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April 2007

The Admissions Game

Let's assume that the Marilee Jones scandal broke out because the angry parent of a rejected applicant checked her credentials, or noticed a discrepancy in her various bios. (You can find my last post on her here.) This is what I find the most likely, and if you read my "Downwards, graduates!" post, you know that the situation for high school graduates is only going to get worse. Since I am getting quite a bit of traffic from Technorati, I thought I'd ask people out there: what would make a fair admissions process? Should there be an entrance exam, possibly common to groups of schools, with a written part to check whether the SAT scores mean anything and an oral part to grill the candidates over all their extracurricular activities? How can you change the admissions process so that the stellar but rejected candidates don't have to hear "sorry, you had a perfect SAT score but we just had a lot of perfect SAT scores this year anyway"? The name of the university a kid attends does impact her future (through the companies which will interview on-campus, the quality of the faculty, her future earnings power) and rejected applicants deserve a real explanation of why they did not make the cut. In the end Marilee Jones's main mistake might have been to underestimate parents' outrage at seeing their kids rejected without any reason besides a lame "there was so much competition this year."

Marilee Jones, Day 2

The furor about Marilee Jones's lies is showing no sign of abating, so I thought I'd write a follow-up post. (You can find my first post here.) Much of the outrage falls within one of the following two categories: (1) pure gloating (yay! take that, MIT! and I suspect, although few have dared putting it in so many words: yay, take that, witch who denied admission to my kid! not so proud anymore, huh?) (2) complete bewilderment (Marilee Jones lied? Marilee Jones the fixture on the lecture circuit, the expert on the admissions game, the dean who openly worried that high school students were subject to always-increasing pressures?) While MIT has refused to explain how it first learnt of the allegations ("MIT officials would not say who had provided the information," according to the latest New York Times article), I wouldn't be surprised if the parent of a rejected applicant lurked in the shadows - think about the timing, just a few weeks after the acceptance letters were mailed. If you take this one step further (and wildly speculate, as I have no proof whatsoever), you could even imagine that the parent tried to blackmail Jones into accepting his kid, and MIT had no choice but to put its dean in the spotlight: otherwise the parent might have been all too happy to send his/her information to the media and allege a cover-up.

Before I write further, I do have to mention that Ms Jones played no role in admitting me, since I entered MIT as a graduate student and graduate admissions are handled by the academic departments rather than a central office. I did spend 5 years at MIT and never perceived Ms Jones as particularly controversial, possibly because her job had zero impact on me. I do remember that she was already giving plenty of talks, in particular to the alumni clubs - parents love to hear about the admissions game and always hope to give their offspring a headstart. Once the dust has settled, I hope people will ask the following questions: did she do her job right? Or did MIT admit the wrong type of applicants (if there is a wrong type) because of her? Could her lies have flawed her judgment as she decided on the admits? (Who knows, we might hear of lawsuits in the very near future.) Of course she wasn't alone in reaching that decision - many other staff members were involved - but if she hired them, can we really expect her to have checked their background very carefully? Or, even if the staff's pedigree is flawless (MIT sometimes hires MIT graduates as staff members), did she nudge them in this or that direction when they were evaluating applicants? In her defense, she did gain legitimate expertise on the admissions process in her 10 years on the job, and I suspect someone so desperate for attention would try twice as hard to do a great job. After all, that was her meal ticket. What bothers me most is to think of her being introduced before one of the numerous talks she gave - I never attended one, but it is customary to mention the speaker's degrees at the end of the introduction. So was this an old lie buried in a 28-year-old resume, or was this a recurrent lie she heard repeated over and over again without a blink?

