Some educators, parents, and community members are questioning the integrity of Malden Superintendent Ligia Noriega-Murphy, who has been unable to provide proof of a doctorate degree she says she earned nine years ago.
The first-year superintendent, who worked for more than two decades in Boston, started attracting scrutiny when she began using the honorific title “Dr.” this school year in official school district communications. The school chief didn’t include the doctorate on her resume when she applied for the job last year, which means the degree was never verified during her application process.
“All of this smacks of someone who doesn’t want to be accountable,” said Malden parent Bruce Friedman, who was one of the first people to publicly raise questions about the superintendent’s credentials last month. “What kind of example is she setting for students?”
School districts typically run extensive background checks on superintendent candidates before hiring them, including verifying their education history. However, because Noriega-Murphy didn’t include the degree on her resume, the executive search firm hired to vet the city’s superintendent candidates never validated it.
“There was nothing to validate. She never claimed having the degree,” said Michael Ward, director of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management, which conducted Malden’s superintendent search.
Noriega-Murphy took the superintendent job in Malden last summer after serving as an educator then administrator for 26 years in Boston, including five years as headmaster of English High School.
News articles, academic papers, and Boston Public Schools communications refer to Noriega-Murphy as Dr. as early as 2015. That year she signed her yearbook dedication to English High School’s class of 2015 as Dr. Ligia Noriega-Murphy.
Noriega-Murphy told the Globe in an e-mail that she holds a doctorate in urban leadership education from the University of Salamanca in Spain, and acquired it under a “previous married name.” However, Noriega-Murphy declined to provide that name, saying a prenuptial agreement required she “not use the family name to gain any financial or personal ‘profit’ by name association.”
She said that the former marriage was into an affluent Spanish family, and that her degree was paid for by her former spouse and was issued to her under his name. It does not have her first name on it, she said, and she declined to share her former husband’s surname.
“In the subsequent divorce decree, I agreed that I would not publicize or rely on the advanced degree that I earned while using his last name. There were financial implications if I violated the prenuptial agreement and the divorce decree,” she said in a statement.
Noriega-Murphy said she didn’t include her doctorate on her resume because it wasn’t required for the job and because of a “legal thing” with her spouse. However, she did not respond to questions about why the prenuptial agreement and divorce decree did not prevent her from telling School Committee members she had earned a doctorate, using the Dr. prefix on the district website, and mentioning her doctorate in the district’s budget document last month.
She said her ex-husband died this year and she has asked her Spanish advocate to collect the relevant documents, which she should receive before September.
Noriega-Murphy declined to say when she completed her coursework, but said she earned her doctorate in 2013. Her resume shows she spent more than 10 summers in Salamanca between 1994 and 2008, and every school year in Boston, working her way up from middle school Spanish teacher to assistant superintendent.
The head of the University of Salamanca’s education doctoral program said there isn’t a line of study in the program for focusing on urban education leadership. It also would be “impossible” for someone to complete the necessary coursework over the summers, said José María Hernández Díaz, the coordinator of the education doctoral program at the University of Salamanca.
“Her story is highly suspect,” said Ghazi Al-Marayati, the father of a Malden 10th-grader, who has looked into Noriega-Murphy’s credentials on his own and raised the issue on social media. “If you’re seeking a job and you want to be called a doctor, then you put that on your resume. And if there’s something you can’t legally disclose, you don’t disclose it.”
Noriega-Murphy has blamed the questioning on the city’s teachers union, which earlier this month took a vote of no confidence in her leadership after layoffs and what they described as poor communication. “These attacks must be seen in the context of ongoing negotiations between the Committee and the Union“ and “my ‘outsider’ status in Malden,” she wrote.
Noriega-Murphy does hold a certificate of advanced graduate study from UMass Boston; two master’s degrees from Cambridge College, in education and management; and a bachelor’s degree in art history from UMass Boston.
Some Malden residents have defended her, saying it’s xenophobic and sexist to question the credentials of the new chief, who is originally from Guatemala and speaks accented English. “It always seems a little funny when a woman of color is questioned about her credentials,” Malden School Committee member Keith Bernard said.
Her supporters also say this is an attempt to undermine a promising leader who they say has brought a data-driven approach to improving student outcomes, a focus on disadvantaged students, and responsiveness.
“She wants to hear from us. She wants our input,” wrote Anabette D’Entremont, the mother of a preschool student in Malden Public Schools. “She wants our community to be better, do better, and wants the best for our kids.”
James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.