Educational History of Oliver DeMille
10 April, 2009 Mother Jones/GWU?
I thank you for your support and well wishes during the difficult times of my illness. I am steadily improving, and look forward to the time when I can return to an active schedule. I consider you to be among my mentors and friends. Thank you!
I have always considered my educational journey to be foundational to my understanding of Leadership Education. I have referred to my history often, and feel that the knowledge and experience that I gained through that process could not have been gained in any other way.
I learned in both traditional and non-traditional educational settings, from institutions of great renown and also of ill repute, under the close vigilance of a mentor and in long, long hours of personal study. I believe I have experienced much of the best and some of the worst of what modern educational options have to offer.
Because so many have expressed interest in knowing the particulars of my history, I will do my best to relate it, to the best of my memory. Those who look for details to parse and challenge may find imperfections, but I present this account in good faith and with no effort to alter the facts, but only the intention to share.
Contrary to the intimations made by a few misinformed detractors, I have not tried to hide from my educational history, but rather to highlight it. For better and for worse, it is my story. I have very few regrets and I am filled with awe at how blessed I have been. Through it all, I have tried to encourage others to consciously personalize their own education to empower and prepare them to make a contribution that is uniquely theirs–a life’s mission.
I was born the oldest of three sons to two professional educators. In our small Southern Utah town, teachers were held in high regard, and our community’s cultural life revolved around the activities and projects hosted by and in our schools.
Some of my favorite early memories of school were in my father’s fourth grade classroom, where he would recite poetry to us and read to us from classic literature. Many decades later I am still approached by grateful former students of my father who hold him up as a great teacher and mentor who instilled in them a love for learning and a commitment to excellence.
But teaching 4th grade was just his day job. As soon as his work in the classroom was done, he had another full-time job raising sons on a farm, with dairy cows, goats, sheep, chickens, turkeys, a large family garden, orchards and pastures that had to be cultivated with night-long irrigation turns in our arid desert climate.
I smile when I remember how many times he turned a blind eye when I finished my chores hastily and then hid in the hay barn to read a book. He and my brothers teased me for my preference of books over crops and animals – one has become a professional horse breeder and trainer, and the other a full-time farmer – but I have come to know that they were also proud of me. For it wasn’t always apparent that I would be such a voracious reader.
As not only the oldest son, but the oldest grandson on both sides, my family had great expectations for me. I was sociable and inquisitive, and they lovingly believed I would excel at everything I tried.
However, not long after I entered school I began to struggle. I simply could not learn to read. We had no television in the home and both parents read to us for hours each week from our earliest years – by all rights, I had every advantage they could provide. And yet, even as they spent extra time with me at home, my frustration (and the family’s anxiety for me) grew.
The school district performed extensive testing and decided that I needed to be included in the small special education class for students with special learning needs. I was confused and worried as I left my classmates and joined this special class. But it wasn’t long until my father came to the door of the class and motioned for me to join him in the hall. He took me by the hand and walked me to my regular classroom and, without any explanation, told me I wouldn’t be returning to the other one.
My parents continued to work with me at home, and through several years of difficulty and patience, I eventually (around the age of ten or twelve) became a fluent reader.
Luckily for me, in all those years of special attention by my parents I have many treasured memories of them reading to and with me from great classics of literature, and I grew to love what books had to offer. And yet, I still felt quite insecure and withdrawn as my self-image had been altered by the experiences I had.
As a young high school student my fortunes were forever changed as our principal nominated me for the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Seminar. At this three-day seminar I met youth and counselors who treated me like I was valued, talented and destined to make a difference in the world. By the end of the weekend, I began to believe that I should not worry so much about fitting in and should start preparing myself for a life of service.
Over the course of the next several years, I had many teachers and mentors who took special time and effort to challenge, inspire and instruct me. My mother in particular – who was not only one of my high school English teachers, but my debate coach and employer (in her small publishing company) – helped me to seek and find opportunities that would stretch me. She taught me to never settle for anything less than my best, and kept careful record of my projects and certificates in a portfolio.
