Admissions & Student Aid

Truth and Admissions: Former MIT Dean Seeks to Reclaim Her Name

Corey Wascinski for The Chronicle

Marilee Jones says that when her lie about her credentials was exposed, she finally became herself.
December 06, 2009

For weeks Marilee Jones has rehearsed the words. The night she stands before an audience once again, she will share some advice on applying to college. She will describe how growth comes from failure. And she will talk about the lie that made her infamous.

Ms. Jones, former dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned in 2007 after admitting that she fabricated her credentials nearly three decades earlier. She said in a press release that she had lacked "courage" to correct her résumé, which listed degrees from three institutions; she had not graduated from any of them. A roar of publicity followed. Then, the nation's most outspoken admissions dean vanished without a word.

Where Ms. Jones went was not so much another place as another time. Her past opened up and her future closed. In between were days that went nowhere and connected to nothing. The woman who had talked to hundreds of people a week stayed in touch with only a few. She had nobody to confront but herself.

After losing one of the top jobs in college admissions, Ms. Jones, 58, says she found something more important—humility. She describes her fall as a blessing, the moment when she finally became herself. "Everybody has a shadow side they're running away from," she says. "If you can't face your shadow side, you project it onto everybody around you."

In a series of recent interviews with The Chronicle, Ms. Jones described living with a lie for many years, what she's done since leaving MIT, and how she plans to restore her reputation. As a dean, she gave hundreds of talks, preaching calm to anxious applicants. To reclaim that role, she has re-emerged as a consultant, one who hopes to advise high-school students and their parents, as well as college enrollment officials.

Recently, Ms. Jones arranged to speak at Montclair High School, in New Jersey. How spectators would respond to her first public appearance since she left admissions, she could only guess. She worried that someone would stand up and say something like, "You lied. Why should we believe you?"

It would be a reasonable question. After all, Ms. Jones was the gatekeeper at one of the nation's most prestigious institutions, which, like any college, expects honesty of its applicants, students, and scholars. She rose to the top of a realm where a diploma is sacred. To claim a degree one did not earn is to sin against an entire system.

Ms. Jones says what she did was wrong. She also says she has forgiven herself for what she describes as mistakes made by a younger, much different woman. She hopes that people will weigh the lies she told against the work she did and see the difference.

Nonetheless, forgiveness alone won't make her telephone ring. Although her message about admissions still resonates in the field, is it enough to redeem the messenger?

For a long time, questions like that froze Ms. Jones right where she stood, retired and anonymous. Then one day something changed, she says: "I decided that I wanted my name back."

The Path to Cambridge

Growing up in Albany, Marilee Jones learned that service to others was a necessity. Her father, Pete Jones, instructed his five children to fetch groceries for elderly neighbors and shovel walkways when it snowed. Mr. Jones, who worked at the Albany Felt Company, was known for helping people all over town. Often they would thank him by leaving bags of homemade treats—brownies and baklava—at the family's front door.

Behind that door, he was hard to live with, Ms. Jones says. She describes her late father as a disciplinarian who was constantly angry. Her parents often told her not to ask so many questions. Growing up, she felt confined. "I didn't want to be who I was," she says. "So I imagined myself being in other places, doing other things."

Going away to college was not something people in her neighborhood even talked about, so in 1969 she enrolled at the College of Saint Rose, a Roman Catholic institution in Albany, and continued to live with her family. On the campus she felt as lost as she did at home.

Drinking and drugs were not her escape, Ms. Jones says. Instead, she worked. Cleaning offices, selling handbags, hooking patients up to EKG machines at the hospital. She also worked as a certified emergency medical technician, riding in ambulances from 3 p.m. to 11. After graduating with a degree in biology in 1973, she was unhappy and restless. So she saved money for a trip to Europe and the Middle East, where for months she trekked, alone.

In 1978, Ms. Jones arrived in Cambridge, Mass., with a new husband, Steven, a graduate student at MIT. The couple moved into a dormitory, and Ms. Jones often stayed up all night, talking to students about their lives.

One day she saw an advertisement for a job—an assistant to MIT's director of admissions. She says she remembers wearing a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress and sandals to the interview, but not much about the interview itself. Nor does she recall the moment she wrote down on a form that she had attended Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. MIT officials have said that Ms. Jones added a degree from Albany Medical College after she was hired. Ms. Jones does not dispute that account, but says she cannot remember that detail, either.

In the fog of those moments lies a mystery. Why Ms. Jones did not state that she had, in fact, graduated from Saint Rose is something that she may never understand. She says it might have been because she worried that the college would not impress anyone at MIT. Or because, as a young feminist, she rejected the Catholic Church and did not want to acknowledge that she had attended a Catholic college. Or because she doubted herself.

