By Jill Cowan and Alicia Lopez
5:02 PM PDT, May 17, 2013
A critic of the region's air-quality agency is questioning the academic credentials of a board member empowered to vote on the fate of the fire rings in Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
Clark E. Parker, who sits on the South Coast Air Quality Management District board, lists two doctorates in his online biography on the agency website. Parker, who was appointed in June by the state Senate Rules Committee, is referred to as "Dr. Parker" throughout the document.
But the listed doctorates are from so-called diploma mills that provide degrees in exchange for payment, contends epidemiologist Jim Enstrom, a researcher who has criticized the science behind some of AQMD's regulations.
Enstrom sent a letter March 21 to Parker questioning his credentials and posted it online.
Parker did not respond to the Daily Pilot's repeated requests for comment over the course of several days.
District officials said the biographies are self-submitted and not checked for accuracy.
The biography lists — among other accomplishments — a "doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) from the University of Central Arizona, and a doctor of laws from Laurence University."
Both the University of Central Arizona and Laurence University are now-defunct organizations that allegedly operated as diploma mills, meaning they were unaccredited, for-profit colleges accused of selling degrees, in the 1970s and 1980s, according to an expert on nontraditional education and reports from that time.
Parker's biography says he received an honorary "doctor of law" from the Laurence University in 1971. He received a doctor of arts in management from the University of Central Arizona in 1980.
"I earned [my Ph.D.] from Stanford University, putting in five of the hardest years of my life," Enstrom said. "He doesn't deserve to call himself a Ph.D., and he doesn't deserve to say he has doctoral level knowledge in anything."
An official at the Arizona State Board for Private Postsecondary Education said the agency had no official record of University of Central Arizona's existence, aside from one 1982 letter to the state Board of Regents warning of the school's illegitimacy.
That letter was from John Bear, Ph.D., who has written extensively on correspondence education and degree mills.
Bear said that he recalled that the University of Central Arizona and Laurence University occupied a "gray area" between straightforward money-for-diploma exchanges and unaccredited schools that require some amount of work.
"I keep writing about fake degrees being a time bomb in your resume, ticking away and not knowing when it'll go off, but it so often does," he said. "There's such a continuum, from 'Give me 1,000 bucks and you're done this afternoon, to how about a 30-page dissertation and 1,000 bucks."
He said such set-ups, particularly in Arizona, were "legal at the time, which doesn't mean acceptable."
Enstrom in March asked district administrators for verification of Parker's education and was provided images of diplomas from a University of Central Arizona, a Laurence University, the University of Redlands and the University of Minnesota.
Both the University of Minnesota, from which Parker earned a bachelor of science in 1975, and the University of Redlands, from which he earned a master of arts in 1981, confirmed that Parker graduated. However, his diploma from the University of Redlands shows that he earned a master of arts in management, while his biography lists a "master of science (MS) from Redlands University."
While district Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein said not even a bachelor's degree is legally required to serve on the AQMD board, Enstrom said it's a matter of "integrity" when representing the public's interests.
Enstrom said he has met with various members of the district board and believed from Parker's biography that he had a background in science, unlike many of the other board members, who are chosen from among area elected officials to represent certain constituencies.
For example, Orange County Supervisor Shawn Nelson serves on the AQMD board on behalf of the County of Orange.
Parker, Enstrom said, had "no right" to claim such a high level of education, because it had "a direct bearing on his credibility in my mind."
Enstrom is no stranger to academic controversy. He was laid off from UCLA in 2010 after 34 years "because his research on air pollution did not align with the department mission and failed to reach funding requirements," according to a news release referenced in the campus newspaper, the Daily Bruin.
However, Enstrom appealed his layoff and argued that he was dismissed because his research results did not coincide with the political goals of the Department of Environmental Science.
As to the fire pits, the AQMD board this week released a study, based on agency monitoring, showing that wood burning in Huntington and Newport pollutes the air, sometimes to unhealthful levels. The agency is expected to rule next month on whether the Southern California tradition can legally continue.