Résumé lies and signals
Today's news includes that of the resignation of MIT's much admired Admissions Dean, Marilee Jones, who admitted fabricating her own educational credentials. Here was a person with no undergraduate degree, who feigned one or more undergraduate and graduate degrees in order to get a low-level professional position decades ago and, then, kept up the false front with a few other misstatements, as she rose to the top of the admissions world. The tale is especially ironic or sad because the wrongdoer's own career success has included a book (and many talks) that emphasizes the importance of personal integrity.
Universities tend to regard false academic credentialing as an especially serious offense, much as Rolex invests more than others in pursuing counterfeit watchmaking and selling. Yet it goes almost without saying that a long career as a successful admissions dean might show that the credential should not have been required in the first place. But, of course, credentials are signals. It is easier for employers to look for skills and talents if they can take some shortcuts, and much as I might be inclined to interview MIT graduates for some jobs and graduates of the Art Institute school for another, MIT the employer is entitled to feel cheated if those without degrees hide among those with the well-earned degrees. Ex post there may be no injury if the job is well done but, ex ante, employers (and therefore potential employees) have a significant interest in the integrity of the credentialing process. Employers (and graduates) would be right to be upset if a university said that X had a diploma with honors when, in fact, the university's officials knew that X had never attended the university in question, or perhaps any at all.
It is tempting to say that the fact of the dishonesty is reason enough to demand resignation. But in many situations we regard dishonesty as but a small flaw when it is not shown to have "caused" a significant harm. A baseball pitcher might lie about his age; a spouse might lie about something in the family background; an employee might lie about fluency in a foreign language. In all these cases, if the party who was miseld discovers the dishonesty rather quickly we are comfortable with a decision to break a contract. Age discrimination law aside, the baseball player's chance of injury and improved performance are related to age. A spouse might not only be uncomfortable with a partner who hides unpleasant things but also might regard family background as important in the choice of a partner. But my sense is that if, instead, there were a twenty-eight year period of great success in these relationships, as there was at MIT, we would think it odd if the original dishonesty were not forgiven or even regarded as fortuitously unknown. To be sure, the employer or spouse might want to send a message to future applicants that signals are serious business, but at some point the reality of performance overcomes this systemic call for integrity and efficiency in the screening process.
Consider, for example, those cases where an applicant for insurance lies about preexisting conditions. We normally ask for causation. If Y lies and says that the premises have a burglar alarm when they do not, and the premises are destroyed by an otherwise covered natural disaster, we regard the insured as deserving of the agreed-upon payments, even though there was an "unrelated" dishonesty in the application process. There remains some deterrent to dishonesty, as there is in the employment context, because the employer might discover the wrong soon after employment (and the insurer might investigate after a burglary to see whether there was indeed an alarm). It is tempting to suggest that there ought to be a norm akin to a statute of limitations in these matters, except that résumé fraud usually requires ongoing misstatements (or republication of the offending document). If the admissions dean had lied to the employer about drug use thirty years earlier, I do not think that new information, coming to light so much later, would lead to a dismissal or resignation. It is hard to believe that the difference between the cases is that one requires repeated misstatement. Nor is it obvious that the difference is that the employer regards the academic credential as especially central to its mission. Non-university employers also regard such fraud as career-ending. Perhaps employers recognize that if they do not take credentialing fraud seriously, no one else will - while drug use has other crusaders and deterrents.
Finally, there is something interesting about the all-or-nothing quality of the dishonesty's treatment. MIT has just as much incentive to regard plagiarism or other academic dishonesty as a serious offense. But in these cases, a penalty is rarely career ending. One who has cheated on a single exam or paper is, in most universities, likely to be readmitted after some penalty period. Yet that wrong also goes to the core of what the university is about, it is unlikely to be policed by other authorities, and it can be understood to say something about the person.