Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Thoughts on Marilee Jones

I don't know Marilee Jones, and she doesn't know me. She's the (former) dean at MIT who lost her job when it came out that she had fraudulently claimed academic degrees in her background. By all accounts, she performed her job exceptionally well, but MIT believed that an Admissions Dean with fraudulent credentials called the entire enterprise into question, even if she had been well-regarded up to that point.

Gotta admit, I've of divided mind on this one.

Most of the commentary I've seen has been on her side. Barbara Ehrenreich, whom I consider a national treasure, took the Jones firing as evidence of the irrelevance of higher education generally. Her argument, which is a bit subtle, seems to be that the glory of higher ed is precisely that it isn't job training; therefore, we shouldn't be shocked that folks without it can do their jobs just fine, thanks. It's hard to make a coherent argument that something irrelevant should also be necessary. (She also takes a contradictory, Pink Floyd-ish position that higher ed cultivates a tolerance for boredom and conformity that will come in handy in cubicle world. I've been an Ehrenreich fan for a long time, but sometimes the generation gap is just too much. All in all, the “just another brick in the wall” argument is self-indulgent seventies horseshit.) Others have taken a more hamfisted antiacademic position, essentially arguing that if MIT couldn't tell the difference, then why are we spending all this money on higher ed?

I can concede truth in both of those observations, yet I still don't find the “no harm, no foul” argument convincing.

It's certainly true that people without higher education can be utterly brilliant, high-performing, high-achieving, and morally outstanding. (My grandfather, whom I've mentioned before, dropped out of school in ninth grade, yet was the single wisest person I've known.) For the sake of argument, it seems that Dean Jones was an exemplary performer in her job, and I have no trouble believing that. It's also true that much of the actual content learned in college never gets applied directly at work. (Although I enjoyed my Tudor and Stuart England course tremendously, I find the ability to summarize the Interregnum at the drop of a hat to be of limited value at work.) Outside of technical majors, it's not at all weird to see people move into occupational fields of little or no relevance to their academic backgrounds. And it's certainly possible to cultivate a lively mind outside the groves of academe.

All of that granted, I still can't help but see the Jones case as the kind of weird exception that makes for bad policy.

College is hard. It's supposed to be. Getting through college successfully – for the sake of argument, let's just say 'graduating' – is supposed to signify the ability to get your stuff together sufficiently to complete a long-term, difficult task. I've met some very smart people who couldn't do that. Some folks have the academic wherewithal, but fall apart on the life-management end. Others are perfectly functional on a day-to-day level, but freeze up when faced with anything like abstraction. (I find the latter sort surprisingly common even among college grads, frankly. When confronted by abstraction, they either just ignore it or start flopping around verbally until they hit a cliché.)

None of that is to deny that some people have advantages going in that make college easier. The same could easily be said of the job market. But that's another issue altogether. (It's also the case that some people claim that cc's make college too easy. These same people, in other contexts, argue that cc's have very low graduation rates, indicating that we aren't doing our job. The contradiction goes unacknowledged. If we were truly easy, almost everybody would graduate.)

Graduate school is that much harder. A doctorate may or may not signify tremendous intellect, but it almost certainly signifies tenacity. And tenacity is nothing to sneeze at in the work world.

At Proprietary U, I frequently confronted potential adjuncts who had never been to grad school, but who had been trained, as they invariably put it, in the school of hard knocks. Some of them had some great war stories, but I was struck at how rarely they were able to generalize beyond them. Worse, they didn't seem to think it important to be able to generalize.

A degree requirement is an imperfect first filter, but what would replace it? Is there a better first filter?

I was also struck at how rarely anybody reversed the question. “Couldn't we just waive the degree requirement?” can sound reasonable enough when confronted face-to-face by a sharp applicant, but flip it around. Can I get the opportunity cost of my degree refunded, since it doesn't count now anyway? That would be lost salary for the grad school years, plus lost equity I could have built up in the house I would have bought with that salary, plus many years of 401(k) contributions and attendant appreciation, for starters. To whom should I send the bill?

I didn't think so.

During those years that Marilee Jones was building the excellent work track record cited by her defenders, living on a grownup salary, some of us were scraping by on grad school pittances, living like church mice and playing by the rules. Deferred gratification takes a lot more self-discipline than does lying on a resume. Maybe she did her job quite well. So did we. But we did it without lying. That's supposed to count for something.

Also, don't forget about two important issues of the case either: first, she lied to her employers. Admissions people are supposed to lie to prospective students, not their bosses. Second, there is still some perception in higher ed. that academic honesty should be fostered and, hey, even demanded. It would be hard to argue that plagiarism and cheating on a test is bad if the Dean of Admissions were allowed to keep her job with lies about her academic credentials on her CV.

The other points are relevant, too, but what kind of job do you get to keep when you lie to your bosses and violate an important part of the mission of your employer (as academic honesty is for higher ed.)? If they fire college football coaches for lying about degrees, it's only fair to fire deans, too.
I have also been riding the fence on this one, but I don't know that defending something that may be pointless because 'if I had to suffer through it, everyone should' makes for the most convincing argument. The most convincing argument I've seen thus far in the whole scandal has been about the lying. And even there, I do wonder, as it seems to me that she had to know that the instant this came to light she would lose her job, and I think falling on your sword is harder than we might think.
As someone with a Ph.D. who is also an adjunct, I, like my cohort, have seen our share of academic rationalizations and flat out lies. "Well, we'll just create a line for 'so-and-so'. So-and-so is so qualified, the dean will approve it." Nevermind that so-and-so is the spouse or significant other of a tenured prof., or a star of some kind, etc. And nevermind that the usual stance on the creation of lines is that their creation is something only God can accomplish -- and like real estate, he ain't making any more.

