Alonzo Gaskill and BYU: In the Headlines Again

Last week an article appeared that claimed Alonzo Gaskill, (full) Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University (Provo) had repeatedly plagiarized from other publications in his books. Although it does seem that the document underlying the articles, which isn’t even a comprehensive survey of the evidence, reveals a repeated and willful pattern of plagiarism, this post is not about plagiarism. Instead, my purpose is to address an underlying issue: Gaskill’s claims regarding his academic credentials.

As of today, April 2nd, 2019, BYU’s Faculty Directory entry for Gaskill indicates that he has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, a claim that has so far proven impossible to verify. In light of the current standards for accreditation of an institution such as BYU, as well as BYU’s own published standards, this is quite unusual. In my opinion, these are the questions for which those interested in BYU’s academic accreditation and reputation will need responses:

• Did Alonzo Gaskill in fact complete a PhD, as he claims on his CV? Can he produce a diploma, which says those words? And not “DRS” (Doctor of Religious Studies, which is an unrecognized type of degree in the field)?

• If so, can he show that the institution was accredited by a recognized accreditation body, not, for example, an “acceptance,” that would make his degree legitimate?

• Can he produce the dissertation that he claims to have written, but for which no evidence has been produced? Does it have a standard cover page that reads something like “In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of…”, with the signatures of advisors who approved the dissertation? Were there advisors? Did he study under anyone? For multiple years?

• Can he explain why Trinity Theological Seminary, from which he claims to have a Ph.D., is unable to produce a record of his degree or his dissertation?

• Can he explain why he has produced no record of his degree, either?

• Can he describe the decision-making process that led him to seek a doctoral degree from an unaccredited institution?

These inquiries can be readily met by anyone with a degree from an accredited institution or from a hiring institution’s personnel files. However, I do not expect a response from either Gaskill or a BYU representative who speaks for the hiring process because merely being asked about this sort of information under these circumstances reflects very poorly on both.

Finally, I think that were Gaskill part of an institution other than BYU, he would most likely be terminated. A more merciful option might be to give him a four or five-year unpaid leave of absence to earn the needed degree from an accredited institution. As it is, perhaps the decision-makers hope that in the seven or eight years that remain before another accreditation cycle, Gaskill will retire. Alternatively, he could be temporarily removed from the scene by being called to serve as a mission president, although one wonders about the wisdom and morality of such a utilitarian approach.

In any case, it will indeed be interesting to see how this plays out.

10 Replies to “Alonzo Gaskill and BYU: In the Headlines Again”

  1. In my opinion, plagiarism or dishonesty about one’s credentials would merit an early “retirement” or reassignment somewhere else.

    Is there a rule that accredited universities must only have faculty with accredited degrees? If a private university wants to hire someone without an accredited degree, it should certainly be within their power. There are universities who employ celebrities (e.g., Cornell and John Cleese) without the celebrities having received anything akin to a PhD, so this alone shouldn’t be an issue, as long as the University is aware of all the facts.

    I’m very familiar with Gaskill. He’s brilliant, engaging, witty, fantastic at teaching, etc. He’d be a good hire at a lot of places. The plagiarism is disturbing, but there have been cases of plagiarism at even more illustrious places such as Harvard where the professors kept their jobs. That said, it’s unfair to punish students for honor code violations and let faculty off the hook for similar behavior.

    Years ago, I read the book at issue with much interest, and kept asking myself, “How does A. Gaskill know all this stuff?” He’d just flat out say something about things being known in ancient times, with no supporting citation. It drove me crazy.

    But citing sources is a problem not confined to Gaskill. I’ve encountered several books by BYU faculty on biblical studies subjects where the “citations” essentially consist of a bibliography at the end of the book, rather than citations directly supporting particular statements.

  2. Hi Just another dude,

    I appreciate your charitable take on Gaskill and I think it is a necessary part of the story. However, I want to point out a few things that mitigate against your mitigating comments.

    First, concerning universities that hire non-credentialed people (like celebrities or perhaps big names from the political world), there is a big difference between those sorts of hires and Gaskill’s career. Gaskill, apparently on the merit of a fake PhD and a nonexistent dissertation, has not only been hired, but tenured, and advanced from assistant to associate to full professor. That is like somehow making partner in a law firm when it turns out the partner bought a JD from an unaccredited offshore diploma mill and never passed the bar exam in any state.

    Second, no matter how many cases of plagiarism are discovered at other universities, it does not excuse it happening at any other university. I am not sure whether you are trying to cut Gaskill some slack with your point or whether you are pointing out there are cheaters and liars everywhere and BYU Religious Education is just like any other institution. Either way, it’s a bad look for Gaskill and co.

    Third, the reason that Gaskill won’t or can’t cite sources, ancient and modern, is probably due to the fact that he was never trained how to do so because he didn’t attend any actual graduate school and never had to pass qualifying exams and never wrote or defended a dissertation to a committee charged with making him responsible for his assertions and arguments.

    I don’t think you are intending to do so, but your tepid defense of Gaskill is kind of a boost for good ol’ boyism. It doesn’t matter how charismatic Gaskill is in the classroom, or how brilliantly he presents himself, unless he can demonstrate otherwise, he is a fraud and is fleecing people for all kinds of money and community fame and those who make excuses for him and enable him are part of the problem.

    A final point and here I will probably come off as condescending but I am going to hazard it: those who find Gaskill to be brilliant are almost certainly those who do not have the tools to critically analyze what he is asserting. To me his facade of brilliance is tissue paper thin and it is clear that he is a fraud who couldn’t bear up under the slightest bit of scrutiny if he were to present to a group of his peers, and by peers I mean those who have been trained and hold real PhDs in Biblical Studies, as he publicly advertises about himself.

