Monday, April 30, 2007

Merrily, Merriy, Merrily....

The Marilee Jones story is getting more ink than the death of Reagan it seems. It is a big story but its lessons seem quite simple.
1. Don't lie on your resume and expect to get away with it. The short term gains probably aren't worth it.
2. You don't seem to need a college degree or advanced education to work in admissions. I hate to write this, I suspect it is wrong. But that is the predominant message. It also seems that you don't actually have to have a degree in the sciences to sound like a scientist, although having a scientist spouse might help. That is a snide interpretation of facts but Ms. Jones was a successful administrator, even a gifted one. And she didn't have any degrees.

However, maybe if she had finished an undergraduate degree she might have ended up taking a course in ethics, psychology, or probability. One thing is clear: Marilee had an enemy, either in her office or outside. But somebody figured something out or knew something and used it against her when the time was right. Maybe someone noticed she had added Ph.D to her credentials on the website of a professional organization and figured out she never earned one. Earning a doctorate takes time and they don't suddenly appear. There are mistakes in third-party biographical information all the time. Had the Ph.D been attributed to her by mistake, she could have fixed that, had the Dr. in front of her name or the Ph.D after it removed. We will never know if that was the smoking gun or not. Despite all the news coverage, there is much about this story that we don't know.

MIT behaved cleanly and appropriately in this matter. And, by the way, it had no choice. For people who feel that Marilee's service should have persuaded the MIT administration to be lenient with her, I would suggest that they were. They allowed her to resign, write her statement, and have protected her from a story that was full of detail regarding who told what. It is unlikely that Ms. Jones hurt MITadmissions during her tenure. It is unlikely that inferior candidates were admitted. Ms. Jones, after all, had a staff—all of whom are required to have appropriate credentials. Her message, which was essentially that parents and their college-bound children should chill, is wise irrespective of why or how she came to this conclusion.

Did the search committee that hired her fail? Only in hindsight, in rigor perhaps. But she was not a candidate whose credentials were new to the institution. It would be entirely human for the search committee to assume that their predecesors were rigorous in their judgment when she was first hired. What they did not know at the time was that Ms. Jones was first hired for an administrative position that did not require a college degree. Since it was irrelevant to her first hiring officer, the facts were not checked. Once hired, she became part of the MIT family. A zealous human resources manager might have gone back to check her college information but she had been with the school for more than ten years. They knew her! But, the betrayal, is most keenly felt by these colleagues who indeed did not know her at all.

This is the saddest part of the story. She didn't have to fictionalize her original application to be hired at MIT. She could have been promoted. She would have been given the opportunity to obtain her bachelor of science degree, probably at MIT. Or she could have done it with less stress at another lesser, local institution to fulfill the requirement. Over the course of 28 years she could have also knocked back a one-year M.Ed at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard or taken an executive MBA of some kind at MIT's Sloan School. All with the approval and support of her managers. If only, if only.

For those of us with college and graduate degrees obtained years ago, this seems like a no brainer. She had everything to gain and nothing to lose by simply being who she was. And those of use who put in the time, who sacrificed, who pay back loans, who got those rejection letters, who faced our strengths and our weaknesses, who went the distance to graduate: we get to say so.

The fact that she was fabricated her degrees and didn't correct her resume as time went on was indeed a failure of courage. Had she revealed her indiscretion earlier it is possible, although unlikely, that she would have been allowed to stay in admissions even if she had finished an undergraduate course of study. MIT explained it all very well: admissions staff are the gatekeepers for maintaining the integrity of the institution for the future. They must model, at the very, very least, the basic qualities expected of all candidates: an honest report of their credentials.

Does Marilee Jones' error of judgment fall into the same category as Dr. Joesph Ellis's fabrications about his service in Vietnam to his students at Mount Holyoke College or the controversies surrounding the reliability of scholarship? Psychologically they are in the same family. Joe Ellis lost his chair, took a leave, kept his job, got some therapy, apologized and went back to work. His fate was decided upon by faculty, however, and he had tenure: a tougher nut to crack. He was still qualified for his position. Marilee Jones, without any college degrees, did not have the basic requirements for a deanship at MIT—or anywhere else for that matter—even if one completely discounts the fabrication.

