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April 29, 2007

A World Of Diplomas

By Ezra

As folks have probably heard, MIT has fired Marilee Jones, who's been Dean of Admissions at the university for 28 years and, by all accounts, done a superlative job. Her sin? Not job performance, nor insubordination, but lying about a college degree 28 years ago. Kevin Carey gets this right:

This demonstrates how rigid the credentialing mentality has become in higher education, trumping three decades of undisputed good work. It wasn't always that way. When Ludwig Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, they simply accepted his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as a doctoral thesis. The knew that forcing him to go through a formal course of study to earn a credential would be absurd. They were acting in their role as certifiers of learning, which is (see the post below) not necessarily the same thing as being a provider of learning.

At the modern university, that distinction doesn't exist--you have to be certified by the institution that taught you. Indeed, since degrees aren't based on any objective, verifiable evidence of learning, that's all they're certifying--that you've been taught. So I wonder if in addition to deterring future resume-fudgers, M.I.T. wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea of employing someone who is living proof that you don't need a university degree to be really good at a complex, challenging, difficult job--particularly one at a university.

But I don't think that's exactly why they fired her. Rather, I don't think MIT was comfortable with the idea of employing someone who is not only proof that complex jobs can be handled by someone without a university degree, but that a degree is a counterfeit prone piece of paper.

As it is, we've gone a ways towards prioritizing credentialism over skills in the economy. The college kid will beat out the high school grad almost irregardless of their relative talents. But that system is built on the legitimacy of the credentialing process -- if diplomas can be faked -- and as a technical matter, they most certainly can be -- then it will make very little sense for any applicant not to have a slip of embossed parchment that looks like a diploma. So one of the very few ways to discourage that behavior is to ensure a zero-tolerance policy for those who would attempt it, even to the point of terminating them decades and decades after the fact.

This is all bass-ackwards, and I largely second Atlantic Matt's point that "the habit of disqualifying perfectly competent people from jobs based on a lack of degrees has become yet another brick in the American wall of inegalitarianism," but if you want your economy to run off the power of diplomas, and MIT is certainly invested in such a world, then there's really nothing to do but viciously protect the process's integrity.

April 29, 2007 | Permalink


irregardless?..Oh my. That really grates, always has..it's always regardless.

On issue. Not hiring HS graduates, particularly for entry positions, is due to sheer laziness. Hiring someone without a degree requires a much higher level of evaluation than most firms will employ. The presumption that a college degree is a sifter is used. On the other hand, any energetic, smart HS graduate who applies for a job that asks for a college graduate will always get a look from me.

Marilee Jones gained her position as Dean due to competance. She may have lied 28 years ago, but she also promulgated that lie, which is the dicey part. Deans are generally not appointed, they are chosen from a group of applicants. Presumably her resume at each stage of promotion continued to reflect the nonexistent degree. One interesting aspect is,as mentioned above, the laziness of MIT..for which they should be chastised. They apparently failed to ever check her credentials. If she stated it on an application and they failed to check, shame on them. If she provided a phony transcript, etc., then her crimes go beyond mere posing and shame on her.

Posted by: Mudge | Apr 29, 2007 10:35:58 AM

Having been around a similar case, I can say that the issue is (as usual) the coverup more than the original act--if the university wants to be clearly opposed to cheating, they have to be hard on fake resumes. I'll bet nobody was very happy about doing this.

Posted by: DCA | Apr 29, 2007 10:38:07 AM

I think Ezra has hit on the major issues here. The other thing that has been unaddressed is that when she lied about her original BA she was applying for a very low level job that shouldn't have required the credential at all. Once she was in a secretarial job she rose, as women traditionally did in the literary fields like editing and book publishing, by leveraging her skills and her connections inside the organization. She was promoted because of what she could do, not because of her resume. The resume only became a kind of fig lieaf expalining to outsiders what the university wasn't brave enough to evaluate on its own--her performance vs others competing for the same job.

I'd like to know what percentage of jobs in the university system actually lend themselves to people rising through the ranks like this? On the admin side maybe most of them until they get important enough for the university to spend money doing an outside search. But on the academic side very, very, few of them. In schoolsl like harvard, certainly,they tend to force inside candidates out and hire exclusively from the outside to prevent familiarity breeding comfort. But the academic search is very much focused on work and reputation and the credential part of it is not limited to the schools who have credentialed you by teaching you and includes the caste ranking of the schools that have credentialed you by allowing you to teach there.