    1. That link is actually mentioned in the document on page 2 that BYU administration received a couple of months ago:

      “I thought this was strange but clearly an accident that could
      hypothetically happen. I still wanted to get a copy of the dissertation if I could, and there was still one avenue where I thought that was possible. I reached out to Trinity College of the Bible & Theological Seminary, the Bible college Gaskill had received his online PhD from in 2000, although now branded with a slightly longer name. On their website they have a document entitled, “Capstone, Dissertation, Major Writing Project & Thesis Titles.”6 Under the section on dissertations Gaskill’s name and dissertation are the first to appear in a long list of names that are not in alphabetical order.
      I reached out to the school itself, and was transferred around
      campus until I was able to speak with someone (Andrew Armstrong) who was not attached to the library but knew the person who had access to the information I needed (a Dr. Pritchett) so Andrew worked with me directly. I got the distinct impression that there is no actual library, as it describes on their website that the “library” is all online, but I was able to finally have a conversation with someone there at the university. Andrew informed me that the library, or maybe the employees who handle the online library services, were unable to locate any record of Gaskill’s dissertation. I asked them if they simply did not have a copy of the dissertation now or if they had never had one, and Andrew responded that he was not sure but that the dissertations were all supposed to be on electronic file by now. They had no record of his dissertation at the school.”

      It looks like although the school has that one pdf that lists the title of Gaskill’s “dissertation” it is absolutely nowhere to be found on campus. The school has no record of it beyond that pdf in the places where they should have a physical or digital copy of it.

  3. Hi ahjeez,

    I probably was not as clear as I should have been in my comments.

    In my view, anyone who falsifies their resume with fake degrees should lose their job. If Gaskill didn’t get a PhD, he needs to go. I am sensitive to the fact that him losing his job will probably financially devastate his wife and children (and it’s not like Gaskill’s rich to begin with). For the sake of his wife and children, I would certainly think about whether he could be re-assigned to another job in the church. Perhaps family history research would be sufficient punishment? 🙂

    It should be really simple for BYU to verify if he has a PhD. As in, they could do it today if they’d like. Ask Gaskill to produce his diploma and dissertation, dissertation advisors, etc. Today.

    I doubt BYU will do this. They will probably ignore the situation. They have a dynamic teacher who publishes popular books and draws crowds. They’ll try to keep him if they can. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying what will happen. BYU can be spineless.

    Let’s also point out that some of the PhDs of the people in Religious Education are about as impressive as an unaccredited, fake PhD. The “RelEd” scholars aren’t there to do research or dig up anything too uncomfortable for the Church. They exist to enforce a charade of learning and scholarship, to assure students and their families that “all is well in Zion.”

  4. Just another dude,

    I pretty much agree with everything you say in your response. What continues to rankle is the affront Gaskill is to his colleagues and to the Mormon world of bible and religious studies scholars. My PhD program was typical in requiring coursework in residence, language requirements both ancient and modern, comprehensive/qualifying examinations, formal dissertation proposal process with committee formation, dissertation submission for defense, defense, revisions to dissertation, and final submission of dissertation which automatically logs the dissertation for university records and public access. Gaskill probably never did a single of these things. But maybe he did. He can easily make this apparent by producing any of the things mentioned in the OP.

  5. ahjeez,

    I am certain that, if Gaskill completed a PhD, it was not nearly as rigorous as what you’ve described. He told me that he had gotten it in one year, finishing it so quickly because he had written a substantial amount before the program started and then wrapped it all up once in the program. At the time, I had thought he had gone to Trinity College (in Europe) for one year, and I was blown away. I did not realize it was an online thing.

    My experience is that there are rarely satisfying conclusions to issues like this when it comes to BYU or the Church. Apologies rarely occur, and if they do, they are delayed so long that few people notice. I wouldn’t hold your breath for a resolution to this, even though it could be resolved very quickly.

  6. It’s a degree posted to an official transcript from an accredited institution that is the definitive documentation of a degree, not a diploma or a dissertation. I served several years as department chair at my institution, and the administration always required an official transcript to be held on file for anyone hired to teach, even just for a semester. I’d be surprised if BYU doesn’t have the same requirement, so one would assume they have some transcript in the file for this guy. But I would also assume that FERPA would prohibit BYU releasing the transcript to a third party without the person’s authorization. However, the fact of a degree being awarded is classified by FERPA as “directory information” so there should be no reason why the degree-granting institution can’t verify if a degree was or was not awarded.

    1. You also need to realize that the degree that Gaskill probably has comes from an unaccredited institution. That is the problem, not whether or not Gaskill has the degree. The institution under question is a degree mill, they have instructions on their online website for students about how to finish entire courses in a single day, and they allow prior work completed before being in the program to count toward requirements within the program. If Gaskill, or BYU, could actually release Gaskill’s dissertation (which it should be publicly available by now anyway if he had gone to an accredited institution) then we would be able to see the quality of work that was required by Gaskill’s program. It isn’t the highest quality, which is why the program is not accredited, which is also why Gaskill was not hired by the department of Ancient Scripture when he applied and instead quickly shifted over to the Church History and Doctrine department after his application was rejected. If the dissertation exists then it is likely much shorter than a normal dissertation, likely does not include the regular front page stating that it partially fulfills the requirements of a PhD degree, and we have to wonder who directed the dissertation at all. That kind of information should be public, but no one knows any of it.

  7. Can we have access to Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton’s dissertations, grades and diplomas.

    Because fair is fair.

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