Light & Verity

Korean university sues Yale for $50 million



Shin Jeong-ah, who falsely claimed to have a Yale PhD in order to get a faculty position at a Korean university, hid her face from photographers in New York last year. View full image

One Thursday afternoon in September 2005, in what Yale would later call "the rush of business," an official at the Graduate School dashed off a 20-word fax in response to an inquiry from Dongguk University in South Korea. Two years later, that fax landed Yale in the midst of a Korean scandal. And in March, the episode led to Dongguk filing a $50 million lawsuit against Yale.

Dongguk is suing over the case of Shin Jeong-ah, a former Dongguk professor who falsely claimed to have received her doctorate at Yale. The scandalnicknamed "Shin-gate"became a media sensation in Korea in part because of her alleged affair with Byeon Yang-kyoon ’87MA, who was married at the time and an aide to the Korean president. (Ironically, Byeon is an actual Yale alumnus: he earned a master's degree in the International Development Economics program.) Byeon was accused of using his position to aid Shin's career by providing government money to a Buddhist temple run by Dongguk's board chair.

Shin had applied for a faculty position at Dongguk in August 2005, producing a plagiarized dissertation and a forged letter, purportedly from Yale, attesting to her degree. She was hired on September 1, but soon after, doubts emerged about her doctorate, and on September 5 Dongguk sent a copy of the letter to the Graduate School for verification. It was then that Associate Dean Pamela Schirmeister ’80, ’88PhD, faxed Dongguk her confirmation that the letter was real -- although Shin had never actually been a student at Yale.

Allegations that Shin had no Yale PhD resurfaced in Korea in June 2007. This time, Dongguk says, they contacted the history of art department, and officials there said they had no record of her. The complaint says that Dongguk president Oh Young-kyo then wrote Yale president Rick Levin to ask if Shin had a Yale PhD -- and, if not, why Schirmeister had sent her confirming fax. Deputy general counsel Susan Carney wrote back saying that the fax from Yale was "not authentic." Over the next two months, as the story became a major scandal in Korea, Yale officials insisted to Dongguk and the news media that Schirmeister's fax was not real and that Yale had never received the first letter from Dongguk. According to Dongguk's complaint, during those two months its administrators repeatedly offered Yale evidence to the contrary.

In November, in the process of responding to questions from Korean authorities about the case, Schirmeister discovered a copy of her fax to Dongguk. Yale president Richard Levin apologized to Dongguk for the mistake and announced that from now on Yale will verify degrees only by checking internal records.

But in late March, Dongguk filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Haven, alleging that Yale's mistake led to irreparable damage to Dongguk's reputation, in turn damaging its fund-raising and recruiting abilities. "Dongguk University was publicly humiliated and deeply shamed in the eyes of the Korean population," the suit reads.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy wrote in a statement that the suit was "without merit" and that Yale intends to fight it. "Yale regrets that Dongguk University has filed suit against a fellow institution of higher learning regarding the fraudulent actions of Shin Jeong-ah, who was hired before an inquiry about her credentials was made to Yale," Conroy wrote.

In March, Shin was sentenced to 18 months in jail for forging credentials and for embezzling money from the Sungkok Art Museum, where she was a curator. She is appealing her sentence. Byeon, who resigned from his job last September, was convicted of influence peddling for helping to protect Shin's position at Dongguk. He was given a one-year suspended sentence and ordered to perform community service. 

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