My early challenges were now a distant memory as I was chosen as an Academic All-American, delegate to Boys State, president of the Honor Society, Youth Mayor, and had awards and honors in track, basketball, baseball, football, drama, debate, composition, Spanish, science, etc. Ultimately, I was chosen as one of the top 2 seniors in the state and had scholarship offers all over.
Strangely, though, I had a small nagging in the back of my mind that, in spite of it all, I didn’t yet have the kind of education that I wanted – the kind of education that I thought I would have based on the recognition I received. There was a chant of names that ran through my head: Plato, Shakespeare, Madison, Marx. I had heard these names, and they represented a kind of educational ideal to me; but I did not know these men or their thoughts and words. I set off optimistically for the next phase of my life, with the confidence that college was exactly what I needed.
Off to College
I entered BYU with a full-ride renewable academic scholarship; in addition, the Air Force had offered me a 4-year full ride non-technical scholarship, and I enlisted with ROTC. After an initial semester or two of enjoying my independence with horseplay and heavy socializing, I settled down to work and maintained a 4.0 in my classes.
Over the course of my freshman year I developed a system of study that made mastery of my course material a snap, and had me completing papers and assignments well ahead of schedule. (This system is taught in my e-book, “19 Apps: Leadership Education for College Students”) I especially enjoyed an opportunity to work as a youth counselor at a conference called “Especially for Youth”.
After a year at BYU I took a break to serve a full-time mission for my church in Barcelona, Spain, and returned home in fall of 1989.
But a couple of significant things had happened in the few weeks before the new semester started. First, I married my sweetheart, Rachel Pinegar, on the last weekend of 1989; and secondly, I attended a seminar in November of 1989 that featured author and educator W. Cleon Skousen as a speaker.
I remember well calling Rachel with hardly the words to express the deep feelings I had during that seminar, the subject of which was Freedom and the result of which was a glimmer of the type of education I knew I was looking for.
Dr. Skousen cited with ease and great familiarity the works of Tocqueville and Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Bacon and Jefferson. I knew that for me it had been a momentous, life-changing experience, although I could not yet foresee how much it would figure in to my future.
I returned to BYU in the Winter of 1990. Rachel was supportive of my zeal and dedication as a student, and I continued to meet and exceed my goals for myself. I greatly enjoyed the seminars and visiting speakers at the Kennedy Center for International Studies. I found a few teachers who inspired me and asked them for additional readings and assignments. I had job offers from a couple of professors who recognized my extra effort and who praised my work. In addition, I worked as a paid intern doing research and writing on political and social issues with a think-tank called Meadeau View Institute (MVI).
After another semester of 4.0, we took a trip to visit my parents in my hometown. I happened to be in the local library one day, and as I sat perusing the periodicals my mind returned to my pre-college days when I looked forward to going to the university to join The Great Conversation. I had believed at that time that I would read and study the greats, discuss their ideas and have transformational experiences. As my mind flashed on that time, I got a pit in my stomach. I realized that after several semesters of “successful” university study, I still didn’t feel like I was getting the kind of education I idealized.
The following summer was spent as an intern with The Institute for Constitutional Education (“ICE” – a sister organization of MVI, and the organization that had hosted the seminar I attended where Dr. Skousen presented), and I worked as a counselor and conference coordinator for the Youth for America (YFA) program hosted by ICE. One of the best things about the summer was the opportunity to work closely with Dr. Skousen, who presented at the conferences and consulted on the content.
When the summer was through I made a decision: if I wanted a classical education, I was going to have to seek it in places beyond the classes with 300 students, with syllabi chock-full of readings from text books and lectures delivered for the umpteenth time.
I needed a formal mentor.
I contacted Dr. Skousen and asked him for a list of readings. He was only too happy to oblige me, and he tested my appetite for study with a long list of challenging works, refreshed often with new ones as I returned and reported to discuss them. We later submitted my course work to a small religious school in Florida where a colleague was on the Board: Coral Ridge Baptist University (CRBU).
This work we did concurrently with my BYU studies for the next couple of years, until an unlikely event altered my course.
No Plans, New Opportunities
At a summer camp for ROTC, training to report for active duty upon graduation in less than a year, I passed out several times. After extensive tests and not a few doctors, the Air Force released me from my contract with an honorable medical discharge.
