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USC Expels 17 for Scheme to Change Grades

Times Staff Writer

USC has expelled 17 students and suspended six others for attempting to have their grades altered by paying off school employees who had access to the university’s computer system, officials said Monday.

Another 17 former students failed to respond to the school’s request for them to attend administrative hearings, and their academic records will be put on “permanent hold,” making the records unavailable to either the individuals or other schools, USC administrators said.

In addition, charges against two other students were dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

In a telephone interview Monday, one of the students disciplined expressed relief that the investigation was over.

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‘No Way Out’

“There was no way out for me,” said the young woman, who requested anonymity. “They had their proof. I admitted my guilt. This has dragged on for a long time and I’m just glad it’s over.”

USC officials first became aware of the grade-tampering scheme in January, 1984, through an internal auditing procedure. Their investigation was expanded a year later when they received a report about the scandal from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office was also brought into the case.

A source close to the district attorney’s probe told The Times earlier this year that the investigation was focusing on a group of foreign students suspected of selling both higher grades and degrees.

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The source said that the students collected money from other students for grade changes or bogus degrees, and paid a then-employee of the school, who would, in turn, buy computer passwords from employees in the USC records and registration office.

The students selling the grades and degrees would then either change grade transcripts themselves or pay employees with either money or cocaine to make the changes, the source said.

James M. Dennis, USC vice president for student affairs, said Monday that the university’s investigation had failed to substantiate the reports that some students had purchased degrees or diplomas from the university.

“We’re convinced that the earlier reports . . . were erroneous,” Dennis said, referring to disclosures that federal DEA agents, in the course of a narcotics investigation, had turned up information indicating that some students had paid as much as $25,000 for a phony doctoral degree.

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‘Picking Up Rumor’

“They were picking up a rumor,” Dennis said of the DEA agents in Louisville, Ky., who arrested a former USC student on cocaine charges and passed on to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office the man’s allegations that degrees were available for sale on the USC campus.

Neither the DEA in Louisville nor Deputy Dist. Atty. Clifton H. Garrott, head of the office’s computer-crime unit, could be reached for comment Monday.

However, Dennis said he understood that district attorney’s investigators were looking into the activities of two former USC employees who had worked in the school’s records and registration office.

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One of the employees left USC voluntarily before the university’s investigation began more than a year ago, Dennis said. The second was fired last June, he added. The official declined to identify the two, citing the district attorney’s ongoing investigation.

Higher Grade

Dennis said that grades were changed from either an “F” or “D” to a higher grade and that the incidents of cheating were not confined to any particular course, area of study, or school.

He said the pay-for-grade cheating had been going on for about three years, but added that USC’s investigation failed to uncover any indication of grade tampering earlier than that.

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Dennis said he was reluctant to discuss details of the cheating scheme because of the criminal investigation. He would not say how much students typically paid for a higher grade.

Dennis said that none of the 42 people investigated by the three-member USC administrative review panel had received a degree from the university.

Both the students expelled and those suspended for as long as two years have the right to appeal to the USC administration the findings of the review panel. If they don’t, the sanctions become effective immediately, Dennis said.

The panel is continuing to look into computer grading procedures at the school in order to “add safeguards against tampering,” Dennis said.

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USC administrators are confident “that any such activity in the future would be discovered long before an actual degree could be awarded,” he added.


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