The third degree

Sun 29 Apr 2007 10:07 PM

I've heard several reports about Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at MIT, who resigned last week after it was revealed that she had lied about her academic history.

Twenty-eight years ago, when she got a low-level administrative job at MIT, Jones said that she had a several degrees from Albany-area institutions. In fact, she had no such degrees. In the years that followed, she rose through the ranks of the administration. The degrees were not prerequisites for her first job, and her promotions were no doubt based on her job performance. Should she have lost her job over this?

Jones' situation reminds me of Quincy Troupe's. Troupe was professor at UCSD and California Poet Laureate, when it was revealed in 2002 that he had lied about his academic history. When he applied for a tenure-track position at the College of Staten Island in 1976, Troupe said he had an undergraduate degree. In fact he had no advanced degree whatsoever. Following the revelation, Troupe stepped down as poet laureate and ultimately left UCSD.

It may seem as if these two cases are symmetrical: Whatever fate was fitting for Troupe is fitting for Jones. (As it happened, both resigned but did so before any official sanction could be taken.)

I suppose I have a professional investment in that symmetry, insofar as my job depends on a genuine college degree counting for something. Lying about having one (one might argue) is like lying about having collateral when applying for a loan.

If this line of thinking suggests any asymmetry, it suggests that Troupe was a greater offender than Jones. He was not just an administrator. He was a professor who was supposed to have expertise that he could pass on to students. The legitimacy of a college degree depends both on its being authentic and on there being real education behind it. So (one might argue) sham professors are worse than sham administrators.

I think these suggestions are wrong-headed; I think Jones' sin was worse than Troupe's.

Some people argued, regarding Troupe, that it set an unacceptable example for students. If students saw that a professor had lied about his qualifications, then they would think that it must be OK to cheat on exams. (Although this sounds like a straw man, I actually heard people make this argument.) Students can surely understand that the two are essentially different. A real parallel would be a student lying about having met the prerequisites to take a course; if this were discovered after the term was nearly over, surely the student would not be kicked out of the class. If any lie at all undermines academic authority, then professors caught cheating on their taxes ought to be fired-- but that's just silly.

Since the lies were in applying for jobs, another parallel for a student might be a lie in applying for admission. That does seem like a more serious problem for Jones, since her job was in admissions. The example she sets seems more on point.

Worse: Jones recently wrote a book on preparing for college life. I have not read it, but reports indicate that integrity is a central theme. The NYTimes provides this choice passage: "Holding integrity is sometimes very hard to do because the temptation may be to cheat or cut corners. But just remember that 'what goes around comes around,' meaning that life has a funny way of giving back what you put out."

In short, Jones' having lied about her degrees undercuts central parts of her message. It puts the lie to much of what she has been saying.

As the literature faculty at UCSD were quick to point out, Troupe was not hired on account of an undergraduate degree. He was hired on account of his teaching and literary productivity. Was Troupe's poetry compromised?

Larry Hinman, among others, argued yes. As quoted in The Chronicle, Hinman insisted that the matter "touches on the heart of being a poet. What poets do is tell difficult truths. They tell them in a way that's unflinching. And he flinched about himself. He didn't look his own situation in the face and assess it." The article mentions that Hinman moderated a roundtable discussion on the subject.

As it happens, I attended that discussion. I found Larry's line of argument unconvincing. Suppose Robert Burns had a lied when he said that his luv was like a red red rose. It would make no difference at all to his stature as a poet. Great artists often have blind spots.

Since the roundtable was part of the research ethics discussion series, many were quick to make analogies with scientific misconduct. Falsifying data is a seriously bad thing. It is more akin to cheating on a test than to lying about a prerequisite or on an application. Indeed, I would have a dim view of Troupe if it turned out that his books about Miles Davis were largely fictional. But nobody (to my knowledge) has suggested that they were.

The important upshot of the asymmetry between these two cases is that the gravity of lying depends both on what the lie is about and on who is telling it. Obvious stuff.


The New York Times on the Jones case

The Chronicle article on the Troupe affair