With no further obligation to the Air Force, and my plans for years of military service atomized overnight, I now sat with Rachel to consider my life’s options and prospects. I knew that if I continued on my present course I had the grades and advocates to get me into the grad schools that I had considered. And yet, that nagging feeling, that pit-in-my-stomach, chant-of-names-in-my-head feeling, now seemed more important to me than the promise of prestige, opportunity or security that the “normal” and “obvious” course could offer.
With only 11 credits left to graduate Magna cum Laude, I deliberately left a fully-accredited university, BYU, where my costs were entirely paid by a full academic scholarship, and instead dedicated my studies full-time, and at my expense, to a mentor and an unconventional school with only religious accreditation. Why? Because I experienced a significantly better education when I did.
I have told my story many times, and I would do the same thing again. This is not to disparage the education I was receiving–for it met its purposes, and I had several professors at BYU who took special interest and time with me, and who contributed great value to my education. It’s just that the closely-mentored education was so much better. I did some work with other mentors, but mainly Dr. W. Cleon Skousen, and the quality of my student experience with him I count as the best of my life up to that time.
Q & A
I offer now the answers to a few recurring questions:
Q. What was your role in the establishment of George Wythe College/University, and what was its relationship with Coral Ridge Baptist University?
A. In the summer of 1992, after the regular run of YFA youth conferences, a YFA college-prep conference was held at MVI. My mentors and I, as well as the students and many parents, were so happy with the energy and enthusiasm for scholarship there that it was proposed that MVI hold classes for young adults starting in the fall of 1992.
The name “George Wythe College” was chosen in honor of the mentor of Thomas Jefferson. What began as a youth conference was soon established as a school, with Coral Ridge Baptist University (CRBU) as the sponsoring institution and GWC operating as a branch.
Until the separation of GWC from CRBU (and this is admittedly confusing) the policy was and graduates were informed that they could list the parent (CRBU) or the branch (GWC) institution, as they preferred, as the alma mater.
Whereas GWC was fledgling and charting its own course, in the early years administrative, academic and methodological decisions were made largely on CRBU policy. This is reflected in the early policy that students could propose to and develop with their mentors a personalized degree program, and upon administrative approval, they could follow this plan toward graduation. As a result, degrees were granted to individuals in some areas that the school no longer offers. As time went on, GWC’s own standards and procedures became more and more established, and ultimately a GWC-specific board of trustees was empowered to govern the policy and administration of the school.
In the early 2000s, GWC registered with the State of Utah independent of CRBU. From that time forward, degrees were granted by “George Wythe College”, and later, “George Wythe University”, with no further affiliation with CRBU.
Q. What degrees do you hold, and when were they awarded?
A. I attended BYU in 1986-87 for my Freshman year, and then returned to BYU in late 1989 after a 2-year LDS mission to Spain. While at BYU from 1990 on, my educational focus was divided among several areas:
- Progress toward my degree in International Relations
- Responsibilities to the Air Force ROTC
- Work as a professional researcher and writer for a conservative think-tank, Meadeau View Institute, for which I published two books during my college years
- Directed independent studies with Cleon Skousen
In early 1992 I left BYU (with just eleven credits left to graduate at that time) in order to focus on the directed studies that were proving to be the most meaningful to me. In the first edition of A Thomas Jefferson Education, I incorrectly referred back to this time eight years previous as having “graduated”. I am grateful to those who brought it to my attention, and note that from the time this error was pointed out an errata notice was placed inside the cover of remaining copies to be sold, and the error was corrected in the next printing of the book. In addition, I was interviewed at length by Shanon Brooks during his preparation of the history of the founding of GWC, which was released before the second printing of A Thomas Jefferson Education, and the corrected timeline was reflected there as well.
I am not aware of any substantive consequence or harm that might have resulted from this error, and apologize in case such does exist.
To return to the account of the undergraduate work: while studying under Cleon I met Don Sills, a Baptist minister and crusader for religious freedom whose even-handed advocacy had benefited not only beleaguered “mainstream” Christians around the world, but also religious minorities such as the Mormons and the Moonies.
