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Lab chief apologizes over online doctorate

The chief of the state's infectious-disease laboratory apologized to colleagues yesterday "for any embarrassment or discomfort" he might have caused by representing himself as holding a doctorate, when the degree actually was bestowed by an online university that requires no dissertation and that grants diplomas in 72 hours for $499.

Ralph Timperi's mea culpa was issued amid a freshly launched review of his actions by the Harvard School of Public Health, where he is an adjunct lecturer, and continued scrutiny from the Department of Public Health, which runs the Jamaica Plain lab that Timperi has directed for 15 years.

In a telephone interview last night, Timperi's boss, state Public Health Commissioner Christine C. Ferguson, said that while she intends to have further discussions with Timperi, his job remains secure.

Ferguson said she learned about his actions during a 10-minute phone conversation with Timperi on Tuesday night, after he was interviewed by the Globe about the degree.

"I was very saddened, disappointed," she said. "It was an error in judgment and something I would not have expected somebody of his talent to have had to learn the hard way."

Ferguson said that she was sufficiently concerned that she had agency staffers review Timperi's personnel file yesterday, looking for inconsistencies or evidence of other problems, but that none could be found.

At Harvard, authorities said Timperi has proven to be an admirable instructor in three years of teaching a class on epidemiologic analysis of outbreaks and infectious diseases, winning glowing ratings on student evaluations.

Robin Herman, spokeswoman for the School of Public Health, said in an e-mail response to questions that officials could find no evidence that anyone in a position of authority had told Timperi, 60, that he needed to enhance his academic credentials. She said pay for adjunct lecturers is not based on the academic degrees they hold.

Still, school authorities want to talk with Timperi about the degree controversy, Herman said. "Right now we are assessing the situation and are arranging to talk with Ralph," Herman wrote. "We don't plan any imminent action."

Timperi sent an apologetic e-mail yesterday to an audience of laboratory colleagues he estimated numbered 400. By midafternoon he had conveyed personal regrets to about 10 associates.

In the e-mail, he wrote that he had pursued the degree from what he thought was "an accredited educational institution," believing that the diploma was valid.

"I briefly used the PhD designation, not to mislead, but because I thought I had earned it based on experience and accomplishments," Timperi wrote to his colleagues.

Part-time state lab medical specialist Marvin Mitchell said the lab's staff respected Timperi before the episode and will continue to do so.

"I don't think anyone feels this was a deliberate attempt on his part to deceive anyone," said Mitchell. "I think he still commands the respect of his employees."

In a telephone interview yesterday afternoon, Timperi said he erred by pursuing a degree from Trinity Southern University. He said he renounced the degree Monday after concluding the university was not legitimate.

Although he has spent decades treading the halls of various academic institutions populated by researchers who spent years struggling to earn doctorates, Timperi said he believed it was valid to seek a degree that demanded no dissertation and that could be purchased with the click of a few computer keys, based on a resume he sent.

"I mistakenly and naively believed what I saw in front of me, and the reason I believed it was that I was viewing it as more of an end-of-career award based on my experience," Timperi said in the interview. "It was kind of like, `OK, here's a plaque for your retirement.' I look at my record, and I say it certainly is deserving of that, and if there is an honest, legal way of doing that, then I think I should have that."

An e-mail to the Globe from A.S. Poe, identified as a Trinity official, said degrees are awarded to "worthy individuals" based on work experience and courses taken elsewhere.

The pressure to be adequately credentialed in the academic world can be intense and has even led university presidents to exaggerate their credentials, said Diane Waryold, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.

"I have heard of that happening out of pressure to feel adequate," said Waryold. "I do know being in an academic community that there is a certain amount of pressure that goes along with being credentialed, and that's especially true when you're dealing with faculty and trying to become colleagues with faculty."

Timperi said he was awarded the degree in September and briefly used the designation on state e-mails and included it on his personal Web page, which linked to the Harvard School of Public Health's website. He said he excised references to the doctorate from e-mails and the Web page after becoming concerned last weekend about the legitimacy of the degree.

It was only over the weekend, Timperi said, that he took the time to examine Trinity Southern.

The university's website includes a list of frequently posed questions, one of which is whether the degree "will be accepted by everyone." The answer: "A Trinity Southern degree works for 95% of its graduates, however, it is not appropriate for people in the public education field, government or those who wish to use the degree to attend a traditional graduate program."

Timperi acknowledged that some people might view his lapse in judgment regarding the doctoral degree as reflecting on his professional acuity.

"I'm sure some people could misinterpret it that way," he said. "I spend a tremendous amount of attention making certain my professional job is done. That takes away from my personal life and paying attention to my personal well-being. Had I spent the amount of time and attention on this, I would have done more investigation to begin with."

Timperi's former boss at the lab, George Grady, who retired in 1996, said of his erstwhile deputy: "I think he thinks he made a mistake, and I would agree with that. The irony is he was training and teaching people who had PhDs who didn't know as much as he did."

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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