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April 27, 2007

Dean for MIT College Admissions has Madeup College Degrees

I can't even think of some kind of entertaining lead-in for this: The MIT Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, who made a public career of telling teenagers how they shouldn't pad their resume for their college applications, lied on her resume, claiming she had 3 science degrees when she didn't. She had based an MIT career lasting 30 years on an invented academic background.

Now, this is all over the news, in part because she made herself into such a high-profile college-admissions evangelist, garnering speaking engagements and media interviews across the country. Her story of her academic degrees kept changing:

Various biographies for Jones give different accounts of her credentials. When she became dean, MIT said she had a bachelor of science degree and a master of science in biology from Rensselaer . In her blog on the admissions office website, Jones did not list her degrees but described herself as a scientist.

Her biography on the website of the National Association for College Admission Counseling annual conference, where she was scheduled to speak in September, said she had a doctorate but did not specify from where, and said she had studied biology and chemistry.

It all seems to have started when she applied to be an administrative assistant at MIT back in 1979. It didn't require a degree, but somehow she saw fit to list multiple science degrees on her resume. Perhaps MIT should have been tipped off to the fact that someone who could have gotten a job as a researcher was applying to be an administrative assistant.

Jones became Dean of Admissions in 1997, after I finished undergrad at MIT in 1996. I didn't really have any memories or dealings with her. It was while I was a graduate student, after I returned to MIT in 1999, that I became aware of her presence on campus.

There was something about her that repeatedly demonstrated that she never quite "fit in" at MIT. Part of her claims were that MIT was confronting a changing generation of students who were much different than previous generations, and MIT had to learn how to deal with this. However, this always seemed like a cover story for her patronizing attitude towards the undergraduates and applicants. At a time when external pressures threatened to turn MIT into a place where students could make fewer choices and the campus worried about becoming a less dynamic place, Jones attempted to wave-away these concerns by explaining that these were exactly the things that the new generation of undergraduates wanted. When admitted students came to campus to visit on weekend, Jones came up with a system of requirements that students never leave campus, always wear a purple wristband, and introduced herself as "Mom away from Mom" which caused such an uproar from the undergraduates that these requirements were eventually dropped. My personal favorite was when the MIT Coop displayed an MIT tshirt with the letters "IHTFP" (alternately standing for "I Have Truly Found Paradise" / "I Hate This [Darn] Place") in the window, and Jones asked that it be removed because this "represented a different image of MIT than they wanted to put forth to prospective students."

She seemed like a someone who wanted to be a den mother, and it struck me that she didn't just not understand MIT, she didn't understand university life, and she didn't seem to have much of an understanding about the mindset of aspiring scientists. It's now clear why that was-- she really never had the personal connection to those things that she would have had her claims been true.

The MIT campus is not going to be in mourning over this. A lot of people who saw her as what they "wanted" an admissions Dean of an elite university to be -- patronizing, telling kids not to stress out, and the person that would tell parents she was going to take care of their kids on campus -- are going to miss a familiar media face.

UPDATE: You know, another issue I've heard brought up was "how did she get away with it for so long?" I don't even know that myself-- you can't really "pretend" to be a biologist or chemist, even a former biologist or former chemist. As I said, her mindset never quite fit in to MIT either. What I think happened was the following-- first, she probably didn't "talk up" her academic credentials in front of other professors for fear that they might try to talk shop with her. Next, within academic administration, once someone is trusted, that person isn't going to really be questioned. Everyone knew Jones because she had been there since the 1970s, and within the administration, she was considered part of the crowd. Finally, and I think this is really important, she told a lot of people what they wanted to hear, and her invented background made that credible. I think a lot of people wouldn't have taken her ideas seriously if she were portrayed as a mid-level administrator who rose up from an entry-level assistant's position. Instead, her supposed academic background gave her the credibility to claim that she knew what she was talking about when it came to the needs of aspiring scientists and engineers. People wanted someone who could speak with authority about having a scientific professional background and saying things like, "I want to be the students' mom away from mom," and talking about a desire to take care of the "kids." Science professors have a habit of iinsisting that all students suffer just like they suffered. Jones was able to evangelize for a more nuturing, more carefully controlled, less chaotic campus that a lot of people wanted to hear her advocate for while at the same time bringing a false scientific credibility along with her.

Posted by Dean at April 27, 2007 8:04 AM

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