Right: Exopolitics Institute founder Dr. Michael Salla. (Image credit: exopolitics.org)

The testimonials for Dr. Michael Salla’s online certification program could just as easily come from any of the hundreds of other degree-granting dot-com institutions:

“It’s a 100% recommended investment of your time and resources!” says Frank from Belgium.

“The interactive nature of the course exceeds what could be achieved in a traditional classroom setting,” says Jason from California.

Everything seems perfectly normal—that is, until Neil from Hong Kong begins talking about freshwater crustaceans:

“You will feel as though you are a Crayfish, shedding your skin. It will hurt and you will feel vulnerable. As you mature, your skin will harden but so will your resolve to reach perfection in Exopolitics. Those who thrust their debunking hands around your body will leave painfully reminded to never think they can drag you out from under your fortress of solitude.”

If Neil’s reaction seems a bit, well, out there, it may just be a reflection of the area of study. Students at Salla’s Exopolitics Institute earn certificates in the field of galactic diplomacy, the study of relations between humans and extraterrestrials. In a typical week of class, students from half a dozen countries will pore through upwards of 120 pages of reading on topics such as “Humanity’s Historical Link to the Serpent Race” and the extraterrestrial qualities of dolphins; they hold group discussion sessions on Yahoo!, write term papers, and listen to lectures via Skype—all for the low, low price of $375 per class or $1,200 for a full four-class program.

Galactic diplomacy has yet to generate much steam within the mainstream academic community. Salla, who calls the lack of interest “quite surprising,” attributes it to academics’ typical reluctance to admit they might be wrong. The subject has found a fertile home, however, on the Web. Even as online education goes through a sort of gentrification, it remains a medium where you’re rarely more than a click away from a conspiracy theory the government won’t tell you about, or a sales pitch that’s too good to be true.

As Salla acknowledges, “this course work program, this certification program wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the Internet.”

For Salla the Exopolitics Institute is a serious undertaking, borne out of a search for the truth that he believes got him evicted from the Ivory Tower. An expert in conflict resolution who had conducted field studies in East Timor, the Australian was serving an appointment at American University’s Center for Global Peace when he first began to take an interest in extraterrestrials.

The two interests co-existed peacefully until 2004, when a Washington Post article drew attention to a paper Salla had written and published independently arguing that President Eisenhower had held a top-secret meeting with aliens at Edwards Air Force Base in 1957 (the administration’s counterargument: Ike was at the dentist). Salla’s contract, which was up for renewal the next spring, was allowed to run its course. “They kind of felt as if [the association] really didn’t put them in a favorable light,” Salla says.

Enter the Exopolitics Institute, an all-in-one blend of publishing house (it has its own journal that, whatever else can be said about it, at least requires its submissions to be footnoted), think tank, and center for higher learning. Next fall, Salla hopes to formally apply for accreditation from the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training. If the Maharishi University of Management and University of Metaphysical Sciences (the latter of which also offers online classes) can both earn accreditation, he reasons, why can’t the Exopolitics Institute?

Many of those who enroll in the Exopolitics Institute don’t stay through to the end of the four-course program—Salla estimates that a little more than half of students stick with the program long enough to earn their certificate, finding the weekly assignments more than they’d bargained for. And even with the accessibility of its online programs and a 100 percent acceptance rate, just 6 to 10 students will enroll in the program in a given year.

Those students who do graduate, unlike graduates of an online program in, say, accounting, are thrust into the difficult situation of adapting the skills learned in galactic diplomacy to a job in the real world. While some of the material on conflict resolution might have cross-disciplinary use, the accumulated knowledge on lizard people and telepathic dolphins likely has little place in the average corporate boardroom. Galactic diplomacy, then, offers the rare kind of pre-professional training that prepares students for a kind of profession that—if you believe the government, of course—doesn’t yet exist.

Salla, though, offers the same criticism for his old program at American: “How many jobs are out there for people who have just earned a masters degree in international peace and conflict resolution?” he asks, suggesting psychotherapy as a field that could benefit from an influx of newly minted galactic diplomats.

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Tim Murphy is a reporter in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Mother Jones.