I don't know if she is finished professionally or not. She is co-author of book that will not be summarily removed from the shelves. Her co-author and publisher are standing behind its content. You don't need a degree to write a book. I suspect some therapy is in her future. But I think now she should hunker down, fill out those damn forms, take that SAT or ACT, and get her degree. Its time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lost in the Wake of Virginia Tech

Briefly Noted: Cathy Young, in a Boston Globe editorial, wisely suggested that feminism went awry when it put the strength of its rhetoric against the Duke lacrosse players. Never convicted in a court of law or by a jury of their peers, these young men will, we hope, recover and lead productive iives untainted by the scourge of on-going anger. How sad that people forgot about men's liberation. That not all men are predators, that the end result of every college party need not be date rape.

Virgina Tech, Day 2, Alive

The Convocation indicates that the University staff has been busy. It is polished in the right places. The school itself is not suffering a brand equity problem today: nor should it. The questions remain about the wisdom of the administration's actions and university preparedness, in general. An independent board will be called to evaluate the situation. Fault will be found. But consensus today is that a bad thing happened at a great school. As long as there are innocent students, decent faculty, and administrators such as the Dean of Students and Director of Counseling Services, the health of the institution will prevail.

Today we add a new problem: a troubled student, perhaps capable of violence, and the institution's responsibility to either that student or to the student body. MIT faced this very question on a student suicide. The gunman was identified as a problem and bought to the attention of the administration. Concerned faculty were told that nothing could be done. True? The gunman was taken out of classes and tutored individually. The gunman may or may not have been advised to seek counseling. The gunman, nonetheless, was able to buy guns. Now we are beyond the scope of higher educational administration and deep into gun control. We cannot hold the university responsible for national gun policy. But here's a question. Were the gunman's parents ever contacted? I know, I know. He was 23. He was an adult. The school is required to maintain his confidentiality. I nonetheless ask—because I'm sure the administrator who said 'nothing could be done' and the faculty who identified him as a problem—I'm sure they are feeling today as if perhaps something more could have been done. Surely, surely something. Or maybe they just should have locked the campus down after the first two shootings.

Emergency Preparedness Plans for Colleges? Not New

Emails to CNN are calling for colleges and universities to be better prepared for emergencies. As if this were a new idea....Fifteen, twenty years ago institutions of higher education were grappling with the complexities of such a document. Often it falls to the communications staff to manage the process; more often than not, it ought to. Because the communications staff, unfortunately, is the one capable of imagining the worst: it is often the staff responsible for cleaning up after the worst occurs. I have personally encountered resistance from other administrators when attempting to create such plans who did not want to speculate on tragedy or who felt that the school's responsibility ended where civic responsibility began. Bean counters did not want to consider the value of phone banks or extra blankets; broadcast emails were the least of my problems and even they were a source of debate. Any one who has worked in nonprofits understands that even writing a three-sentence alert might require three editorial rounds and the sign-off of several individuals. This is not what you want to be explaining the parents, the students, the press, and—in Virginia Tech's case— the world when they are asking about getting critical information to the campus community.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virigina Tech, continues

The press conference did not go well. Since there is not a lot of information that is either available or appropriate to transmit and since the masses of reporters and news organizations are yet to be on the ground in Virginia, and since there is no one on the run in a White Bronco, the focus is on the behavior of Virginia Tech and the local police. This is the worst case scenario for the institution: there is a terrible tragedy AND somehow they are caught unprepared or vulnerable. Why didn't the school shut down after the first casualties? Because they thought it was contained. But there was no evidence that it was contained because they did not have the shooter. The institution should have closed its gates immediately after the first shooting. No one should have been allowed in. Local radio stations should have warned commuting students to turn around. Parking lots should have been attended and people sent home. Did they do a "hard target search" or any search at all?

Obviously, no school has a SWAT team on staff. The president said they have emergency protocols (the commuications guy says not), that they practice but there can be no rehearsal for this kind of event. There is some truth to this, of course. But that is NOT the answer you give to the press, because it speaks to your powerlessless. When the question is raised, "How do you contact students on their way to classes?" at the press conference, I can only hope it was not the first time such a question came before the president. Because that is a reasonable question to anticipate and include in an emergency preparedness plan. And there are answers, ideas, strategies. And if you can imagine one gunman killing one student, you can imagine his killing more than one. The evidence on the ground today could not only suggest that the event was over after the first two victims were discovered—as the police chose to assume— but also that it was NOT over. And that is the fatal vulnerability at Virginia Tech: the failure to imagine the worst or even the obvious: That the gunman was still on campus, still armed, and still crazy.