Posted by: aimai | Apr 29, 2007 10:46:45 AM

Bullshit. This is about lying, plain and simple. It's appalling to me that anyone would try and excuse the fact that this woman - I'm sure she's very nice and did a good job - lied on her resume. Unacceptable. You can't do it. This isn't hard, and while we can have a thoughtful, layered debate about what quyalifications are needed for what roles, that's not the issue here. The issue is lying, and more than 25 years of work built on a lie. That's what you get. Don't lie. How hard is that.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 29, 2007 10:50:14 AM

Weboy: Not to necessarily defend her, I do not have all the data, but University officials lie through their teeth daily. Bush lies daily. Soldiers die due to his lies. Let's get some perspective here. She has 25 years of good work. That needs to be factored in.

Posted by: Mudge | Apr 29, 2007 11:07:58 AM

Bush lies daily... this is a good thing?

Posted by: weboy | Apr 29, 2007 11:17:30 AM

The college kid will beat out the high school grad almost irregardless of their relative talent

I'd hire the high school kid who didn't use 'irregardless'.

Posted by: Davis. X. Machina | Apr 29, 2007 11:27:54 AM

Weboy: This is about lying, plain and simple.

Exactly. It certainty did not seem to matter regarding her job performance, but a lie is a lie. Students are expelled for plagiarism (which is a lie of authorship). MIT really had no choice but to fire her. The lie's importance was implified by lying about a fake degree - adding to the necessity of upholding the diploma as a credential.

Can you imagine the outroar if she was excused the lie and kept on the job? As Admissions Dean? How could she demand truth on admissions paperwork?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 29, 2007 11:54:31 AM

I agree with your comments about the over emphasis on credentialing (perhaps because I don't have any), but as an old HR hand, I have to say that lying about your lack of credentials is a firing offense. In this particular case, I might not have fired her had I been in charge, but would probably have demoted her at least. Then there's the PR problem if this news ever got out - which it would. You would not only have to defend having an Admissions Director who never graduated from college - a perfectly defensible position, but you have to defend having an Admissions Director who lied about her education passing judgment on applicants who may have lied about their education. That would be a hard sell.

Posted by: Chuck | Apr 29, 2007 11:56:38 AM

For what it's worth, my significant other teaches at a prominent art school even though she never completed her undergraduate degree. She got sick in her early 20s and dropped out before graduation, then later went back to school, taking undergraduate classes as the same time she was serving as a visiting artist in graduate classes. She got sick again, and when she talked to the school about trying to finish her BFA a third time, they told her it'd be ridiculous, and not too long after they hired her as an instructor.

So it does happen that people prosper despite lacking their union card into to the professional class, at least in the arts. On the other hand, I have a poet friend who's working on a Ph.D. in creative writing, which seems like a ridiculous metastization of credentialism.

Posted by: Brian | Apr 29, 2007 11:58:50 AM

Mudge's moral equivalence is breathtaking. And Bush made her do it. Please. She lied. She perpetuated the lie. And she's a college admissions director. Case closed.

Posted by: RONDROZ | Apr 29, 2007 12:10:03 PM

No one is advocating that this woman not be fired for lying. No one on this thread has said that. I've just pointed out that the particular set of lies that she advanced were patently unnecessary when she started and rendered moot by her performance in her job once she started it. Is it exactly like plagiarism when a student does it? No, she didn't pass someone else's work off as her own and so she didn't steal anything from anyone else. Is it serious? yes. Was she punished? Yes. Is anyone defending the lie? No. But it does raise some interesting and important questions about what we really think "The job" is if we think, on the one hand, that the piece of paper/diploma indicates that one can do it and then we discover that maybe that's not the real metric we should be using. Everyone knows that the SAT's and other score ranking systems are used as *proxies* to indicate how well a kid is going to do in school later, and also they are used as cheap and cost effective ways of winnowing kids without using the old fashioned interviewing techniques or the high cost "read all the damned essays" method. If we discovered that a kid could do very badly on the SATs and do superbly throughout college would we really want to keep relying on the proxy of the SAT's? The question this woman's case raises for us is "should we continue to discount the skills of people who didn't go to college" and perhaps overvalue the skill sets associated with college?


Posted by: aimai | Apr 29, 2007 12:14:04 PM

Did Wittgenstein lie about his credentials? Did he plagiarize his Tractatus and did Cambridge say, "What the heck, old boy, you seem to be doing a fine job at teaching intro philosophy, so we'll just ignore your cheating"?

If there's a miracle and Iraq blossoms into a democracy soon, should we say, "Well, George, you lied and lied to send the country to war, but after all, it's results that count, not honesty"?

