Shin Jeong-ah had very soon risen to the top of South Korea’s fine art scene. Shin’s two degrees claimed from Kansas University and a 2005 Yale University doctorate did not exist. Her Yale dissertation, titled Guillaume Apollinaire: Catalyst for primitivism, for Picabia and Duchamp, turned out to have been submitted to the University of Virginia in 1981 by another woman.
Shin, who was in Paris at the time the scandal denied the charges, then returned home went into hiding and left the country for New York. She told her friends she was going to Yale University to investigate her own academic records as per television media.
When she presented her credentials to Dongguk University last year, unfortunately, their background investigation did not go very far. The university never received a reply from Kansas University to a request to verify records, and they accepted a fax supposedly from Yale as enough evidence to prove that Shin held a doctorate. A former member of the school’s board of trustees has come forward to say that questions raised at the time about her credentials, but was dismissed from the board for the efforts because of disgracing the school with “groundless suspicion”.
Disgrace is deeper than the university could have imagined. “Yale sent a reply saying that the university hadn’t granted her a doctoral degree and that there was no record found in student named Shin Jeong-ah”, a Dongguk University spokesman said . Yale also said the fax that supposedly confirmed Shin’s credentials was fake.
Kansas University said that Shin attended classes there from 1992 to 1996 but she never graduated, according to a Kansas newspaper quoting Todd Cohen, University Relations director.
Korean commentators have begun calling her a “Female Hwang Woo-suk”, in reference to the scientist whose faked research on the cloning of human stem cells led to a round of national shame and breast-beating when it was uncovered last year. Soon the search may be joined by prosecutors. Officials of the Gwangju Biennale, after confirming with Yale that her degree was fraudulent, cancelled her appointment and have asked the Seoul prosecutors office to investigate her on possible criminal charges. The university may also press charges. She faces dismissal from her university post.
Shin, for the moment has disappeared. If she were to return from her visit to New York, she would face the relentless pursuit of the media and possible jail time as a result of her fraud.
A tantalizing explanation for Shin’s desperate and ultimately perilous scramble to the top may lie in Korea’s worst peacetime disaster. In 1995, when Shin was just 23, she was buried in the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in Seoul. Trapped in the rubble for 24 hours, she was one of the lucky survivors of a disaster that killed 501 people.
It was later established that the Sampoong collapse was caused by faulty supporting columns and a poor structural framework added to the fact that the impressive-looking new store was built by crooked businessmen on an unstable landfill. Like Shin’s academic career, the building ultimately rested on shaky ground.