The Gates/Broad Initiative
The Admissions Game

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.    

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