VA ethics adviser to remove Ph.D. credential - Albuquerque Journal

VA ethics adviser to remove Ph.D. credential

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The head ethics adviser at the Veterans Affairs in Albuquerque, who doubles as a professor

GEPPERT: Says Ph.D. degree is legitimate
GEPPERT: Says Ph.D. degree is legitimate

of psychiatry and ethics at the University of New Mexico, has promoted herself as having a doctorate in religious ethics among her many credentials.

But the degree she earned online is from a now-defunct theology school, International Reform University, founded by a man convicted of federal wire and bank fraud via his numerous church organizations. He also founded the church that served as the accrediting agency for the school and served on her dissertation board.

Dr. Cynthia Geppert, who isn’t paid at UNM but makes $217,627 in salary and annual performance bonus at the VA, lists the Ph.D. on her professional website profiles, speaker engagements and on her 45-page CV.

She says the degree is legitimate. Both the VA and UNM agree, each having vetted it through credential verification. UNM said it just made sure she got the degree but didn’t check beyond that.

Still, Geppert decided this month to ask that the Ph.D. degree no longer be listed on her biography accompanying published material, her personal spokesman Mike Collins said in an interview.

Collins said scrutiny of her degree has made her want to remove it.

The Journal reviewed documents about her degree in addition to internal UNM documents about a relationship she developed with a student while she taught at UNM. She later married the student. The documents also appeared in a story by The Daily Caller News Foundation, a conservative online news outlet, in December.

“If anything, she’s a victim here,” Collins said. “Cyndi Geppert had no idea about this (allegations against the now-defunct university). She pursued this degree in good faith. She did splendid work. She produced a dissertation that has been cited academically repeatedly. And if anything, she’s a victim here. If anything, she took this on faith that this institution was capable of issuing the Ph.D. that it issued her. Now … that she has learned the status of that institution, through my effort, she is removing the Ph.D. from her biography.”

Representatives from the VA and UNM told the Journal it wouldn’t matter if the degree wasn’t legitimate because Geppert’s positions at both institutions depend on her medical doctor degree, not her doctorate in ethics – even though she heads the VA ethics program and teaches ethics.

“Her academic credentials that have been required for her post haven’t been questioned,” said John Arnold, spokesman for UNM’s Health Sciences Center. “And in addition to that, the breadth of her other academic credentials give us confidence she is more than qualified as a faculty member.”

Geppert has five additional degrees and certifications, so her title on her professional documents reads Dr. Cynthia Geppert M.D., MA, Ph.D., MPH, FAPM, DAAPM. It is the Ph.D. she intends to remove.

The degree

Geppert, now 57, earned her doctor of philosophy in medical ethics degree online in 2001 from International Reform University, a school founded by Patriarch Archbishop +G Stephen Trivoli-Johnson as an education wing of the Ecumenical Churches and The Central Orthodox Synod.

The church served as the accrediting agency for the school, as noted in a list of suspect academic organizations in the book “Degree Mills: The Billion-Dollar Industry That Has Sold Over a Million Fake Diplomas” by Allen Ezell and John Bear. The book examines the industry that grants degrees without academically rigorous programs and accredits the programs through sham agencies.

Trivoli-Johnson also founded at least five other church organizations and charities in at least four other states under various corporate names. He was convicted of wire and money fraud in connection with these organizations at about the same time he founded International Reform University.

He has since died, and the main church, in Garden Grove, Calif., is now a boarded-up building. The university dissolved as of 2004.

When UNM and the VA required that Geppert prove she earned her degree as part of routine hiring procedures, Geppert turned to River Sims, who, along with Trivoli-Johnson, oversaw her dissertation in 2001 as a member of the International Reform University dissertation staff.

Sims, who has a master of divinity and a doctorate in sacred theology from the International Reform University, wrote a letter assuring that Geppert did indeed receive her Ph.D. and that the school has since closed because of financial difficulties.

Sims said most people who attended International Reform University were drawn to the school, which had been established as a sort of alternative seminary for gay people who couldn’t otherwise be ordained in mainstream churches, as a means to ordination.

“As far as Cyndi is concerned, it was a great university,” Sims said in an interview from California. “She worked her ass off for that degree. She’s not being dishonest. She was never intentionally dishonest. That’s just not her.”

Geppert submitted her transcript to UNM and the VA. She also provided it to the Journal .

It shows she took 27 credit hours at International Reform University toward her doctorate and was granted 100 semester hours of transfer credit from one year of theology study at the University of Chicago in 1981-1982, 20 years before her dissertation.

Her doctoral dissertation, titled “The Stamp of Sorrow: Ethical and Religious Aspects of Psychiatric Genetics,” has been cited in several academic publications on psychiatric ethics. She has also been published in numerous periodicals, journals and has helped author several books.

Career path

Geppert earned her bachelor of arts in religion in 1981 from Colorado College, a doctor of medicine in 1997 from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a master of arts in religion ethics in 1998 from Vanderbilt University.

She earned her Ph.D. from International Reform University, at age 43, while she was working as a resident psychiatrist at UNM.

In 2003, she moved on to full-time employment at the VA in Albuquerque, eventually working her way to the highest ranks in the psychiatry wing and in leadership of the local and national VA ethics consultation system, even serving several times on national Veterans Affairs ethics boards.

She is the only Ph.D. on the local VA psychiatric staff, according to the VA website. While at the VA, she also earned a master’s in public health in 2007, a master of science in bioethics in 2012 and a doctorate in professional studies in clinical ethics consultation in 2014.

Local VA spokeswoman Sonja Brown said Geppert’s degree from IRU has no bearing on her employment nor pay grade with the VA, where, she said, annul “merit pay” bonuses are awarded based on qualifications and job responsibilities. Geppert’s annual merit pay bonus is $97,678.

Her job is to “manage the Integrated Ethics program, treat psychiatric patients and train psychiatry residents,” Brown said. She runs the hotline for ethics consultations at the local VA system and works on national boards for ethics protocol at the VA.

The relationship

The VA lends its doctors, including psychiatrists, to UNM, where they join the faculty. Most, including Geppert, are “salaried exclusively by the VA,” Brown said.

It was while teaching at UNM that she met the woman she would later marry.

According to an internal email reviewed by the Journal, the then-department head of psychiatry was concerned about the ethics of their relationship, even going so far as to hold a vote of senior faculty and placing a letter of concern in her department file.

But Collins and UNM Health Sciences Center spokesman Arnold say Geppert and her now-spouse followed all procedures and alerted Geppert’s supervisors about the relationship.

“At the end of the day, they determined she acted appropriately in disclosing the relationship,” Arnold said. “There was no reprimand and she continued to hold faculty position.”

Though she is a full professor, she is now only contributing to one class at the UNM School of Medicine.

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