"I was screwed up," she says. "I was very, very angry. It was probably a lot of different things. It was a top-of-my-head decision, like, OK, I'm going to try this on. I just couldn't be myself. I wasn't good enough to be myself."

'This Monster Behind the Door'

By all accounts, Ms. Jones was good at her job, which she began in 1979. Her first assignment was to schedule speaking engagements at high schools, where female graduates of MIT would talk to young women about the importance of studying mathematics and science. Later Ms. Jones was responsible for recruiting women, as well as for outreach to international students. She enlisted more MIT students and alumni in recruitment and created a dynamic weekend campus-visit program, one of the first of its kind.

Michael C. Behnke, who was MIT's director of admissions from 1985 to 1997, says Ms. Jones deserves much of the credit for diversifying the undergraduate class. During his tenure, the proportion of women rose from 28 to 42 percent, and the proportion of minority students more than doubled, from 8.5 to 17.5 percent. Mr. Behnke describes Ms. Jones as a "terrific" colleague. "The two qualities she has in spades are passion and humor," he says. "She could be in your face without annoying you."

Early on, nearly all of Ms. Jones's colleagues were men. She recalls them smoking pipes during staff meetings and discussing how a particular applicant might benefit not only MIT, but also the nation. Some of her co-workers had been trained by B. Alden Thresher, director of admissions at MIT from 1936 to 1961. Mr. Thresher wrote an influential book called College Admissions and the Public Interest, a thoughtful study of the field, published in 1966.

Ms. Jones devoured the book, in which Mr. Thresher wrote that education must put students' interests above those of colleges. He also lamented that many applicants considered education a benefit that others would bestow on them, rather than something they would get for themselves. "This is the almost inevitable result," he wrote, "of the undue stress put upon affiliation with the 'right' college."

For many years, Ms. Jones tried not to think about her falsified credentials or examine her reasons for lying. For one, they did not seem to relate to her day-to-day work. "I knew I was good at what I was doing, and I was satisfied with that," she says. "There was this monster behind the door, and I knew if I turned around and looked at that, I would have hit the wall. I had the monster barricaded in, and I thought, I'm not going to let you out."

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. Later, she worried about how the truth would affect her daughter, Nora. Neither knew that she had not attended the colleges listed on her résumé, Ms. Jones says.

Then in 1997 Mr. Behnke announced that he was leaving MIT. Ms. Jones, then associate director, felt ice run down her spine. She wanted the job, but what would happen if she submitted herself to the vetting process? She describes the dilemma as a "moral moment," when she could have chosen to correct the record. Instead, she applied for the job.

The hiring process took months. Ms. Jones says she gave MIT 14 references, but the degrees she had claimed went undiscovered. Although MIT officials declined to comment to The Chronicle for this article, the institute's chancellor, Phillip L. Clay, told The New York Times in 2007 that little effort had been made to verify her credentials. Perhaps it was just because Ms. Jones was a familiar face, having been in the office for almost 20 years.

When Ms. Jones finally got the job and the new title of dean, she was relieved, but that feeling did not linger. "It was still with me," she says of her past. Soon thereafter she started having arrhythmias and waking up with chest pains. She could not shake the thought that her lies had been unnecessary: her first job at MIT apparently did not require a degree. "I would have done exactly the same job if I had told the truth," Ms. Jones says. "I would have done exactly the same job and had no worry."

The worry grew worse as her name became more familiar. Over the years Ms. Jones became a sought-after speaker. Her message was that everyone involved in admissions needed to chill out for the sake of education, not to mention their sanity. She spoke to high-school students, parents, teachers, and principals all over the nation. She often received standing ovations from mothers and fathers who would line up to meet the guru with the bright red hair.

Some admissions deans scoffed at all this. After all, they knew that plenty of teenagers did not gnaw their nails off, dreading that an Ivy League college would reject them. The brand of angst Ms. Jones described did not plague every Zip code. Sure, applying to college is hard, but some believed there was nothing wrong with that.

Still, Ms. Jones impressed many observers. Jennifer Delahunty recalls hearing her speak at Sidwell Friends High School, in Washington, several years ago. "It was almost like a revival," says Ms. Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. "She's that good at communicating this message."

In 2006 that message arrived in a book called Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond, which Ms. Jones wrote with Kenneth R. Ginsburg, then an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. The book examined the pressure to be perfect, casting college admissions as a mental-health issue.

In one passage, Ms. Jones described an epiphany she had one night while visiting a high school in the Midwest. A student asked her if it were true that applicants to MIT needed to have participated in 10 extracurricular activities. What had given him that idea? MIT's application provided 10 lines to list those activities. "I could see the world through his eyes for a few seconds," Ms. Jones wrote, "and I was horrified."

