Degree inspires little faith
Florida's juvenile justice chief draws praise. But his degree
October 27, 2007
By STEVE BOUSQUET and RON MATUS
TALLAHASSEE - When Florida's top
juvenile justice official, Walt McNeil, pursued a master's degree,
he said he wanted to combine his two passions of religious faith and
But even though he lived in a state
capital with two major universities, he chose an obscure
correspondence school in rural Louisiana, a decision that has
brought criticism from academic experts.
McNeil, Gov. Charlie Crist's
well-respected choice to restore trust in the juvenile justice
system, received a master's degree in criminal justice from St.
John's University. It's not connected with the better known school
in New York City and is not accredited by any agencies recognized by
either the U.S. Department of Education or Council for Higher
During McNeil's term of study in
2001, St. John's, which claims to be widely known for its
antiterrorism curriculum, ran its operations from a converted house
near the town of Springfield, La. (pop. 400). Until 2001, the school
was listed in Louisiana corporate records as the St. John's
University of Practical Theology. The school relocated to a house in
Nashville in 2005.
McNeil's degree links one of the
Florida's top law enforcement officials to a long-festering national
problem: the proliferation of degrees from institutions that are
widely considered to be questionable. Experts estimate there are
thousands of such institutions - and hundreds of thousands of people
who have used them to cut corners, pad resumes and, in the view of
critics, perpetrate academic fraud.
McNeil said he did not intend to
mislead, and that he chose St. John's because of its faith-based
"I wanted to attend a faith-based
university, which St. John's is, because I do have a desire to
pursue a Ph.D. in theology at some point," McNeil said Friday. "I
don't believe I fooled anybody. I never tried to fool anybody."
In a previous interview, McNeil was
asked whether St. John's might have deceived him. "I can be fooled
like anyone else, I guess, but I saw this as a Christian school," he
It does not appear that McNeil, 51,
used his master's degree for personal gain or that it played any
role in Crist's decision to appoint him in January. A master's
degree was not required for the position, which pays $120,462 a
It also does not appear that McNeil
did anything illegal. A 1989 Florida law made it a first-degree
misdemeanor to claim a degree from an institution such as St.
John's, but a federal judge in South Florida ruled it
unconstitutional in 1995.
Still, some leading experts on the
subject question McNeil's motivation and judgment.
McNeil is "putting himself on the
same standard as other people with legitimate master's (degrees).
It's not morally acceptable," said Allen Ezell, a former FBI agent
who has written books on the issue and now investigates corporate
fraud as a Wachovia vice president in Tampa. "He's a cop. He's a law
enforcement officer. He's supposed to lead by example."
Like all state agency heads, McNeil
underwent a comprehensive background check by the Florida Department
of Law Enforcement, including "education verification." George
LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff, said McNeil is a good man and a
great public servant.
"We think Walt McNeil is doing a
great job at DJJ," LeMieux said.
A Democrat, McNeil had been police
chief in Tallahassee for nearly a decade when Crist tapped him to
steady an agency that had been rocked by the death of 14-year-old
Martin Lee Anderson at one of its boot camps in Panama City.
McNeil brought a solid record as
police chief. "Very disciplined, very honest, very straightforward,"
said his predecessor, retired Tallahassee police Chief Mel Tucker.
But his appointment also opened the
door to a murky, alternate universe in higher education.
In an initial interview last week,
McNeil said he could not remember any courses he took at St. John's
or the names of any professors or how much tuition he paid. He also
was not sure whether he wrote a master's thesis. "I think I did," he
Friday, McNeil said he was not
required to write a master's thesis. He said it took him from 18
months to two years to complete the work and that his duties
included teaching online courses to undergraduates.
His transcript shows McNeil took
three classes, for which he was awarded 10 credits, and received
nine credits for teaching undergraduates. He received 19 more
credits for past work, which he says included six credits for
professional experience and 13 credits for previous graduate study
at the University of Virginia.
McNeil holds an associate degree in
law enforcement from Jones Junior College in Mississippi and a
bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of
Southern Mississippi. He also took courses in 1996 toward a master's
degree in business administration at Nova Southeastern University.
A police chief who McNeil said
encouraged him to attend St. John's, John Packett of Grand Forks,
N.D., has a doctorate in criminal justice from the school but said
he does not list it on his resume.
"It's just not an appropriate
academic credential," said Packett, a former St. John's instructor.
He said that while St. John's students did legitimate coursework, he
viewed it as continuing education or in-service training.
St. John's "was not a diploma mill,
but at the same time it wasn't accredited," Packett said.
Packett recalled that McNeil was a
"top-notch" student in his community relations course, where
assignments included reading assigned text and answering discussion
An Internet search for St. John's
yields little up-to-date information. But an old St. John's Web site
from 1999 shows an array of degree offerings - from mainstream
subjects like criminal justice and psychology to alternative areas
such as parapsychology and hypnotherapy. The site says St. John's
"was the first fully accredited University in the United States to
offer Associate, Bachelor, Master and Doctoral Degrees totally
through external studies."
Beneath links to programs and
student information, another link says, "Important Announcement: How
You Can Be Free From The Smoking Habit Now!!"
Pamela Winkler, the retired
president of St. John's and widow of its founder, said the school
has "private accreditation." A 1998-1999 St. John's catalog says the
university was accredited by the Beebe, Ark., Accrediting Commission
"It's basically a guy in some
church," said Alan Contreras, who heads Oregon's Office of Degree
Authorization, which closely tracks schools with questionable
accreditation. "Anything accredited by ACI in Beebe, Ark., is either
fake or substandard, as far as I know."
Accreditation is a stamp of
approval and credibility, a signal that the institution has
consistently met an outside group's standards.
Winkler said it was school policy
to only respond in writing to questions from the media. The Times
dictated a list of questions to her last week.
As of Friday, Winkler had yet to
respond to most of them and did not return two followup calls. But
hours after the conversation, she faxed a press release to the Times
congratulating McNeil on his appointment as secretary.
The agency's Web site,
www.djj.state.fl.us, lists McNeil's degree from St. John's as part
of his official biography. It's also listed on the Web site of the
International Association of Chiefs of Police, where McNeil is the
fifth vice president.
Times researchers Caryn Baird and
Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can
be reached at (850) 224-7263. Ron Matus can be reached at (727)