A 28-year Lie: The Wrong Lesson

Posted on Apr 24, 2007
A 28-year Lie: The Wrong Lesson

The New York Times reports today that M.I.T. admissions dean Marilee Jones has resigned
after admitting she fabricated her educational résumé. Apparently, she did not even have an
undergraduate degree. M.I.T. is, according to Chancellor Philip Clay, “taking a big lesson from this experience,” in which it made little effort to check her credentials. Hmm. There is a big lesson here all right, but I think it is almost the opposite of what Dr. Clay thinks it is.

Reading the article, what stands out is that Ms. Jones was obviously doing an outstanding job. The recipient of M.I.T.’s highest honor for administrators, “The M.I.T. Excellence Award for Leading Change,” she was a major force in the movement to reduce the pressure on high school students. She was very accessible, well­known and well­liked by the students; as the NYT put it, “widely admired, almost revered, for her humor, outspokenness and common
sense.”

Yet, if she had been honest about her educational background (or lack thereof), there is no way she would ever have risen to the position of Dean. Why? After all, her own accomplishments prove that a degree is not necessary to do a great job. The reason that no university would make a degree­-less person Dean is that to do so would undermine one of the key ideological pillars of the university system. It goes something like this: “University education prepares people to be effective in their vocations. A university diploma demonstrates that someone is capable of handling positions of responsibility.” It is because of these widely held beliefs that a college education is considered a “good investment” in the future.

I have little problem with Ms. Jones’ supposed lack of integrity. I think the lack of integrity is in the system she engaged. Her own story demonstrates its unsoundness. She did what she had to do to thrive in a system that is fundamentally unfair. I see no lack of integrity; in fact I commend her for her courage. She has had a positive impact on thousands of young people, and she could not have done that if she’d been honest about her background.

Now I suppose someone is going to say, “She should have completed her degree; then she could have accomplished all she did with integrity.” I disagree. I see little integrity in wasting years on an unnecessary education that you pursue merely to acquire a qualification that the powers-­that-­be demand. The kind of person who does that is not the kind of person predisposed to “humor, outspokenness, and common sense.” Outspokenness is usually a liability in the degree game, which also tends to deaden humor and replace common sense with institutional values. That’s the real reason why a degree “qualifies” you for a position of authority. A degree certifies that you will play along with the game.

Ms. Jones is being fired because she did not play along with the academic game; in fact she flouted one of its most basic rules. She is living proof of the vacuity of some of its basic assumptions.

In her public statements upon resignation, Ms. Jones made every effort to appear contrite. No doubt she is feeling a painful humiliation. But I wonder if, deep down, there is still a spark of protest within her that believes she did nothing wrong. If you ever read this, Marilee Jones, I hope it awakens within you the knowledge that you possess a kind of integrity that is deeper than merely following the rules. You said, unconsciously perhaps, “No, I will not participate in that silly charade.” There is no dishonor in gaming a corrupt system in order to achieve the beautiful results you achieved. Don’t capitulate. Instead, let this experience radicalize you, so that you can teach others to create their own lives too, and not live out the programmed lives to which our schooling conditions us.