Credentials, Accomplishments and Redemption

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg says there could have been another approach -- more fitting to an educational institution -- to the Marilee Jones case.

June 14, 2007

Among connoisseurs and admirers of fine art, nothing is more troubling than the discovery that a great and celebrated painting is a forgery. Those who praised the picture find themselves embarrassed. Worse still, all reverence for the picture vanishes and its high value plunges to near worthlessness.

Why this happens is clear. The picture was valued primarily for its creator’s name -- that is to say, for its credentials. The beauty and interest of the picture have not changed, but when its credentials reveal the painter to be Han van Meegeren, a 20th century forger, not Jan Vermeer, a 17th century master, everything else does change.

I offer this observation to illuminate the case of Marilee Jones, whom I do not know. She had been employed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 28 years, most recently as the dean of admissions. In this last position, she was celebrated, a rare case among admissions deans who are usually obscure, for her efforts to humanize the overwhelming process of applying to colleges and universities. When a few weeks ago someone anonymously informed the MIT administration that she had falsified her résumé, she stepped down.

And like a forgery discovered, her value became nil upon the revelation. Having been a university president for 30 years, I find this whole business troubling and dismaying for several reasons.

I am troubled that she lied about where she earned her bachelor's degree and that, over the years, she did not attempt to correct the record. I am further troubled by her hypocrisy, Ms. Jones having made a great point of telling students to be honest about their accomplishments on their admissions forms. None of this is good.

But I am dismayed by the weight that has been put on credentials that, after so many years, have absolutely no bearing on her performance. It visibly makes no difference that she earned her bachelor's degree from the College of St. Rose, in Albany, not Union College, or that she has no degree from Albany Medical College or Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute.

Of course colleges must perceive degrees as consequential. If not colleges, who? But degrees as “sacred,” I’m not sure. “Sacred” has theological implications that may take us a step too far. We do, after all, give university credit these days for courses taken in high school, and we give credit with university degrees for life experience. There are all sorts of degrees that can be earned through experiential programs. The box is not as hermetically sealed as it once was. And that is a good thing.

To put it plainly, she is not a forgery. She is what she has always appeared to be -- a very accomplished university administrator. The value of the Vermeer resides almost entirely (and unfortunately, I think) in the certainty of its authorship. I wonder if Ulysses S. Grant would have been a lesser general or a greater president had he not attended West Point, but claimed that he had. We are known by our accomplishments and rewarded accordingly.

We may insist that we are also known by our character, and I agree. However, as far as I know, Ms. Jones muddied her skirts many years ago and has since been otherwise blameless. This apparent fact is also troubling.

The laws regarding privacy have traditionally recognized “unconscionable publication” as appropriately actionable. An example: A young man is convicted of a misdemeanor, serves his time, then moves to another city and starts over, becoming over the years a respectable businessman and philanthropist. Someone discovers his indiscretion and publishes it. Courts have found that this invades privacy (and is akin to libel), the reasoning being that the fault is so old and so immaterial to the character and actions of the man some 28 years later as to be “unconscionable” or offensive to the community’s standards of decency.

The outing of Ms. Jones strikes me as unconscionable. She had done no harm, and revealing her dishonesty so many years later only undermines the good she has done. (I doubt her résumé fraud deprived anyone of her lowly first job in any event; she probably would have got it with her true credentials, sad to say.) I am reluctant to criticize the administration of MIT, however. Had Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT, declined to do anything, no doubt the informant would have gone to the press and outed MIT. It’s a sorry fact that many in the media prefer getting the goods on higher education than getting the good that higher education does -- and Marilee Jones had done a great deal of good. Thus, MIT was in a bind, one I would tremble to be in.

But, from a safe distance, I want to offer some thoughts. It seems to me that some sins are more forgivable than others, especially after so many years. Do we not, after all, believe in redemption not to mention the statute of limitations? Does Ms. Jones’s failing when she was 27 still define her at 55? I think not. How many years must go by before we forgive? Twenty-eight seems more than enough to me.

It is not that Ms. Jones should not have been sanctioned. She should have been, but she should also be forgiven. College degrees are meant to represent the judgment of faculty that a student has demonstrated competence in a discipline. We go to universities to learn -- not to get degrees. The degrees are symbols. If 28 years of performance haven’t proven that Ms. Jones mastered the lessons, of what utility would a degree be?

Were I and George Washington University to be faced with such an unhappy case, I want to believe that this is what I would do:

In recognition of her many years of service, I would confer an honorary and retroactive degree on Ms. Jones in order to ameliorate her defective résumé. I would say she messed up. I would say she embarrassed herself and GW. I would add that she is human. And then I would issue a pardon in the name of the university and everyone else who has an old failing that has yet to come to light.

I am surprised no one has raised the feminist argument -- the date of her employment, the sociology of the time, the place, her gender, the ceilings (both glass and otherwise), the preemptory strike against anticipated bias in the human resources office.

Yes, she lied. What is the appropriate action to take when one discovers that transgression after 28 years of loyal, dedicated, competent service? Surely it is distinguishable if one discovers it the next day.

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Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president and professor of public administration at George Washington University.

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