Reverend Sills was also a board member for the small Baptist seminary in Florida called Coral Ridge Baptist University. CRBU was a Bible college with a philosophy of close mentorship and intense studies, and the objective to train its graduates for service in military chaplaincy, education and ministry. Reverend Sills was well-versed in the content of my research and writing, and suggested that my abandonment of a degree in pursuit of a better education need not be so.
At his urging, I submitted my intensive prior work with Skousen and my MVI work as well to CRBU, and in 1992 I was awarded a bachelor’s degree and later that year, for additional coursework, a master’s degree.
I will comment further below on the study schedule required to achieve this in the three years over which these studies took place.
As GWC struggled in its early years, I considered that perhaps my having an accredited post-graduate degree might be a benefit for the credibility of the school, and I inquired regarding admission to graduate schools.
I was told that my CRBU degree did not qualify me for admission, so in 1994 I completed the remaining 6 credits toward my BYU degree. I had taken a technical writing course and some religious study courses by correspondence in the intervening period for my own enrichment, reducing the amount needed to graduate accordingly from 11 to 6 credits.
I was awarded a B.A. in International Relations, with a minor in Aerospace Studies (reflecting my coursework and involvement with the Air Force ROTC–not a technical degree in aeronautics or engineering, as I have been told that some have asserted on my behalf).
I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a GPA of 3.89. I ultimately never enrolled in a regionally accredited graduate program. I looked into many, and never found one that enticed me to leave my work and studies.
Q. What about the “degrees” with LaSalle and the Technical Institute of Biblical Studies?
A. While under the private tutelage of Dr. Skousen, my personal studies were rigorous and fulfilling. I wrote numerous papers and monographs, and participated in the development of seminars, conferences and courses on a variety of subjects. The rumors that I often studied over eighty hours a week are, in fact, true.
During this time I came across a school (called The Technical Institute for Biblical Studies) that would consider life experience, and so I inquired. I was told to submit my work for review and that later I would be contacted and informed of additional requirements to earn the Ph.D. I honestly believed the quantity and quality of work I did was of doctoral level. I was idealistic, immature and naive; so I was thrilled, but not shocked, when I was told that the work I had supplied was sufficient.
I paid the required tuition of $1500, as I recall, and proudly accepted the Ph.D. credential. My wife warned me that it seemed “fishy” to her, but I avoided scrutinizing it because I wanted to be recognized for my studies. I had heard of diploma mills, but I thought they just gave diplomas for money, not for actual academic work.
I foolishly reasoned to myself that, because I had done the work, what difference did it make who it was that awarded the degree? That rationalization has haunted me and instructed me ever since.
Some time later, I was contacted by a representative of the “school” offering “a lucrative opportunity to open a Utah branch”. All I had to do, I was told, was accept applications, approve whatever was sent in, and take the tuition money, a portion of which was mine to keep.
My wife’s suspicions were confirmed. My work hadn’t been evaluated for its academic merit, and the “degree” was a joke. I was humiliated and angry with myself, and embarrassed and ashamed at my willingness to be deceived in order to gain recognition.
I want to be very clear on this. Did I buy a diploma mill degree? Yes, and I have regretted it ever since.
Did I think I was exchanging money for a paper diploma without doing the academic work? No, I did not.
I did not want a fake degree for money. I wanted to be credible, not look like an idiot. I had studied long and hard, and wanted acknowledgment of my work, not a meaningless pretense. I was told and had believed that my work had been closely evaluated and found worthy of academic credit.
When I found out it was just a meaningless piece of paper I’d purchased for money, I rejected and disavowed it. But it was too late. I had been an idiot and will probably always look like one for this.
I had no notion at the time that my youthful mistake would be a stumbling block to others in the future, and this is what I regret most of all.
Whose fault was this? It was mine, pure and simple. I should have visited the school and met the faculty (it obviously didn’t even have any, and a visit would have shown this). I should have known something was wrong when they sent no additional requirements or coursework. Above all, I should have listened when my wife said something seemed fishy.
