After the college admissions scandal broke in March, with all the allegations about rich and famous parents resorting to lies and bribes to get their kids into elite colleges, I found myself thinking about Marilee Jones.
You may not remember Jones, but she was the subject of a different admissions-related scandal that dominated the news around here a dozen years ago. As the longtime dean of admissions at MIT, Jones had won considerable fame in higher-ed circles. She coauthored a book, Less Stress, More Success, and became what The New York Times called “the guru of the movement to tame the college admissions frenzy.” Along the way, she attracted national media coverage for her crusade to make the college application process less stressful — and return some joy to the teenage years. Among the changes she made to the MIT undergraduate application: adding the question “tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it” and reducing the number of spaces for extracurricular activities, from 10 to six.
For Jones, everything came crashing down in the spring of 2007, when MIT asked her to resign after learning she had fabricated her educational background nearly three decades earlier. She had claimed to have undergraduate and graduate degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, and Albany Medical College, when in fact she had earned just one degree: a bachelor’s from the College of Saint Rose in Albany.
After the headlines faded and the crews from Inside Edition backed out of her driveway, Jones disappeared from public view as she tried to sort out what had happened — and who she really was. Her crusade largely disappeared as well, swallowed up by her personal scandal. That was too bad, since she had sounded an important alarm.
Her critique went like this: Elite colleges, fixated on keeping their U.S. News & World Report rankings high, worked hard to boost the number of applications they received, knowing that would increase the number of rejection letters they sent out, making them appear more selective. Parents, desperate for bragging rights in their circles, were sending their kids a message that anything less than an elite acceptance letter constituted failure. With the stakes becoming impossibly high and the odds vanishingly low, Jones warned, more and more kids and parents would try to game the system.
When I catch up with Jones this spring after the Varsity Blues scandal has just broken, she is working as dean of admissions and college counseling at a private high school in New Jersey and running a private college counseling service. As much as she had been warning about student stress when she worked in college admissions, she says she has a much deeper appreciation for the problem now that she is working directly with high schoolers.
“All the adults in their life are demanding perfection from these kids,” Jones says. “They don’t feel like who they are is good enough.” They feel the pressure to present themselves as something more.
This is where she feels she can be especially useful, turning her own painful downfall into a cautionary tale. “If I’ve learned anything,” she says, “it’s the importance of authenticity.”
Jones describes an exchange she had after noticing exaggerations in a student’s college essay.
“This isn’t the truth,” she told the student.
“Well, it’s sort of the truth,” the student replied.
If you don’t take that out, Jones said, “you’re signaling to yourself that you’re not good enough. I totally get that. That’s what I did. But, let me tell you, it never helps.”
Back in 2007, before her lies were exposed, things could not have been going better for Jones professionally. Yet she was a mess physically. She and her husband had separated, and she was suffering from debilitating episodes of arrhythmia, which her doctor attributed to stress. One day her newly installed boss called. Someone had told him she was passing herself off as a PhD. Was it true? Jones denied it, explaining that people sometimes introduced her at conferences as “Dr. Marilee Jones,” and she didn’t feel it appropriate to correct them.
“After I hung up the phone,” she recalls, “I knew I had falsified my résumé. I went down the hall to see him. I took advantage of the moment. That was it. I told him.”
Her boss was angry, she says, and her career was in tatters. She drove home in a daze, she says, and had to tell her estranged husband about this decades-long lie he knew nothing about. “But within an hour of getting home, my arrhythmia was gone.”
The whole ordeal, she says, was a self-inflicted hell, but she’s ultimately grateful for it. “It saved my health, for sure. And it gave me my life back.”
She is now working to earn her master’s degree through the University of Texas’s online program. She plans to stick with it until she’s earned her doctorate. That way, if someone at a conference someday introduces her as “Dr. Jones,” all she’ll need to do is smile with pride.Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine’s staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.