David Edmondsdon, the former CEO of Radioshack, was fired because he falsely claimed to have a theology degree from an unaccredited Bible college.
At least, that’s what Radioshack said. There may have been other reasons, but newspapers took the college story seriously, even though it was ridiculous. Why does learning about your CEO’s lack of a theology degree matter, once you’ve seen him perform decades of competent work?
But even that story isn’t as crazy as…
The MIT Scandal
Marilee Jones was the director of the MIT admissions office until 2007, when she resigned after her employer discovered that she’d lied about her education, pretending to have two degrees from colleges she’d never attended and misrepresenting her time at a third school.
At the time, she’d worked in the MIT admissions office for twenty-nine years. She wrote a book. She toured the country. By the end of her tenure, she might have been the most famous admissions director in the world. And yet, no matter how successful she became:
Ms. Jones knew that coming clean would mean losing her job and her career. She also feared that the news would harm her husband, who was a faculty member at MIT before working at the institute’s Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center.
In some fields, a degree represents necessary professional training. Other fields — like college administration — don’t have “necessary” degrees, but still demand at least some degree. This makes sense: Attending college is a reasonable requirement for working in an admissions office.
But once MIT had proof that Jones was good at her job, how should they have reacted to the news that she didn’t have as many degrees as they’d thought?
Certainly not with a firing.1
By 2007, Jones had given MIT the last three decades of her life. She was a completely different person than she was in 1978. (If she’d been caught shoplifting in the ’70s, would MIT have cared?)
Perhaps MIT was angry that Jones hadn’t revealed the falsehood when she applied for the director position. That at least places her last active lie in the ’90s, rather than the ’70s. After all, they did make the following claim:
“This is a sad and unfortunate event,” Daniel E. Hastings, the dean for undergraduate education, said in a statement. “But the integrity of the Institute is our highest priority, and we cannot tolerate this kind of behavior.”
But should MIT have cared about “integrity” in this case? Did Jones’ lie matter?
After all, some lies don’t matter. If I tell my boss I had waffles for breakfast when I actually had oatmeal, I wouldn’t be fired from my job. What makes Jones’ situation more serious than the waffle situation?
Reasons To Fire Marilee Jones
She might not have been hired if they knew from the start that she didn’t have a degree.
True. But that’s because MIT wouldn’t have known whether she could do the job. If you’d told the hiring committee in 1978 that Candidate Jones, degree or not, would eventually run the admissions office with great skill, would they really have refused to hire her?
She lied about something college-related, and she works as a college administrator!
True. The irony is clear. But me lying about waffles doesn’t seem to matter much even if I work at a waffle company, so long as my lie doesn’t affect the company.
Lying is wrong. You don’t want a liar to run your admissions office.
Maybe. Then again, almost everyone tells lies, even at work. (“Sorry, Janet. I already bought Girl Scout cookies this year.”)
The only lies that matter are lies which affect the company in some way, or which reflect so badly on the liar’s character that you’d consider them an active threat to the people around them or the company’s reputation. Lying about a murder conviction or heroin smuggling could easily be a firing offense — but lying about the lack of a piece of paper on your record? Lying, as Jones did, about having attended medical school? Does MIT expect her to provide first aid alongside her administrative duties?
Lying is still worse than being honest. But if Jones can succeed at MIT without a professional degree, her lie seems like a mild moral issue at most: something which demands an apology, or a salary freeze, instead of the destruction of her career.
Having an admissions office directed by someone with no advanced degrees is wrong.
Maybe. It could be true that the best administrators are those who’ve spent a lot of time in college, at various levels of the system (undergrad, graduate, etc.). But when she resigned, Jones had spent 30 years working full-time at a college. She knew about as much about college as anyone.
It looks bad to the public if the story becomes known.
Maybe. But if Jones was really such a respected figure, there has to be some chance that a public apology would suffice. Or even some kind of professional probation. Why skip right to a forced resignation?
I have another reason you didn’t mention.
Awesome! Let me know in the comments — I could easily be missing something, and I like changing my mind when I’m wrong.