Posted by: mijnheer | Apr 29, 2007 12:15:59 PM

Cf. George O'Leary, who lost his job as Notre Dame football head coach after it came out that there was a master's degree on his resume that he had never earned. But surely the master's degree (or lack) was not a factor in his being hired at Notre Dame, but rather his recent success as a college football coach (i.e., his experience rather than his credentials). So why did he leave the bogus info on his resume?

Thing is, once you lie initially, it seems like you are "all in", so maybe that's the moral here. O'Leary (or Jones) could have left the degree off the resumes for their second and third jobs, but then what if the prospective employer calls the first one and asks, like, What impressed you so to give Ms Jones a shot, when she didn't have a college degree? I'm imagining about 10 seconds of puzzled silence, followed by It was our understanding that she had a college degree.

Posted by: kth | Apr 29, 2007 12:29:11 PM

I tend to be sympathetic with Ezra (and Matt) about the silliness of firing Ms. Jones for not having a degree. However, Wittgenstein is not a good example of a difference in attitude towards credentialism. His studies at Cambridge under Russell were interrupted by WWI, and he actually finished writing the Tractatus while an officer. If I remember correctly, he stayed in Austria after the war, and that is why he didn't officially receive his degree, even though he had essentially finished all of the work that might have been required for such a degree. If not for the war it is entirely possible that he would have returned much earlier to Cambridge. And in fact, even though by 1929 he was a very influential and well-known philosopher the reason he still had to submit the Tractatus as his dissertation was because he could not be hired at Cambridge unless he had his degree.

A better example in philosophy would be Saul Kripke, who published his first famous papers on logic while still in high-school (back in the 50's), started teaching (at MIT in fact) while a sophomore at Harvard, and never bothered with graduate education.

Posted by: Sabina's Hat | Apr 29, 2007 12:32:00 PM

Very, very few humans have any room whatsoever to cast stones at liars. How remarkable that they all seem to have shown up in this thread.

Manifestly, a college degree is not necessary to do a good job at, well, any of the jobs she has done a good job at. Isn't that just a little more important than whether or not to forgive one particular person for lying?

No one is advocating that this woman not be fired for lying.

I am. Reprimanded, ok (although it's obviously going to be merely pro forma, since the vast majority of the audience and most likely whoever issues the reprimand are also going to be liars themselves). But fired? Absurd. Credentials are an imperfect method of determining who is qualified to do a particular job. Observed job performance is a far better method (except for being time-consuming, and in the case of some jobs, dangerous). Having demonstrated the ability to do the job, clearly she should keep the job.

People who lie to get jobs they are incapable of performing are harmful. People who lie to get jobs they *are* capable of performing, but can't get hired for because of lack of credentials, are not. With the benefits of decades of hindsight it is perfectly clear which category Ms. Jones belongs in.

Posted by: Chris | Apr 29, 2007 12:57:33 PM

the particular set of lies that she advanced were patently unnecessary when she started

This is true only to the extent that she didn't need a degree to be able to do her job. Though the job required no degree, it's kind of silly to assume that claiming to be a college graduate didn't weigh pretty significantly in their decision to hire her.

If we discovered that a kid could do very badly on the SATs and do superbly throughout college would we really want to keep relying on the proxy of the SAT's?

Depending on the score range, there is some negative correlation between SAT scores and college GPA. Standardized tests are a whole 'nother can of worms when talking about evaluating applicants.

The underlying issue here is that MIT couldn't plausibly keep this person on staff at all. She's the person at the top of the organization which evaluates applications, and she'd lied on her own? This looks equivalent to a humanities professor being caught plagiarizing. Keeping them on the job forfeits their authority on a serious offense as well as the reputation of the school for taking a hard line against that offense. There's definitely a noteworthy angle to this story showing that you don't need a college degree to do certain high-level jobs, and, yes, we do focus overmuch on certification. However, this is simply not a situation where MIT has any room at all to consider performance as a mitigating circumstance.

Posted by: Jon O. | Apr 29, 2007 1:01:06 PM

I think Jones' critics are missing the point that her job is all about credentials. An admissions file mainly a mess of transcripts, scores, and forms to validate the activities and performance of the applicant. Essays and rec letters are just icing on the cake; no one looks closely if the credentials don't merit it.

I think it becomes very difficult for MIT to insist that all its applicants must truthful on their applications when the person approving those applications is known to have lied on a similar form earlier in her life. That's why the 28 years ago excuse is not an excuse; she was older than any high school senior whom she herself would reject if she caught them in an act of deceit.

