TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: When that well-credentialed principal isn’t well-credentialed or principled

If even the chief executive of one of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies can be caught in an exaggeration on a resumé, then there’s a chance that the provost of the local college and the superintendent of the local school district aren’t above inflating their credentials as well.

While it’s the employer’s job to verify the professional and educational claims before making a high-profile hire, the system isn’t foolproof. In fact, a highly accomplished professional may get a free pass on the screening process that would apply to a floor-sweeper, on the theory that (a) an outright lie would surely have been detected by a prior employer and (b) it’s insulting to ask to see a copy of someone’s Nobel Prize.

But if employers don’t always run the obvious verifications, journalists should.

The proliferation of “diploma mills” that promise instant mail-order credentials “earned” in a matter of weeks has enabled job-seekers to, with some semblance of a straight face, claim to have earned advanced degrees.

In Northern California, a school superintendent is facing tough questions about his claims to have earned a doctoral degree from a New Orleans-area college right around the time it was raided by the FBI’s diploma-mill task force — a degree that entitled the superintendent, John Pendley, to an additional stipend on top of his healthy six-figure salary. (Pendley has said that he leveled with his school board supervisors that the college was unaccredited, and that he no longer receives the Ph.D. supplement.)

Similarly, a Delaware newspaper’s investigation has raised doubts about the validity of a Ph.D. claimed by a charter-school principal — who has given conflicting accounts of which institution her degree is from — after a 25-year-old reporter was offered an on-the-spot doctorate by sending in a fee. Reporters were unable to locate a physical address or a working phone or email address for “Westfield University,” which appears to be reachable only through an online order form that it shares with two other colleges.

While not every no-name for-profit college can accurately be labeled a “diploma mill,” if you see an unrecognized name on an applicant’s resume — or claims that are just too good to be true — then it’s time to start asking questions.

Many states license and regulate for-profit colleges through entities such as, in California, the Postsecondary Education Commission. Nonprofit regional accrediting agencies, such as the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, also will have information on the accreditation status of institutions. (But don’t accept a claim of “accreditation” at face value if it appears questionable, as bogus accrediting agencies have sprung up to bolster the “legitimacy” of diploma mills. If you have doubts, check with the U.S. Department of Education to make sure that the accrediting agency is a federally recognized one.)

Browsing the archives of the newspaper where the job-seeker formerly worked — or even picking up the phone and contacting the beat reporter at the applicant’s hometown newspaper — is an obvious resource that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Society of Professional Journalists offers a nice compilation of other research tools that can be used to run background checks on prominent people (or those who claim to be).

Lying about earning awards and distinctions may be, as the Supreme Court told us last week, immunized against criminal penalties by the First Amendment. But it is not immunized against public scrutiny and accountability.