COMMENT: Degrees of fortune — Saleem H Ali
Degrees must be framed with temporal and experiential context and not just as ceremonial benchmarks. If they are to be given some absolutist value, then we must show some consistency across the board with our evaluation and commendation of these testaments
American academia was shocked by the resignation of MIT’s dean of admissions Marilee Jones on April 26 for pretending to have degrees which she did not actually receive. As an alumnus of MIT, an institution, which so many Pakistani youths yearn to attend, I feel obliged to consider this incident further since it raises fundamental questions about contemporary meritocracy.
Ms Jones was a celebrated university administrator at one of the world’s leading centres of higher learning, and an accomplished author and orator. Clearly she had the merit for her job but not the official credentials she had claimed. What is also remarkable about this story is that her entry-level position as an administrator in the admissions office in 1979 did not require a college degree. She rose through the ranks of administration, based on performance, to get the top job in the admissions office over a period of 28 years. As she admitted in her statement of resignation:
“I misrepresented my academic degrees when I first applied to MIT 28 years ago and did not have the courage to correct my resume when I applied for my current job or at any time since.”
As one of her colleagues at MIT, Les Perelman eloquently stated in a subsequent interview: ‘It’s like a Thomas Hardy tragedy, because she did so much good, but something she did long ago came back and trumped it.”
The only silver lining to this cloud is the revealing evidence that career paths now are possible from clerical positions in administration to top management. Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett Packard also evidenced this prospect since she started off as a secretary in the company. Though, in her case, she did get two Masters degrees along the way — ironically, one from MIT — where she now serves on the board of trustees.
The glass ceiling in corporate America and academia alike is clearly being broken as more women and minorities enter such top jobs. Employers are also beginning to look at a much larger range of degree-granting institutions for hiring and promotion. Marilee Jones had claimed degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Union College in Albany and apparently had no trouble completing with applicants from the Ivy League
In many cases, the premium which parents and students alike were willing to pay for a degree from an elite school is turning out to be a questionable investment as well at the undergraduate level. A study published by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in September 2006 concluded that while elite universities clearly had a competitive edge in terms of salary success in the 1970s, their influence has gradually declined and was not statistically significant after the 1990s.
The main causal factor the authors present is “the reduced importance of physical access to productive research colleagues”. This devolution of networks can largely be credited to the Internet and web access. With such empirical insights, what are we to make of a complete degree per se, which ended up being Ms Jone’s nemesis? Might we consider other metrics of performance such as standardised exams, following an assemblage of courses and apprenticeships, similar to the way bar exams are considered by some states such as Vermont? Universities would still play a role in such training but the model would be more malleable and less degree-oriented than what we are used to.
Successful entrepreneurs, such as Bill Gates are often widely celebrated as being university dropouts and reaching their billions without a degree while others slave away at meeting credits, distribution requirements and GPA thresholds. This year, Gates is a commencement speaker at Harvard, from where he dropped out after two years. Universities are also quite willing to shamelessly lavish awards and honorary degrees on successful alumni regardless of their past academic performance or whether they even got a degree in the first place.
The case of CNN founder Ted Turner and Brown University is emblematic of this tendency. Turner was suspended twice and ultimately expelled from the university in 1960 for violating dorm policies and other disciplinary infractions. He nevertheless received an honorary baccalaureate as well as an honorary doctorate from the Ivy League school in 1993.
In Pakistan, the degree saga takes some other amusing twists, particularly when the title of “doctor” is in question. As a bona fide PhD, I am often amused by how many of the “real” doctors (MBBS or MDs) like to claim the former category in strange ways. Let us take the example of Dr. Aamir Liaquat Hussain or Dr. Shahid Masood — two of our television luminaries. Clearly their medical degrees don’t help with being TV hosts but using the title of “doctor” gives a more expansive professorial ring and so they use it.
In the glittery world of Pakistani NGOs, there are so many renegade medical doctors who so charmingly use their erstwhile medical credentials with elusive aplomb to win development project contacts that have nothing to do with medicine. Many of these professionals are able and utterly qualified for the jobs ascribed to them but society has made them use a pretentious cache for acceptance.
Degrees must be framed with temporal and experiential context and not just as ceremonial benchmarks. If they are to be given some absolutist value, then we must show some consistency across the board with our evaluation and commendation of these testaments to educational triumphs and tribulations.
Saleem H. Ali is associate dean of graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com