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Saturday, May 24, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nudelman Defends His Degrees -- Group Health Chief Has Mba, Ph.D. From Unaccredited School

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Phil Nudelman, recently named chairman and president of Kaiser/Group Health, sent a memo yesterday to subordinates explaining why his graduate degrees come from a correspondence school called into question on a national television program.

The memo was in response to "American Journal's" show on Wednesday on Pacific Western University, an unaccredited college that gives credit for work and life experiences. The program painted the university as a degree mill that required little work beyond already obtained credits and experience.

In the report, the school was portrayed as a "less-than-credible" institution, Nudelman wrote. Showing a clip of President Clinton with Nudelman, who has been one of Clinton's advisers on health policy, the show spotlighted Nudelman and two other influential people who have received degrees there.

On his resume, Nudelman lists three bachelor-of-science degrees from the University of Washington and an MBA and a Ph.D. in health-systems management from Pacific Western, a California-based school that also operates in Hawaii. The school, which has no classrooms or examinations, does not claim to be accredited and says in its introductory material: "All degree programs are primarily based on what the student has already learned."

In an interview Thursday, Nudelman said, "I have never hid or denied my enrollment at Pacific Western. I'm sorry if they are having problems now. Twenty years ago, in my knowledge base, there was nothing wrong . .

"I did this in good faith and good conscience and worked hard. I didn't do this . . . trying to pull the wool over somebody's eyes."

In his statement yesterday, Nudelman said the television report did an injustice to people like himself "who benefited from its rigorous professional-studies program in the past."

Lyle Mercer, a longtime Group Health consumer activist and former board member of 21 years, said he was dismayed that Nudelman sought a degree from an unaccredited college.

"When I was on the board, and he began using the Ph.D. after his name, I wondered how anybody could get an MBA or a Ph.D. when he was working time and a third," Mercer said. "I figured it was one of those quickie deals, but nobody checked on it - you know how that goes."

Dorothy Mann, Group Health board chairman in 1990, said Nudelman was unanimously chosen over four national candidates primarily for his leadership abilities, experience and ability to take Group Health forward through the turbulent years of health reform - his "track record," she said.

If Nudelman hadn't claimed advanced degrees, Mann said, the outcome of the board's vote would have been the same. "There's no doubt in my mind we got the best person for the job," she said.

The board has given Nudelman steady pay raises; last year, he made $466,501.

Nudelman began work for the degrees in 1979, receiving the master's in 1980 and the Ph.D. in 1982 while working full time at Group Health - a much shorter period of time than the average time required to complete work for comparable degrees from accredited universities, academic experts say.

Nudelman's B.S. degrees from the UW were earned between 1957 and 1966 in zoology, pharmacy and microbiology.

Nudelman said Thursday that he couldn't go to traditional classes for the advanced degrees because he was supporting a family by working full time, and even night-school classes were difficult with Group Health's many night meetings. To get them, "I worked my behind off," said Nudelman, who has been president and chief executive officer of Group Health since 1991 and was recently chosen to head the newly merged health-care entity.

Nudelman said he understood at the time that Pacific Western "wasn't traditional," was not nationally accredited, and that degrees it granted probably wouldn't be accepted at an accredited institution.

But, Nudelman added, he believed the university was accredited by the state of California.

Accreditation is "the mark of legitimacy within higher education," said Tim Washburn, executive director of admissions and records for the UW, and means a school's curriculum has been evaluated by peers. "It's really the currency within the higher-education community whether these are acceptable credits or acceptable degrees."

In fact, Pacific Western was never accredited either nationally or by California. At the time, it was licensed to operate and grant degrees - a much lower standard that doesn't compare its curriculum to those of other universities or establish any standard of education.

Philip Forte, president of Pacific Western, says all of the 20,000 students who have obtained degrees there in the past 21 years have been required to sign a disclaimer acknowledging it is not accredited.

Nudelman said he contacted Pacific Western after his superior at Group Health made it clear that "no one would ever go anywhere under him without an advanced degree." The boss soon left Group Health, but Nudelman decided to pursue the degrees "in case I wanted to go somewhere else," he said.

Nudelman said he believed he didn't need the degrees to be promoted at Group Health.

Forte, Pacific Western's president, said that with a master's degree and previous credits from other universities that can be counted, many students earn a Ph.D. in six months to a year.

By comparison, a Ph.D. in business at the UW is a full-time, three-year program that typically takes people four to five years to complete, said Bob Roseth, UW spokesman.

Nudelman said he completed a dissertation in six to eight months on automated pharmacy systems, a project that he had been conducting at Group Health. Nudelman said he went to California to defend his work and was required to rewrite it several times. He also was given credit, without tests, for past work experience, he said.

Some educators say they have a problem with institutions that give credit for work already done.

"You don't know anything more after you get the credit than you came in with, because you haven't done anything more," said Don Haught, executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits schools and colleges in Western states.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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