Soon Ms. Jones revamped the application, trimming the number of lines for activities. She also tweaked MIT's essay questions to ask students about things they did for pleasure, as well as about their failures and disappointments.

Less Stress, More Success was a hit. Full of advice for students and parents, the book included a passage about integrity. "Holding integrity is sometimes very hard to do because the temptation may be to cheat or cut corners," it says. "But just remember that 'what goes around comes around,' meaning that life has a funny way of giving back what you put out."

A Second Act in New York

Ms. Jones resigned in April 2007, the same day she admitted that the three degrees were bogus. MIT officials said at the time that the institution's dean of undergraduate education had received information suggesting that her credentials were not what she claimed. The ensuing conversation with MIT officials is a moment Ms. Jones refuses to describe, except to say that it was an answered prayer.

For years, Ms. Jones says, she had prayed for something to happen, some way out of the lie she could not bring herself to confess. "It just didn't fit me anymore," she says… Then all of a sudden, she was in her car, driving home from MIT for the last time. As she pulled into her driveway, she noticed that her heart had stopped racing and her chest pains were gone.

"I was free," she says.

Soon Ms. Jones's name was everywhere. Her answering machine filled up in an hour. Reporters descended upon her house, in Concord. Her neighbors called the police after camera crews parked themselves outside.

Ms. Jones, who by then had separated from her husband, fled to Manhattan to stay with an old friend. She did not go outside for weeks. She slept constantly. "It was like a snake, molting," she says. "I felt as though my skin had been peeled off, and the underlayer of skin wasn't ready yet."

When Ms. Jones finally returned to Massachusetts, she found that she had received hundreds of supportive e-mail messages, cards, and letters. She figures a third came from people she did not know. In handwritten notes, people thanked her for the good she had done for kids, or wrote "God bless you," or told her that they were praying for her. Ms. Jones also received candy, uplifting posters, and several copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul. She opened several boxes containing angels, made of glass, or plastic, or wood. Amid all this were two letters of scorn, which she tore to pieces.

When Ms. Jones saw people she knew at the gas station or supermarket, they were always kind, but she could tell they felt uncomfortable. "They didn't know I felt relief," she says. "I had myself back again. I wasn't hiding anything."

Ms. Jones decided to move. As a kid, she had gone on field trips to see Broadway shows, after which she would daydream about living in Manhattan. Back then, the loud, electric city seemed too big, too impossible. After her public humiliation, though, it seemed like just the right place.

Since moving to New York in 2008, Ms. Jones has sought what she describes as a "reclamation." She hired a public-relations consultant, Rose Marie Terenzio, formerly the personal assistant to the late John F. Kennedy Jr. Ms. Terenzio says she explained the first rule of making a comeback: "If you make a mistake, own up to it, apologize, try to fix it if you can. Then move forward."

Ms. Terenzio connected Ms. Jones with Columbia University Medical Center's Center for Survivor Wellness, which serves teenagers who have been treated for cancer. Since last November, Ms. Jones has volunteered there each Wednesday morning, meeting one-on-one with patients whose illnesses have interrupted their schooling. She has helped some of the students plan their next steps, to college or a career, and advised others on how to write their application essays.

"She's able to grasp that one little thing that makes them passionate," says Solimar Curumi, the center's clinical coordinator. "That means getting them to look her in the eye."

Word of mouth has led parents of other sick teenagers to Ms. Jones. Recently, she started giving free advice to Maritza Salgado and her daughter Reitza, who has cancer. Ms. Jones has helped Reitza, a high-school graduate, plan for the SAT, and recently paid for her to take an art class at a local college.

While working pro bono with families who have little, Ms. Jones has also tapped into Manhattan's well-heeled set. This spring, she founded TruStar Consulting, a service for parents of high-school students who want help navigating the admissions process and its attendant anxieties. Since becoming a consultant, Ms. Jones has worked with about two dozen families, some at no charge. Her rate is $200 an hour, or $500 for a three-hour consultation, plus unlimited e-mail communication.

At first, Ms. Jones was reluctant to put her name on her business. Then this summer, she started a second company called Marilee Jones Consulting, through which she offers her expertise to high schools and colleges, as well as parents. Her Web site lists numerous endorsements, including a quote from The Boston Globe: "the most celebrated and outspoken admissions dean in America."

Although Ms. Jones no longer has that title, she believes she has a right to the good side of her name. "What I did at MIT was my work," she says.

Over the last couple years, Ms. Jones has thought a lot about what forgiveness means, and she's had little choice in the matter. People who know her story, she says, constantly volunteer secrets to her, about how they once attempted suicide, or lied about their credentials, or cheated on their spouses, or stole things.

The question is whether she can turn her own story into a lesson for others. In peculiar fashion, Ms. Jones has proved the point that she made in Less Stress, More Success: "The truth is that success and happiness are states of mind and have nothing to do with where one goes to college."

