracturing — the drilling technique that has revolutionized American energy production — and drinking-water resources.
Critics have asked why someone with Ms. Schreppel’s credentials would serve on a panel dealing with such a crucial issue for the agency and the economy.
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Likewise, EPA officials referred to Ms. Schreppel by the title doctor in a 2010 notice published in the Federal Register: “She holds a B.S. in Laboratory Technology from Syracuse University, an M.S. in Environmental Science from Greenwich University, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Kennedy Western University,” the notice stated.
Asked whether the agency backed the credentials, a spokeswoman for the EPA initially said officials would look into the matter Monday, but declined to respond to repeated follow-up requests.
In a phone interview, however, Ms. Schreppel defended her education. She said she would never misrepresent herself and that she had well-regarded academic advisers over the years. She also said she completed a dissertation for her doctorate degree, a program she said took years to complete.
Asked about reports that Kennedy Western students were given substantial course credit based on life experience, Ms. Schreppel said, “This was definitely not that.
“I stand by the work I did,” she said. “Everything I had to do was course work.”
She said she was frustrated that she couldn’t get her transcripts because the school had closed. Other graduates have considered legal action in the face of questions about the school’s legitimacy.
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Ms. Schreppel pointed to a group of Kennedy Western graduates in an online LinkedIn forum, many of whom faced the same difficulties and were frustrated by media reports suggesting that their degrees were not legitimate.
Issue of trust
George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who also has studied diploma mills and assisted federal investigations into unaccredited schools, said a doctorate degree from Kennedy Western “is not legitimate.”
Mr. Gollin, who ran unsuccessfully in a Democratic congressional primary in Illinois this year, said he was troubled by the EPA’s decision to name Ms. Schreppel to the board of such a high-profile and significant panel.
“It’s a concern,” he said. “For something as risky as this, you want people you can trust.”
He mentioned a Senate hearing in 2004 when the Government Accountability Office released its findings on several schools, including Kennedy Western.
At the hearing, Claudia Gelzer, a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard who was detailed to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, testified about her undercover work contacting Kennedy Western to ask about earning a master’s degree in environmental engineering.
She said the school accepted at face value that she had taken six seminars and four training courses related to oil spill response, which not only got her into the school but also gave her nearly half the credits she would need to graduate based on life experiences.
Ms. Glazer said 20 other accredited schools she contacted would offer no credit for life experience.
She also testified that committee investigators found that every student in the master’s program was offered 33 percent to 60 percent credit toward a degree based on life experience.
Issue of convenience
Ms. Schreppel said that wasn’t her experience. She said she chose online education because it fit her busy schedule as a midcareer professional. She said she was employed by a water utility in upstate New York and that there were no master’s or doctorate degree programs nearby.
Though Ms. Schreppel said she was serving on the EPA’s scientific advisory panel, she didn’t view her role as that of a scientist.
Instead, she said, she thought she could offer the perspective of a water utility user. She is director of water quality at the Mohawk Valley Water Authority. Numerous materials on the utility’s website, including a 2013 water quality report, list her by the title of doctor.