Posted by: Philly | Apr 29, 2007 1:09:57 PM

Ezra, the sad fact is that the people who berated you for using irregardless are correct. I've looked it up and the dictionary says to use regardless instead. But I use irregarless all the time anyway, so I say screw them.

As for the matter at hand, two thoughts. I first came across the concept of the accreditation society in an Intro to Sociology text, and the argument over credentialism is a sociological one. This means that Kieran Healy, a sociology professor, is probably more qualified to comment on this matter than anyone else I can think of, assuming he is honest and doesn't let his conflict of interest (he's a professor, after all) get in the way.

The second thought is that the defenders of Ms. Jones and those defending MIT for firing her are largely talking past each other. Her defenders take issue with the current state of credentialism, arguing that credentials really shouldn't matter, and that quality of work is what matters, downplaying the lie. Those defending MIT focus on the lying on the resume, which they feel trumps her actual work. Compounding the sin is that her position is based on the accreditation society. This brings about a Catch-22 situation in which any defense of Ms. Jones implicitly attacks the very position she was fired from.

I therefore think that the specifics of the MIT case should be ignored and that a straightforward discussion of the utility and drawbacks of the accreditation society would be much more fruitful. This seems to be what Matt and Ezra are doing, but the pro-credential forces usual come back with "But she lied," and leave it at that. The debate should not be about the MIT case but about credentialism itself.

Posted by: Mitch Schindler | Apr 29, 2007 1:54:52 PM

Rondroz: My moral equivalence is simply the moral equivalence of outrage and punishment. Bush lies and stays in office, Jones lies and is fired. University presidents and corporate CEOs lie and get raises. None of these lies deserve any less punishment, up to and including dismissal, yet most lies go unchallenged much less unpunished. Scooter Libby lied. Go find the level of moral outrage in certain quarters.

Jones lied to get a job she knew she could do. She has been caught and fired. It's reality and morally perhaps fully justified. If I lie on my income tax, I have what, seven years of culpability. Jones has, obviously, suffered a lifetime of culpability. I have no problem with her being fired as long as lying is punished equivalently in all sectors. It is not.

Let us not investigate cheating on tests by the children of donors at universities (cheating is seldom punished). Let's discuss the penalties for plagiarism (which is rampant). Let's evaluate all the claims of lies in faculty publications. When at the very least the self-righteous universities of this country demonstrate consistent penalties for lying, I'll no longer feel that perhaps other options existed for Ms. Jones and I will celebrate their moral evenhandedness.

Posted by: Mudge | Apr 29, 2007 2:01:37 PM

Sorry, I don't agree with you at all, Ezra (nor with Kevin Drum). This is about a lack of integrity. There's only one thing worse in academia than lying about one's academic credentials, and that's plagiarism. She should have come clean on her own, and tried to arrange with the university to get the credits she needed for her degree.

Posted by: beckya57 | Apr 29, 2007 2:07:10 PM

Yes, Beckys57! This is a person who is in charge of reviewing the academic records of MIT applicants and it turns out she forged her own! And, despite many chances, failed to fix it over the course of 28 years. Nobody disputes that she was a spectacular director of admissions. But this has nothing to do with credentialism run amok, and everything to do with lack of integrity. It truly is a tragedy, but the decision was appropriate.

Posted by: LCD | Apr 29, 2007 3:07:49 PM

i stopped reading once i got to irregardless. that's right up there with "his trip took to long" or "there going to the store."

i felt dirty after reading it and needed a shower.

Posted by: sorry man | Apr 29, 2007 3:33:04 PM

As others have said, it's about the lying.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 29, 2007 3:37:29 PM

The fact that university administration jobs can be done "competently" by a high school graduate are generally the reason why the top administrators are required to hold a Ph.D. Yes, it's a job that anyone with charisma and management skills could do, but everyone would prefer someone whose background was within the academic system and had a cultural connection to the same experiences as the people who were affected by the administrative decisions have. To a degree, the job of a university president could be done "competently" (which is to say, not get fired) by anyone with a strong background in fundraising. However, he's likely to lack credibility among the faculty and have a genuine lack of connection to the concerns and experiences of the academic community.

It wasn't that she lied 28 years ago. It was that she lied for 28 years. She continued to misrepresent herself every step of the way and use her supposed background as "a scientist by training" (that's how she described herself) to promote her ideas to the public.

Posted by: Constantine | Apr 29, 2007 3:48:48 PM

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