There are too many excuses coming out of the communications guy, the president, and the police chief and the questions are repeating themselves. It is weakening the school. Reporters don't need vague denials. Broadcast emails to 9,000 students on campus or 29,000 total students plus faculty and staff can't just be sent out at the push of a button. They need to be batched or you can crash your system. There are some things that just take awhile to do. That is fair, it has to be. But on other issues the press is not getting the recognition it needs that perhaps mistakes were made, that perhaps lives were tragically lost today unnecessarily. Someone asked if new security measures would be looked at? The president says he needs facts first. I suggest he has 32 facts. When students are jumping out of windows, you might want to take a look at your security measures.

Virginia Tech Nightmare, Continued

The news conference. The President is speaking along with the Chief of Police. He seems calm and in control. Students are instructed to contact their parents. So I got that wrong. Of course, you would expect that parents and students would be in immediate contact with each other. Students are communicating with each other via Facebook and on sports message boards. But parents do need to hear something official from the school, too.

Why? Because they need to know if the students are going to be taken care of, they need to know if dinner will be served as usual, they need to know what is going to happen next, they need to know if they should come and pick up their children. And they may just not get the infiormation they need from their hysterical freshman who has his or her roommate's blood on his shirt.

In no time at all the press asks about the two-hour gap. Why wasn't the school shut down? Why wasn't a swat team called? When did campus police step aside and let the town and state forces take over? Why weren't students notifed not to come to campus? How can campuses be better prepared? Do they have a communications plan? Did they use it? Will they change it?

Well, these ARE the core questions, after all. And the media is asking them of the police chief and Virginia Tech's president in rapid succession, repeating them because they are not satisfied with the answers. Indeed, the answers are problematic. The chief offers the expected 'can't comment' responses. But there is an inconsistency that the reporters pick up on that he later denies that is unfortunate.

One spokesperson, who I assume is in communications, says there is no communications plan. He seems tired and haggard. And he lets the press conference go on too long. Because the press is beginning to have a field day.

Virginia Tech Nightmare

There is so much news today but rarely does higher ed news demand comment from the President of the United States. CNN hasn't broken its coverage for some time now. There is untold damage at Virgina Tech today—32 dead, no other details yet—at the hands of a singular gunman—also no details on him yet. An event of this proportion knocks the institution's communication staff off the front lines right away. The police, the news channels, the hospitals have taken over the crisis communications. That leaves Virginia Tech's leadership and media relations staff to work with their internal constituencies and serve as liaison to the external agencies.

I'm watching CNN as I write. The question has just been posed: Will this effect admissions? Uh, yes. Let's move on. It may also effect fundraising. But right now, today, these are unseemly questions. In the long run, when the coverage has died down, it is the students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni whose wounds need the most long-term attention. Was the institution particularly vulnerable? Can an institution of education—Columbine or Columbia—be prepared for such an event. And how do you know that such an event is in progress? In the case of Virginia Tech, there was one shooting this morning. Two hours passed before the next one. What transpired during those two hours? Crisis mode, of course. But not preparation for another attack. Not calling in a SWAT team. There may be some vulnerability there. Hard to say. Faculty and staff have been sent home. Red Cross is on campus for counseling. I imagine staff and faculty need counseling, too, and might need the same support of community as the students do. Hard to say what the thinking is there. Obviously, student affairs staff, including residential life, ministry, health providers, aren't going anywhere. Essential services such as dining hall and maintenance are still on campus. So are the communications people who are busy coordinating information for media outlets. Telephone lines may have been set up to contact parents. Important civic, government, and other constituenceis are being contacted. This is not just a school's nightmare. The new tagline is worst massacre at a school in the history of the United States.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Transmen in Western Mass

Open the Boston Globe Magazine this Sunday, the one with Bill Cosby on the cover with the promise of an article discussing the pedagogical impact of Fat Albert, and meet the the women of Mount Holyoke College who are deciding to become men.

