Editor’s note: Following publication of this story, Sen. Sharp emailed OCPA documents that highlight the responses he received from Oklahoma and California officials in the 1980s and 1990s when he asked about the legality of a Kensington University diploma. Sharp’s email and those documents may be viewed here. Some street addresses and similar information have been redacted.
A state senator who has been a prominent critic of Oklahoma’s virtual charter schools for K-12 students, particularly Epic Charter Schools, holds a doctorate from a for-profit online university that was subsequently closed amid claims it was a diploma mill.
Sen. Ron Sharp said the two situations are not identical.
“There’s a little bit difference here,” said Sharp, R-Shawnee. “I paid for that. I got permission prior to it. And then of course here (with Epic), this is state money here that is paying for this. And you’re also dealing with an adult versus a child, and to think that a pre-K to an 18-year old is going to sit in front of a computer without mom or daddy sitting here over their shoulder is not going to happen.”
When Sharp first ran for office in 2012, his announcement stated that he had a “doctorate in education with an emphasis in political science, from Kensington University.” Sharp obtained the doctorate in 1989.
In recent years, Sharp has been a vocal critic of Oklahoma’s virtual charter schools, saying “millions of taxpayer dollars” are being spent on online schools “with little to no accountability of expenditures, attendance or student performance.” In particular, Sharp has criticized Epic Charter Schools, which has been the target of fraud allegations. Officials with the school have denied the allegations and no charges have been filed.
In a recent column, Sharp wrote that “the quality of education is not at this time the question, but the unethical and, possibly illegal, enrollment practices and misuse of state funds” by Epic. He said he had been “working to address the questionable practices and lack of oversight and accountability for three years now.”
While Sharp wrote that he does not question the quality of education provided through Epic, that hasn’t been the case when regulators reviewed the distance-learning degree programs offered by Kensington University. Regulators raised numerous concerns about quality, oversight, and accountability.
Kensington was founded in California in 1976. But the California Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education found deficiencies in a 1994 review and the school was ordered closed by state officials in 1996. It subsequently moved to Hawaii and resumed business in 1996 but was again closed by a 2003 court order.
When the Los Angeles Times reported on Kensington University in April 1996, the paper found the “the entire campus” was “housed in a small Glendale office building” and reported that California state regulators said the school’s advanced degrees “may have little, if any academic value.”
The Times reported that a 1994 state review found Kensington had “awarded a doctoral candidate in psychology credit for reading magazine articles and doing about a dozen short reaction papers.” Also, “one education program graduate’s master’s thesis was replete with factual errors, regulators found.”
A January 1996 Los Angeles Times article on Kensington University reported that the California Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education had concluded that “little or no rigor or credible academic standards are necessary in order to be awarded an advanced degree at Kensington University.” Among the council’s findings, the group concluded that Kensington awarded degrees for substandard work and without completion of required courses, and that faculty members were sometimes not qualified to teach the courses they led.
California Council for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education Vice Chair Elana Ackel, an attorney, told the Times, “The violations are substantial and they go to the quality of the education. When you have violation after violation after violation, you have to ask, ‘When is enough?’”
Martin S. Roden, an associate dean of engineering at California State University at Los Angeles, was among those who received a degree from Kensington University. In a 2004 interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, he was blunt in his assessment of the school, calling it “a second-rate, unrecognized place that basically is doing portfolio analysis.”
In his book, “How to Sweet Talk a Shark,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson writes that the trophy room of North Korean dictator Kim il-Sung was filled with gifts bequeathed by “a cavalcade of failed states” and contained only a “sole gift from the United States—an honorary degree from Kensington University.”
“Good thing Kim il-Sung never made it to Texas; it is illegal to use a degree from Kensington University in the Lone Star State,” Richardson wrote. “Seriously.”
When questioned about the degree during his 2012 campaign, Sharp provided letters from state officials in Oklahoma and California that declared Kensington University was a recognized academic program at that time.
In an interview, Sharp repeated those arguments. At that time, he said a University of Oklahoma official encouraged him to get an online degree. Sharp said he then contacted a higher education official in California who assured him of a Kensington degree’s validity. Sharp said he also contacted officials at the Oklahoma Department of Education who told him the degree would be legal in Oklahoma.
Sharp, who spent his career as a coach and teacher prior to being elected to the Senate, said the virtual model fit his schedule better in the 1980s than attending courses at OU.
“For me to get in OU, I had to do a year’s residency,” Sharp said. “And then of course I also had a problem: The last class started at 4 (p.m.). So I could not make it from school out here at Shawnee.”
In Oklahoma, the minimum salary for teachers rises with degree attainment. When Kensington closed in 1996, it reportedly cost about $4,500 to complete a doctoral program at the school.
“I got permission from everyone before I ever entered into it,” Sharp said. “I got permission after I got it that it was a legitimate degree. And I worked myself to death. So I have no regrets about doing it.”
Sharp said his criticism of Epic has to do with concerns that the school may be double-counting students and that instructional quality may be lacking.
“I have no problem whatsoever with a virtual degree,” Sharp said. “None. If you have a parent who is willing to put forth the effort to make sure that student is doing their work, then go for it.”