Yes, misrepresenting oneself is wrong and, while the news of her lies have saddened many people with ties to MIT, I don't think anyone really feels she should not have resigned. She took a chance and she blew it, end of story. I guess my post lacks the strident tone I have observed in others because I work as a college professor and, sadly, misrepresenting one's credentials is becoming the norm. So it is hard for me to waste a lot of energy on being outraged. In the Fall when recruiting season is in full swing I spend many lunches with recruiters (you didn't think we were letting them eat all by themselves, did you?), discussing their expectations for their new hires and talking about the department and our curriculum. Those conversations have provided me with many insights into the recruiting process (the most surprising being that recruiters don't care that much about GPAs, as long as the student clears some threshold). Many recruiters have told me that a big part of the first-round interview consists in checking the facts on a student's resume. Since students apply for positions using Career Services and interviews happen on-campus, they need to be affiliated with Lehigh - at least that frees recruiters to check everything else. Many students do inflate their extracurricular activities, for instance pretending they hold an officer position in this or that club, and the recruiter has to determine the true extent of his involvement by asking a lot of questions. (Students also sometimes inflate their GPA - a dangerous practice if the company does ask for a transcript at the end of the interview process - or leave it blank to get an interview with high-profile companies requiring stellar GPAs. I haven't been able to determine which, but I have seen the names of students dropped for poor scholarship and reinstated after a semester's leave on the second-round list of prestigious firms. For some reason, I don't think they had mentioned their real grades... And yes, I do suggest that the firm focus on this or that other candidate instead, without getting into the details. If someone gets a job based on a lie and is later found out, it reflects poorly on the university and the other applicants who got similar jobs on their own merits.)

Story time: the most egregious case of academic dishonesty I am aware of occurred last semester when I asked my grader (a Master of Science student who had taken my course the previous year as a senior) to hold office hours for me while I was at a conference. To make a long story short, I gave him the solutions of the homework so that he could help students coming to him with questions, and instead of trying to help he ordered them (there were about 18-20 kids in the conference room because the homework was due the next day) to each copy one page and then share the page they had copied with the other students until everybody had copied my eleven pages of handwritten solutions. As luck would have it I had made a mistake in one of my graphs as I was rushing to get ready for the conference and, out of curiosity, started counting how many people had that mistake in their homework. Quite a surprise... When I confronted the grader he lied to my face with mind-boggling conviction, sent the students to my office to lie for him, and maintained his innocence for weeks before apologizing when some students realized lying to my face in the middle of the recruiting process (see lunches above) was not doing their job prospects any good. It is frightening to think that these people will be in the workforce in a couple of months. The grader was fired and lost his funding for the Spring semester but was allowed to remain in the graduate program. He was later hired by the New York office of JP Morgan, where he will start in the Fall. While the case of Marilee Jones is extreme, academic dishonesty is rampant on campuses and maybe Jones's legacy will be to promote systematic credentials' checks: companies should require transcripts and recommendations to protect themselves against bad surprises later on. Beautiful days lie ahead for human resource companies.    

The Gates/Broad Initiative

Melinda Gates talked on Wednesday with a journalist from NPR about the $60 million initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Strong American Schools, whose purpose is to bring education reform at the forefront of the coming political campaign. Let's just hope she was misquoted, because her "Americans need to understand that a lot of times the children are bored in school, and that is why they are not staying in" almost had me falling off my chair. Kids don't drop out of school because they're bored - they drop out because they are so far behind that they can't understand a thing about what's going on. They feel humiliated. So the real questions are: how do you prevent kids from falling so far behind? What mechanisms can you put in place to identify these kids and work with them? Do you put all the poorly-performing kids in a remedial class and give them the best teacher? Do you have them stay late for an after-school program? What if almost everybody at a school is performing poorly? Should you put in the same class students with similar abilities? Or will including better students motivate the merely average ones to work harder? If boredom comes into play this is only a consequence of the students' poor academic skills, not a factor per se in the drop-out rates.

Another point I take issue with: she mentions salaries as a reason for teachers leaving the profession. Again, that's mistaking a consequence for the true cause. Salaries are low because teachers are not respected. Teachers are not respected because they are seen as instruments in the kid's educational path. A teacher who is close to the end of the chain (e.g., a college professor, a law school professor) is paid much higher than someone who is in the middle, because the influence of that second person on the kid's ultimate salary is harder to ascertain. As I have mentioned in a previous post, part-time teaching is a much surer way to appeal to civic duty, bypass the respect issue and attract quality teachers.