So, yeah, sure, fall all over yourselves to justify keeping her, call upon that near jesuitical ability to spin things in a way that makes everythig seem above board and proper. Or, do the right thing and fire her lying ass.
I was waiting for you to comment on this one, Dean Dad.

I agree with David, defending the "If I had to suffer through it, everyone should," is not persuasive.

If Bill Gates applies for the job of MIT admissions dean, with a resume that honestly states he has earned no degrees, I don't the fact that he hasn't earned any degrees would in and of itself necessarily be a deal-killer. (Other things--like his personality or lack of relevant experience in higher education administration, might be deal-killers.)

If MIT admissions expects students to be honest about their credentials on their applications, they surely need a dean who leads by example in being honest on her own credentials.

I don't know about MIT, but Harvard will revoke a student's degree AFTER graduation if they subsequently discover that s/he lied on his application for admission, even if the record while at Harvard is perfectly satisfactory in every way.
Yep, the lie is the big issue. Especially as it turns out she DID at least have a B.A. Imagine having to live with that lie your entire professional career. I just wonder what made her do it.
I'm with Amy and Kelly. MIT demands that credentials of applicants (students and faculty) be truthful. To have someone in the administration let alone dean would be deadly
Character counts!
DD, good topic, but you wander around the issue a bit much. She lied; she was canned--appropriate and right. The issue I think you want to discuss (at least I hope so) is the role of the academy.

Getting a degree (and the degrees are not all created equal) does more than just show tenacity (which may or may not be valued/reworded in the market).

You call a degree a first filter. I think this is more to the point. A degree gives access and exposure. Skills are secondary; thinking is optional.

Burnt Out Adjunct: Access and Exposure
It gets back to academic integrity in the end. I have spent the weekend furious with a student who plagiarized a sonnet for my creative writing class. Tomorrow I have to meet with her and explain how, among other things, she has violated my trust in her ability to write her own work. As a professor, I have to feel that the institution and the larger academic community stand behind me. Allowing someone with phoney credentials to remain in the job violates this ethos.
I suppose it is also important to note that MIT didn't seem to verify her degrees when she first applied. This doesn't negate the fact that she did lie, but it wouldn't have been nearly so big a deal if she'd been hired with the lies on her application, was unable to verify them with transcripts, and was dismissed.

If Ms. Jones really is as smart and wonderful as many say, the dismissal may have taught her a lesson and prompted her to do the graduate work she said she did.
"College is hard."


"Others are perfectly functional on a day-to-day level, but freeze up when faced with anything like abstraction. (I find the latter sort surprisingly common even among college grads, frankly."

I think you're right about both, but I think you've also established pretty strongly that the reason college is hard is not necessarily because it's academically challenging, but because it's a slog. This gets back to Ehrenreich's point, I think.
"Some of us were scraping by on grad school pittances, living like church mice and playing by the rules. Deferred gratification takes a lot more self-discipline than does lying on a resume. Maybe she did her job quite well. So did we. But we did it without lying. That's supposed to count for something." This statement also works well as a rationale against amnesty for illegal aliens. (Disclamer: My spouse is a legalized U.S. citizen. He didn't break any laws to get here.)
Like everybody else, Dean Dad, I'm going with the lie as the bad thing that gave MIT no choice. I think it's kind of a great tragic tale. And no wonder she had the perspective to try to change the proccess -- she was a real renegade after all
The college degree is required as a filter because a high school degree is worthless. Since more and more colleges are awarding degrees to the lazy, innumerate and semi-literate advanced degrees are becoming more important.

I think she should be fired because she lied.

But I think that demanding people spend 4 years of time and tuition just to prove they can show up on time, read and do sums is a big problem.
Since when did FRAUD get written off as incidental?

And wasn't the last US president impeached for lying under oath?

Is this what our society has come to?

"Well, as long as they do a good job, just ignore the fact that they're stealing/lying/harming someone"???
Two things, both of which are ultimately about MIT in particular:

First, in my bubble and blog-bubble, I haven't seen anyone who thought firing her was wrong. (Maybe I need to get out more?) But my bubble includes a lot of MIT grads and not-quite-grads, and every one of them thought she was just fine as an admissions officer and that she couldn't stay after this revelation. The character of the institution matters! And they seem to have consensus on this issue.

Also, and this is tangential, but: you bring up the irrelevance of the content of higher education to future employment. But that's not true in many technical fields! Many, perhaps most MIT graduates will use what they learn in school in their careers -- probably more so than at most technical schools, even.
James Taranto has an alternative take on this matter today:


I think that MIT deserves more of the blame here than they have been given. Why didn't they check her credentials when she was hired? Because no one cared, that entry level job didn't need those credentials or the skills that the credentials implied. More significant, why didn't they check the credentials when they promoted her, when the credentials did matter? Or did superior performance by then speak for itself? Or did other political factors come into play?
What about the fact that under her tenure as Dean of Admissions a private invistigator was hired to "check" random applications for authenticity...and plagarism...
Hmmm....Now why would someone who is living a lie hire someone to ferret out liars?
And, who turned her in?
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