Leading the contents page is this quote:

"I cried the day I woke up and found my breasts gone." -Mt. Holyoke transgender junior Kevin Murphy.

You just can't buy press like that.

And its branding you just can't erase. Spend your millions on identity work. Develop that logo. Convince yourself itself not a problem. No matter what you do, no matter how many percentages you release on the number of straight women in the student body there will be public perception. There may be as many lesbians at Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges as there are at Barnard or Berkeley or Oberlin (where the students introduce themselves with their pronoun preferences, as in "My name is Anne and I go by 'her' and 'she'.") but it really doesn't matter. Because the line in the article that will have senior leadership, admissions, development, and communications—not to mention trustees, alumni, and some faculty—going slightly nuts—is this one:

"No parent is surprised anymore when their daughter goes to an all-women's college and then comes out as a lesbian."

Really? Of course not. But it doesn't matter. Of all the great things going on at Mount Holyoke this is the story the Magazine wants.

Sure, the more interesting question is whether a women who becomes a man has any place in an all-women's college. And, at what point, is this person a man? Does that, by definition, make the dorms co-ed? Is that fair to the other women? What is the institution's role? These matters are lightly touched upon in the article but they are not the focus. Because this is not an article about higher education. The article is more about gender identity in college-aged women. Unfortunately, wittingly or not, the article also obviates years of Mount Holyoke's own attempts to balance its own identity. And as compassionate as I can be to the students in the article who are confronting the issues of their lives bravely, one would still be hardpressed to consider this "hit" good news.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Here is What I Mean By Marketing

My cousin is adjunct professor at a top-tier college in Western Massachusetts. She doesn't have a degree from there herself, but her daughter does. She has been working there for almost twenty years. So, to be clear, she is both faculty and parent of an alumna. In the past few months, she applied for a full-time position, never was called for an interview, and understood she wasn't a candidate. That wasn't really the problem. The problem was the letter of rejection which she received, which was actually signed by one of her own classmates. It said she wasn't a good match for the college.

She felt the sting because of how absurd it was to receieve a rejection letter telling her she wasn't a good fit from a school with which—at the time of the rejection—she was currently holding two contracts.

Here's my problem. Do colleges and universities have any idea how much bad will and lost development dollars they suffer because they do not pay attention to their rejection letters?

Having received rejection letters or no response at all from my own almas mater, that careful attention to what you are telling your alumni, your staff, or other key audiences, is the easiest—and cheapest— kind of marketing the school can do. Why lose your own constituencies? You don't have to hire all your alumni, of course, but it makes all the sense in the world to acknowledge them in some special way when you reject them. Protect and nuture the relationship because, after all, your colleagues down the hall have just called them up and asked them if they could increase their donation this year. And fundraisers won't know why alumni just won't answer the phone. Maybe its because it is dinnertime. Maybe its because they were just told they are not a good fit.

Every year institutions of higher education spend more and more money on "marketing" and some are even desperate in attempts to find occasions to receive positive press or to move up in the ratings. They fail to recognize that while rejected candidates as an overall class may not be significant stakeholders, alumni, or part-time staff, or volunteers, or adjunct faculty, or parents of students or any other people already affiliated with the institution are de facto ambassadors. People will talk. This is a given. Whether they speak in positive or negative terms this is the only question. It is up to the institution what will be said. Forget brochures and CD-roms and press coverage once a year by the New York Times. Institutions should treat the constituencies already on their side have with some care. Have a separate form letter than goes to alumni if necessary, but recognize that you can't tell them they don't fit in one letter and enjoin them to be part of the community in another.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

An Introduction

Here in Boston higher education is always front-page news. Obviously, we have a lot of colleges and universities and some are pretty famous. But it is not just proximity. There is audience here, too. Many local residents who came to study here never left. So there are alumni. And all these folks—or at least a large percentage of them—had children who were collegebound. So the interest never really flagged. Plus all the professors and the administrators who were educated elsewhere—they, too, pay attention to their "industry" although none would ever speak of it as such. There is critical mass here in Boston consisting of those who believe in the magic of higher education, those who critique higher education, and those who are employed by higher education. I fit into all three categories.