Finally, the journalist read a statement taken from the website of the Gates Foundation: "All students in the United States can and must graduate from high school, and they must leave with the skills necessary for college, work, and citizenship." The journalist made it sound as if Ms Gates felt 100% of all high school students should go to college, and she agreed with him in no uncertain terms, allowing him to turn this reasonable statement into a slightly ridiculous goal. A much more appropriate response would have been: "We don't think that 100% of all high school students should go to college, but we do strongly believe that high school students should be able to make that decision for themselves rather than having it forced upon them because of years of inadequate schooling."
This certainly wasn't Ms Gates at her best.

In Memoriam

Unless you have been living on a cabin in the mountains for a week, you know by now that David Halberstam died on Monday. I read the transcript of the talk he gave at Berkeley on Saturday, which someone at BusinessWeek had the good sense to post. Halberstam spoke on "turning journalism into history" with a focus on the Vietnam War, the book he wrote about it (The Best and The Brightest) and the evolution of his own career. 5-page transcripts like this one help aspiring journalists a lot more than 300-page biographies - they focus on the heart of the matter: how did he do it? It is a pity that such talks have often become one more instrument in the arsenal of the public person in search of higher visibility. (This is a general comment, not a reference to Halberstam.) They would be very useful in many other professions if "regular folks" - mid-level managers and engineers as opposed to CEOs - bothered to give them to college students. The word "mentor" has become overused and now sounds like a full-time job, but universities should make greater use of their alumni and encourage them to come back and describe, for instance as guest lecturer in a course, what their job truly entails. I particularly enjoyed the part where Halberstam stresses he wasn't particularly good at the legwork in the beginning. So many years later his rise to journalistic Pantheon has an air of inevitability, but he struggled with self-doubt at first.

What I will remember of the speech, though, is his reference to the only other person whom he thought could have written a better book on the Vietnam war and who had just been killed: Bernard Fall. Fall, a now largely forgotten author of multiple books on Indochina, died in 1967 at age 40 when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam. Halberstam had a long, productive life with 21 books, but what books were we deprived of because Fall's life was cut short?

Marilee Jones resigns

MIT's Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones resigned today after the Institute learnt that she had "misrepresented her credentials on her resume 28 years ago in 1979, when she applied for her first job at MIT," according to the MIT Admissions blog. Jones had been Dean of Admissions at MIT since 1997 and I have heard many times, first as a graduate student at MIT between 1999 and 2004, and later as an alumna, of her tireless efforts to help high school students navigate the college admission process. I believe (although I am not completely sure) that she coined the term "helicopter parents" to describe the over-protective moms and dads - at Lehigh I have even heard of "black hawk parents", and we're not talking about birds. Jones had openly voiced concerns about the pressures the admission process puts on students, and she had struck me as well-intentioned and down-to-earth, a nice woman intent on helping others.
Which brings me to my next point. Am I the only one to feel the timing is a bit odd? Come on, people, you know what I am talking about. All over the country, admission and rejection letters to the Class of 2011 were mailed in late March and most admits have until May 1 to reach a decision. The New York Times states that "the college received information questioning Ms Jones's academic background about 10 days ago." I wouldn't be surprised if an angry parent, furious that his or her kid didn't make the cut at the Institute, had looked up close at the credentials of the person who signed the letter. (After all, you need to blame someone.) She has served the Institute tirelessly for 28 years, and here she is now, being dumped unceremoniously because she was dishonest 28 years ago. Of course you can say that dishonest people remain dishonest for life. You can also say that young college graduates are insecure and want a job very badly. (MIT might not have had a choice. The angry parent could have leaked the information to the media and accused MIT of cover up if it had let Jones resign quietly.) What I say is: assuming the parent of a rejected applicant is indeed behind this sad story, I feel sorry for that parent's kid. Nobody should have to grow up witnessing that amount of hatred for people who stand in the way of the kid's imagined victory - at least in Little League the referee knows where the insults are coming from. Because, dear parent, MIT rejected your kid and nothing will change that, not even the head of Marilee Jones on a platter.

