Life and Lies

From The New York Times: “Dean at M.I.T. Resigns, Ending a 28-Year Lie.” It’s the story of Marilee Jones, the university’s highly respected and successful admissions director, who over the decades falsely claimed to have received several college degrees. It turns out that she never graduated from college at all. Somehow M.I.T. only recently got around to looking into her resume, long after she had been elevated to senior administration.

I suppose the absolutist side of me feels like she ought to suffer the severest consequences for her dishonesty. There’s the ethical question, of course, the need to be straight with others about who you are and what you’ve done. There’s another issue, too: being honest with yourself about your life. On one level, the sort of biography you present in a resume is the most superficial kind there is: just dates, places, duties, and positions; your resume doesn’t touch on the stuff that’s really hard to face, like all your personal crises and how you’ve dealt with them, the traumas you’ve suffered or dealt out, the messy details of how you deal with people and problems every day. So being candid about those surface details — “I graduated with honors” or “I made it to community college, but liked beer better; I still hope to go back some day” — seems like it should be the easy part about representing yourself. Unless you lie about it. Then you’ve created a secret that you must sense will emerge some day to show the world what a fraud you are.

Ethical absolutism aside, I sympathize with Ms. Jones. Perhaps partly because I’m a fellow non-college graduate (my resume says where I went to school and notes “no degree taken” — though hope springs eternal). But more because it’s hard not to admire her when you read what she was able to do with her talents and ability — qualities that didn’t happen to come certified from an institution of higher education. At some juncture, or maybe many, she had to consider whether to come clean about her untruths. It must have been hard; I expect she sensed that advancement depended on having a degree, that she wouldn’t get a chance to show what she could do unless she had some credentials, whether they were truly relevant or not. She was probably right, and that’s a shame, because her work was brilliant. Not brilliant enough to offset her lies, though, or escape the trap she set for herself.

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