About credentialism and the Marilee Jones / MIT case

We can make it three for three — sort of — among Atlantic “voices” on the folly of being obsessed with whether someone has an academic credential, versus whether that person can actually do the job. I dealt with and respected Marilee Jones, the now-cashiered admissions director at MIT, during my various stints of writing about the (folly of the) college admissions process. Her message boiled down to: Oh, calm down, which is exactly the message students applying to college should hear.

Like Matthew Yglesias and Ross Douthat, I agree that the scandalized reaction to news that Jones faked a college degree is way, way out of proportion. Clearly she could do her job; no one has ever suggested that she was anything but inspiring in it. Back in 1985, I even wrote a cover story in the Atlantic about exactly this sort of nuttiness. It was called “The Case Against Credentialism,” and it argued that whenever performance really mattered — when you were fighting a war you really had to win, when you were running a business struggling to survive, when you were coaching a team for the big game — people quickly learned to ignore pedigree and degrees and concentrate on what someone could actually do. (Think: Ulysses S. Grant.) It’s only when you have the luxury of a genteel, not-really-measurable- or-crucial level of performance (Think: foundations, many parts of academia or civil service) that you could afford to be picky about whether someone had “prepared” in the proper way.

Here’s the “sort of.” I wouldn’t care if a star professor turned out never to have finished an undergraduate (or graduate) degree. If he or she can motivate the students, that is what counts. But a university admissions director is in a particularly awkward situation. All that applicants for admission can be judged on, really, is their previous performance and preparation. Those are important mainly as proxies for potential achievement, but since they’re the only things colleges can judge, the person in charge of assessing them can’t afford to have been dishonest about her own background. Marilee Jones’s sin was trivial in the big view; unfortunately she held the one job where it was more like a grave offense. Too bad for her, and for future MIT applicants.