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I just came across an interesting exchange on the Chronicle Forums regarding what to do when you receive a Revise & Resubmit response to a submitted article. It’s a good question and the advice contained in the responses is quite valuable. Well worth the read.

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I’ve been thinking about the recent revelations involving (now former) MIT Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones. As more or less everyone now knows, Jones actually had in fact fabricated her own academic credentials, right down to her bachelors degree, which she completed at a school she never listed on her CV.

(Aside: There seems to be a lot of the karmic/ironic flu going around — e.g., Wolfowitz dedicating his World Bank to rooting our corruption when he himself engages in more than a little to place his girlfriend in a silk-lined sinecure; Randall Tobias, administrator of the Agency for International Development that tied aid for AIDS assistance to denouncing prostitution, resigned due to his involvement in the current D.C. prostitution scandal; Jones sitting in judgment of the academic credentials of young hopefuls despite not having them herself, etc.)

One obvious response triggered by the incident is: So what? If she did her job well, who cares whether she had various degrees from top-shelf institutions?

Well, setting aside the decades of lying (which is difficult to do), this type of response implicitly assumes that what’s important in most professional instances is whether a person can do a job as opposed to whether a person (appears?) capable of doing it. Or, as James Fallows from The Atlantic Online wrote regarding Jones’s case (and the included links are his):

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.

Yglesias makes essentially the same point — namely that we need to find a way to “spread” the skills college credentials supposedly signal as opposed to getting distracted by the credentials themselves.

I have much sympathy for this line of argument, though I do basically agree with Fallows that regarding the Jones case in particular:

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.

Still, Fallows’s example of academia (among a few other places/occasions) where pedigree matters more than performance, didn’t quite sit well with me. He’s careful, of course — he says “many parts of academia” instead of simply “academia,” and he’s not (ostensibly) denying that progress occurs in those “luxurious” realms. Nevertheless, the basic oppositions prove a little distasteful — viz., where performance really matters and where it doesn’t, possessing a pedigree or degrees and being able to do something.

Fallows is a serious guy, so I wanted to hear more. In his recent Jones post, he links (included above) to an old article of his called “The Case Against Credentialism.” I’m off to have a look, and I’ll say a thing or two about it if it turns out to be relevant or revealing in some way or other.

It’s somewhat anemic but there it is.

And as, I suppose, an “elite academic” I can’t help but point out a confusion contained early on in the entry between the way academics might view each other and the way academics view non-academics.

You said it:

"That the data from controlled experimentation should be accepted in preference to subjective reports can hardly be questioned."


—Norman R. F. Maier, "Reasoning in Humans: II. The Solution of a Problem and Its Appearance in Consciousness,"Journal of Comparative Psychology, 1931, 12, 181-194.

Copyright © 2007 Roblin Meeks. All rights reserved.