Although several deans were reluctant to say much about Ms. Jones or her new business, Michael B. Sexton, vice president for enrollment management at Santa Clara University, captured the consensus among them. "The message Marilee wants to speak of is important and she does it well," he says. "I just wonder if her notoriety will overshadow her credibility."

Some were impressed, at least, that she had chosen to re-enter the field. "She's very brave," says Ms. Delahunty, at Kenyon. "She's exposing herself to scrutiny of her audiences."

Mr. Behnke, her former boss at MIT, suspects that some colleges would be open to hiring Ms. Jones as a consultant. "We're a pretty forgiving country. We give people second chances," he says. "She paid for what she did. Her career has been in the doldrums. If she explains that, I think it can be a valuable lesson for people to hear."

Paige Crosby, a college counselor at St. Johnsbury Academy, in Vermont, says she wants to meet Ms. Jones—and buy her dinner: "When all this came down, I said, OK, she really understood where these kids were coming from. I thought, Aw, that poor kid."

Dishonesty is not something Ms. Crosby takes lightly. Over the years, she has confronted students who have shown her essays that seemed too perfect. She orders those who admit to plagiarism to get out of her office and come back when they are ready to talk about it. When they do, she asks them, "Are you done yet?"

Mistakes should teach you something, Ms. Crosby says. And she thinks that by explaining her mistake, Ms. Jones is perhaps more qualified than ever to tell students about the importance of being who they really are. "People do things for a reason," she says. "Sometimes you have to look behind the individual and ask why they did it. We do that with kids all the time. I don't know why we stop doing that with big people."

Bob Turba sees it differently. Chairman of school counseling services at Stanton College Preparatory School, in Florida, Mr. Turba has long disliked when speakers who have done something wrong stand up and tell young people what not to do. He recalls what a student once told him after attending a presentation by a former drug addict. "I can keep doing drugs and eventually get off of them, just like he did," he recalls the student saying. "And I can probably make some money speaking about it."

In other words, Mr. Turba would not welcome Ms. Jones into his auditorium. "I'm not opposed to the idea of people coming back from a problem," he says in an e-mail message. "But when they become celebrities because of their issue, there's something wrong with our values."

What's in a Name?

When Ms. Jones left MIT, many of her supporters worried that people would dismiss everything she had ever said. Among those who worried was Scott White, director of guidance at Montclair High School, in New Jersey. In a message he posted on an admissions e-mail list in 2007, he lamented her lie but praised her message. He urged his colleagues to remember her "vision of sanity, compassion, and concern."

After all, Ms. Jones understood the hallways of Mr. White's world, where, he says, too many nervous teenagers believe they must achieve perfection to get into an elite college. Teenagers just like Ivy, a girl he once met who said her parents had named her that because they wanted her to attend an Ivy League college. He believes colleges, testing companies, and publishers of college guides have warped the admissions process, turning high school into a résumé-building strategy session.

So when Ms. Jones contacted Mr. White recently about the possibility of presenting at Montclair, he told her she could come. And why not? Ms. Jones, he says, is "the counterweight to the insanity out there."

Mr. White arranged for Ms. Jones to speak at a gathering for parents of juniors last Thursday night. The title of her talk: "The 10 Most Common Mistakes Parents Make in the College Admissions Process: Why They Matter and How to Avoid Them."

Two days before the event, Mr. White predicted that Ms. Jones would win over parents, just like the last time she spoke there, several years ago. He drew an analogy to Pete Rose, the former Cincinnati Reds star who admitted to betting on baseball games as a player and manager, only to find a second life on the speaking circuit. "Everyone makes mistakes in life," Mr. White said. "People know that Pete Rose had some issues there. But would I want to hear him talk about baseball? Absolutely."

Still, Mr. White wondered if someone would complain about Ms. Jones. After all, a curious parent might ask why—in a world full of admissions deans who have never lied about their degrees—had the school invited Ms. Jones? "It's a bit of a risky move," he said.

In the end, Mr. White apparently decided it was too risky. Two nights before Ms. Jones was to speak at Montclair, he called to cancel her invitation. Ms. Jones says he told her he was concerned that her appearance would get him in trouble with his principal.

The next day, Mr. White told The Chronicle that his decision was due to a last-minute change in the evening's agenda: "It had nothing to do with who she is," he said. He would not say when, or if, he would reschedule her talk, however.

So Ms. Jones must wait awhile longer to face the first audience of her new life. Her next presentation is scheduled for January, when she plans to speak at a high school in Massachusetts. Until then, she will practice her talk and ponder the best way to fold her own story into it. All the while, she will wonder what comes next.

Marilee Jones has reclaimed her name, and the best part is also the worst: Nobody seems to have forgotten it.