LaSalle was a different story, parts of which I have only been able to piece together in retrospect. I learned about their program in an airline magazine while flying – something that raised no red flags for me, as many fine institutions appeal to executives who travel. It was a name I had heard of (I later learned that there is another school with the same name), and they were offering a correspondence program in law.
There was no offer to consider life experience or previous-done studies. In this case, rather than seeking to have my previous work recognized, I was actually embarking on a new educational experience, and it seemed like a great opportunity. I had recently completed some good courses through BYU and the independent study option suited my style. The subject matter on the list of courses was what I would have expected–torts, case law, corporate law, etc. There were required texts, prepared booklets with essay questions, research projects and the like.
Work I submitted was returned to me with grades and instructors’ comments. I had absolutely no indication based on my interactions with the school that the program was facilitated by a questionable educational institution.
I learned several years after the fact that the school had been founded by a man who was later jailed for fraud, including activities with diploma mills. The school itself was not shut down because it had been purchased by individuals who ran it as a legitimate institution (which had been my experience). It did not recover from the taint of fraud, and later failed.
While I did not find the program particularly challenging, for my part, I actually did gain some valuable knowledge through my studies with LaSalle, and was surprised to learn several years later that they had shut down.
While these were valuable lessons for me, I unequivocally regret these mistakes–the first, a lapse in judgment, the second, an unwitting collateral victim of a scam artist. These matters have been publicly disclosed for years.
There is no question that I was stupid and naive in my involvement with TIBS, and was disappointed on many levels, to say the least, with LaSalle. In contrast to these negative experiences with other non-traditional education, my studies with CRBU under Dr. Skousen were extraordinary, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
In retrospect, I’m glad that my “controversial” choices, both good (leaving a successful private university experience to work with a personal mentor) and bad (learning first-hand about the way students can waste their time and even be taken advantage of by straying too far from the beaten path) were motivated by an earnest search for an education.
Q. Where can I read a copy of your dissertation?
A. My CRBU Ph.D. was awarded in 1994, with the Doctoral Project being the instructional design and implementation of George Wythe College based on researching the education of the American founders. Doctoral projects are used by some schools when the “original contribution to the body of knowledge” for the degree in question is best represented with the inclusion of a practicum that demonstrates the research.
Some may argue that such a doctoral project could not have been of the same quality as a regionally-accredited written dissertation. I would counter that of the many “accepted” dissertations I have read, few show such a unique application of original research or make such a demonstrable real-world contribution to the advancement of the field as this project.
I originally started out researching for a formal dissertation on the education of the founding era. I did a great deal of dissertation research on the education of the American founding fathers, including the mentoring of Benjamin Rush, George Wythe and John Witherspoon, the major educational systems and practices of the day, and the specific educational history of a number of American founders.
I had already used much of what I was studying to establish the curriculum, systems, syllabi and early teaching philosophy to start George Wythe College, and as my research continued I put more and more of the founding model into the GWC program, such as commonplace books, one-on-one mentoring supplemented with assigned reading and small group discussions and simulations (George Wythe introduced moot courts to the American educational tradition). I also researched the philosophies of education prevalent at the founding, and studied other time periods for comparison.
I was no stranger to writing and certainly not shy about putting the findings of my studies into a published format. But as I attempted to revise my outlines and plans, I realized that the more meaningful culmination of my research was its application in an educational setting. With the help of my mentor, I restructured a planned written dissertation into a project complete with upgraded instructional design for GWC and an improved educational model utilizing more of the educational practices from the founding period.
I have always readily acknowledged that this Ph.D. was not granted by a regionally accredited institution; in fact, I consistently represented this without reservation, based on the quality of Dr. Skousen’s mentoring and the superb educational experience. I respect the right of honest dissenters to challenge the merit of a non-accredited program. I make no apology for the quality of the education I received in this non-traditonal setting nor of the quality of this project experience. I would not change them.
I would refer those who are interested in reading my writings and speeches on education and freedom to my Works.
Q. Nobody could do the work for two bachelors degrees and a masters degree in so little time. How do you explain that?
A. Any answer to this question sounds self-serving to me, but here is the truth: Did I do that much work in that much time? Yes, I did.