Random Thoughts

Some random thoughts for today...

(1) I was wondering whether in a couple of years we'll see an increase in the diagnosis of adult-onset attention deficit disorder among the tech-savvy youngsters and college students. In other words, will instant messaging end up being a boon for Ritalin? It just seems that students have shorter and shorter attention span and my guess is that they will have a harder and harder time adjusting to highly structured work environments. Just think about how fast you and I end up on when we want to procrastinate... Companies can block the access to some websites from their computers, but it is difficult to see how they will block people from using their own cell phones. At some point we may have "IM-free buildings", where the IM-addicts will huddle together in front of the door to text-message during their break next to the smokers lighting up a cigarette. More seriously, it might well turn out that the students who are best prepared for life after graduation are the varsity athletes and the musicians who spend several hours training every day, and therefore have developed an above-average ability to concentrate. In a decade the varsity athletes will complain about the lower admission standards for the rest of the student population... Alright, maybe fifteen years.

(2) I am looking forward to the day where Internet searches no longer return heaps of junk and a nugget or two of usable information. While the semantic web advocated by Tim Berners-Lee offers much promise, it just seems that it shouldn't be that difficult to let users rate the pages they find most interesting and select "trusted sources" as primary providers of information - how come people can't do their own rankings on Google? I feel you should be able to identify the general content of a website with reasonably little work, rather than telling the computer that $19 is a price. Another of my pet peeves regarding the Internet is the sheer outdatedness of some webpages, and the fact that there is no "peremption date" after which a webpage loses visibility in the rankings (first progressively, before being dropped altogether). I can still find information about my role in the Graduate Women Group in Course 6 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) at MIT 5 1/2 years ago, and I often stumble on scientific pages that were last updated in the 1990s. (No kidding. Here is an example for a scholarly publication.) While Google does leave the user some choice on the matter - "only return webpages updated in the last 3 months", for instance - a lot has yet to be done. Because the Internet was so new in the 1990s nobody gave much thought to cleaning the junk but now that very junk has proliferated on the servers and has a lifetime of up to 40 years (if a professor posts something when he just starts his career and remains employed by the same university until he retires, so that his online account is not deleted). This reminds me of space, where tons of trash (bits of destroyed satellites, etc) orbit aimlessly and threaten state-of-the-art equipment. That trash can never get removed - the deed is done. Let's make sure cyber-trash doesn't drift around on the Internet forever. 

A day of sorrow

I don't think you can write a blog on higher education and not post on the day of the worst shooting rampage in US history... My heart goes to the families and friends of the 32 innocent people killed at Virginia Tech this morning. Dying at age 20 is never normal, but dying at age 20 in a classroom because a gunman opened fire on everyone he saw is revolting. And no parent should have to get a phone call telling them their kid died this way.


Leadership has become a big buzzword on college campuses - leadership for students, that is. Can it be learned? Should students read books or take part in case studies? And so on. Nobody talks about leadership from the professors' side. I am not referring to platitudes such as leading by example, though; what strikes me is the similarity between a professor in academia and a manager in industry. Case in point: absenteism in class. So many of us teachers try to convince students to come because "it's good for them and they will learn things that will be useful later on." We know that they will need the material. We know that they will struggle if they don't attend. So what do we do? We cuddle or we threaten. Come to class! Come to class! We devise ways to make the material more interesting. We can't believe our eyes when we see them text-messaging under the table in the middle of the wonderful lecture we've prepared. The truth is, many educators would benefit from reading or re-reading the classic books on leadership by John Kotter and Ronald Heifetz. As both authors point out, you cannot initiate lasting change from people unless those people decide by themselves that they need to change. (Heifetz in particular studies at length the Civil Rights Era and Johnson's actions from that perspective.) In the classroom, this means that you can neither convince nor force students to attend. Of course you can have attendance count towards the final grade, but this will only bring sulky text-messaging kids (see above - a real-life experience that is becoming the norm in many universities) into the classroom. They won't listen until they realize by themselves they need to. So what kind of experience is required to make that happen? We can try to write tests that give an advantage to students who attended class, while we wait for everybody to take an internship and face the real world. We have to keep the pressure on the students so that they realize by themselves they should attend, and that's really the one thing we can do. The main differences with industry are that professors might not bother (they are not officially the students' bosses; besides, can't 19-year-old kids figure out by themselves what they have to do?) and students might hopelessly fall behind without being fired (the normal course of action in industry) and end up in learning limbo. The academic world removes pressure from the professor in that respect, and even implicitly rewards flunking students (look how tough I am! grade inflation stops here!), but offers many leadership lessons nonetheless.

