Should Credentials Matter?

MIT Admissions Dean Marilee Jones resigned yesterday after revelations that she lacked the academic degrees she claimed she had when she first applied for and obtained a junior position in the admissions office 28 years ago. (Read her statement here.) The news was apparently greeted with sadness by MIT staff and students, who regarded Ms. Jones as an outstanding Admissions Dean. That raises the question: So why did she have to go?

We can immediately dismiss the explanation that the lack of formal credentials rendered Jones incompetent to do her job. Her success in the job belies any such conclusion. Had Jones been hired as an administrative assistant with the knowledge that she lacked even a bachelor's degree, and had she been internally promoted until she was given responsibility for running the admissions office, she would still have her job. Sure, if you were interviewing candidates for the position of Admissions Dean at a selective college, you would probably use formal credentials as a filter, but if you found someone who actually was doing the job very successfully, you would sensibly hire or retain that person even if she lacked credentials.

The problem, of course, was Jones's dishonesty. As a professional academic, I take academic fraud very seriously. I also understand that MIT did not want to be in the position of telling its applicants to report their accomplishments honestly when its own Admissions Dean had cheated and gotten away with it. Foxes guarding chicken coops and all that.

And yet, there is something unfortunate about the fact that Jones was let go. (I assume she was "asked" to resign.) Here's an analogy: Suppose that a young reporter fabricates a news story, and on the strength of that story, is hired by a prestigious newspaper. Over the years, the reporter files numerous accurate stories, never repeating the original sin, and eventually becoming a legitimate prize-winning journalist. Should he lose his job because he initially obtained it under false pretenses? Certainly he should pay some price: A public apology; some form of restitution; etc. But why does the earlier bad act disqualify him from employment now? In the Jones case, it's a bit different because, in her words, she did not "correct" her resume when she applied for the Deanship. I take it this means she repeated the fraud. And perhaps that's enough to explain why she had to go. In the counter-factual world in which Jones had only made the initial misrepresentation, however, it's less clear that this ought to count as a separation offense.

In any event, it's worth noting the contrast between MIT and the executive branch of our federal government. At MIT, the discovery of a "youthful indiscretion" leads to immediate resignation of an otherwise highly successful administrator. Over in the Bush Administration, repeated calumnies and other misdeeds earn one the President's unflagging loyalty and the Medal of Freedom.