Like many driven students, I studied into the early morning hours. I studied on dates with my wife. I had a system for study that had my BYU coursework and readings completed, including all papers written and assignments prepared, usually by the end of the third week of the semester, and absolutely by the end of the fifth week.
I dropped classes where the syllabus would not accommodate this regimen. Still, I took all the required courses and excelled in my grades and major. When the BYU work was done for the semester, I spent the remaining three months requesting additional readings from my professors, working on contracted MVI research and pursuing directed studies with Dr. Skousen. I spent dozens of hours per week in the library, reading full shelves of books in the areas that most interested me.
Of course, occasionally a non-syllabus BYU assignment would come up, and I would have to fit it in, but the bulk of each semester was spent on non-BYU studies. I have taught this system to college-prep students on many occasions through the years, and in my teaching and mentoring I have often suggested the systems and techniques that I used. They are published in 19 Apps: Leadership Education for College Students.
My personal study habits do border on the extreme, I admit, and I don’t expect everyone to have the same tolerance for it. This has been both a curse and a blessing in my life. Some simply say that I have a “natural aptitude” as a student. My wife and children would call it obsessive. Perhaps it is in part due to this that my health has become compromised at so early an age.
Conclusion and Admonition
I hope that this has been helpful. It is not my intent to engage detractors in an ongoing dialog regarding their assertions of my lack of character or competence. I rely on objective individuals to form their own opinions regarding the content of my work, and fully anticipate that honest people without prejudice may disagree with my conclusions in the arena of ideas. I defend their right to do so, and hope that wiser people than I may continue to improve on my contributions in the field of education.
As the founder of George Wythe College, I wasn’t the employee of an established educational institution with long-standing policies, procedures, standards and systems. I had no wise committees to correlate and approve announcements and the clarity of the way things were said, or experienced executives above me to watch, counsel and correct.
I had excellent academic mentors, but on the business and professional side I was an untried entrepreneur of sorts–the founder of a fledgling, often struggling organization attempting to build something new, valuable and needed. I tried new things and approached even the regular things with often only trial and error to guide me. I could certainly write a manual on what not to do in founding a school. I know of no other instance of such an undertaking in modern times, and I was treading a path unblazed.
I’m sure that many of my mistakes will always seem stupid or even calculated to those who followed the traditional system educationally and/or had the advantage of established systems in their careers. I have never claimed to be perfect or close to it, or even a professional or a mainstream “academic”.
I am a reader, a thinker and an idealist, and I believe that the best educational opportunities now and in the future will often come from new, entrepreneurial and often rough-around-the-edges educational visionaries. I readily acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of friends and colleagues who followed the traditional path of education, and do not mean to suggest by my experience that there is no value there for those whose mission lies on that course. I simply state that my course was a different one, and I am glad that we live a land that allows each to follow his conscience and passion.
I am very grateful that others much more professional and polished than I are now administrating and leading GWU. I believe it has an educational environment that is unique and of excellent quality. It does not propose to be all things to all people, and it is not the answer to every problem that ails the American educational system, but it (together with Monticello College – another liberal arts school helmed by my dear friend and old GW colleague Shanon Brooks) fills a valuable niche and serves the needs of many students who feel a desire for intense mentoring in the classics.
I set forth this accounting with sincerity and candor, and apologize for allowing misconceptions about these issues to have been perpetuated for lack of response on my part. If in any way I have caused offense or been less than I should have been, please accept my apology. Thank you again for all that you do, and please know that I value your trust and esteem. I hope to always be deserving of it.
As a final thought, I would use this platform to affirm to you my commitment to the idea that the world needs statesmen. In addition to the abundance of training that blesses the world today, we still need more education in the timeless discussion of human happiness and freedom. Whether at George Wythe, Monticello College, Thomas Aquinas, Harvard or alone in your basement, whether with mentors of great notoriety or mentors that are simply good at creating environments of learning, get the education that you need to be the person you were born to be.
Use your own intelligence to find opportunities that are of high quality, and that will help you meet this challenge. Do not settle for mediocrity in your educational experience. I mean no hyperbole when I say that our lives depend on it, and that our children’s lives depend on it.