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PhDs Are in Name Only

Compton: Political candidates tout their honorary degrees from an acupuncture school. They defend their credentials.

May 17, 2001|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Compton: City of PhDs

That might be the unofficial campaign theme of Mayor Omar Bradley and his slate of candidates and elected supporters.

Bradley, facing a June 5 runoff election, boasts of a doctoral degree. His chosen candidate in Compton's 2nd Council District, Compton College board member Melanie Andrews, refers to herself as Dr. Andrews in campaign materials. Another key Bradley ally, 4th District Councilman Amen Rahh, who won't face reelection for two years, has been noting his own PhD in local newspaper ads endorsing the mayor and Andrews.

The fact that their PhDs exist in name only has not stopped Bradley, Andrews and Rahh from running as "Drs." The PhDs are all honorary, conferred by a small school of acupuncture along East Compton Boulevard.

"We will have four doctorates on the five-member City Council if we [members of the Bradley-endorsed slate] win," said Frank Wheaton, a spokesman for the mayor's office who holds a law degree from the University of West Los Angeles law school and is running for the 3rd District council seat with Bradley's support. "I don't know of any city in the county that can say that."

The degrees have yet to emerge as a major political controversy in Compton, in part because the school is so little-known.

The school's founder, 64-year-old Henry Yu, who began conferring honorary degrees to gain local goodwill, hasn't even been following the election.

"I don't know anything about Compton politics," said Yu, who was born in China to Korean parents. He obtained a law degree and became active in Republican circles after immigrating. "I didn't know people were using the honorary degrees in public life."

Yuin University was founded in Baldwin Park 20 years ago, offering programs in acupuncture and Oriental medicine, and moved to Compton 13 years ago. For most of the last decade, the school has been caught up in a licensing squabble.

As a result, Yuin's acupuncture programs are not fully licensed by the state. The school has seen its enrollment fall to 241 students. Yu said the university has been singled out because of its stands against corruption in acupuncture exams and inside the state government. Last year, he published an account of Yuin's fight with the state, "A Bruised Reed," detailing his complaints.

"The side of right will ultimately win out," Yu wrote, "but not until it first successfully defends itself against the venomous serpents with which it has been cast down into the pit of regulatory infamy; not before it must scale the pit's slippery walls out of the darkness of the abyss of evil."

At first, Yu had no contact with Compton's political community. But in 1993, battling the state and in need of local support, he hired Warren Washington, then the recently deposed president of Compton Community College, to serve as Yuin University's president. Washington, who was well connected to Compton's political class, was fired from his previous job after the college improperly spent about $500,000 in federal funds for low-income students.

Washington and his successor as Yuin's president, Compton Community College Vice President Lee Porter, pushed the idea of granting honorary degrees as a public relations measure, Yu recalls. In a brief phone interview, Porter said the degrees "build support for Yuin and recognize people who make outstanding contributions to the community." He referred other questions to Yu. Efforts to reach Washington were unsuccessful.

In December 1995, Bradley and Rahh received their doctorates from Yuin. Andrews' was granted last December. This spring, Yuin granted an honorary doctorate to the Rev. Jerome Fisher, a Baptist minister who has remained loyal to Bradley while a group of local pastors is opposing the mayor. Fisher said he felt he had "earned the honor after 44 years" of service to Compton.

"One of the main problems in our city has been the lack of educational excellence on behalf of our elected officials," Bradley said in a recent campaign publication. "When you're having brain surgery, you want the smartest, best-prepared doctor you can afford. When you're running a city the size of Compton, you must have an adequate education to make the best informed decisions on behalf of our citizens."

Rahh has run ads reading, "Councilman Amen Rahh PhD Endorses Bradley, Andrews, Wheaton!"

Bradley's opponent, Eric Perrodin, a deputy district attorney who forced the mayor into a runoff in the April primary, called the use of the degrees misleading.

"Obviously, it doesn't reflect any type of academic achievement, not that people should vote on the basis of degrees anyway," said Perrodin, who holds a law degree from Loyola Law School. "And if they want to go there, by any reasonable standard, I have more education than any of them."

Asked about the doctorates, the politicians are unapologetic.

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