The unit closest to a manager and her team in academia would be that of the professor and her graduate students. That part of my job has taught me a lot on human nature since I started. Motivating grad students and making sure they perform is even more critical in academia than industry as research sponsors ask for reports detailing the use of grant money - you sure don't want the National Science Foundation to think you're wasting taxpayers' dollars and then refuse to give you your next grant, all this because one of your students didn't complete what you had promised you would do in the proposal. If you want a primer on Motivation 101, here it is: the human mind either moves away from things or towards them, and people tend to respond more strongly to one of the two. The key is to figure out which one. Some graduate students will turn into first-rate scientists if only you encourage them enough. Many students, however, especially in the early years of their graduate studies (when they are still in college mode), move away from things. Those will present you work that changed from their results last week by all of two lines and hope you do not notice, and you have to keep pressure on them by suggesting that maybe your funding would be better used on someone else until they figure out what kind of commitment is expected from them. I do not particularly enjoy that part of my job, but if funding runs out at the end of the semester, I do have to figure out which student should go - a tough call that no one else can make, and the students at the very least deserve to understand the rationale behind the choice. Because the money is not coming from another part of a big company but from outside sources, you cannot hope to open the cash faucet again just by skilful negotiations with your boss, and the need to ruthlessly evaluate performance is then a lot more critical in academia than industry. In that way, academia does have a leadership lesson or two to teach industry after all.


A couple of random thoughts...
(1) To follow up on my last post, I wanted to mention that the online version of the Brown and White, Lehigh's student newspaper, has a very good article on Dr. Alice Gast after her first year as president. It echoes many of my thoughts and does an excellent job in capturing the mood at Lehigh.
(2) A while back I wrote on the increasing importance of collaborative work and wondered whether the US, with their emphasis on self-employment, were practicing the right kind of entrepreneurship. It is still not clear in my mind that the country is well-prepared to face this new trend, but in the meantime I have come across some interesting statistics on academic collaboration. It turns out that the number of authors of scholarly papers has been on the rise for a while, with the average number increasing from 1.8 in 1955 to 3.5 in 1995, according to a 1995 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The National Academies provide additional numbers in a 1992 volume, and support a similar conclusion. Most fascinating is that, fifteen years ago, researchers and educators were already warning against the phenomenon of hyperauthorship (the 1995 article in the Chronicle mentions scientific papers with over 400 authors!) This is not even collaborative work pushed to the extreme but rather a response to the political side of academia, where you need to stay on good terms with other researchers who might review your work. Scientists usually address this need by including lengthy lists of references whose sole purpose is to mention at least one paper by every important researcher in the field, just in case that person happens to be a reviewer - hyperauthorship outside pure science does remain a much less used technique. That does not mean that a paper with three authors could not have been written with just one - it might just have taken longer, and in today's focus on quantity (vs quality) to get tenure, a number of assistant professors elect to divide the work to lengthen their publication record faster. In the end, the one uncontested effect of collaboration as practiced today in academia is that it forces all co-authors to do their part rather than become side-tracked with lectures and committee meetings. Not quite the type of collaborative work I was hoping for, but better than nothing.