Marilee Jones Leaves Behind Complicated Legacy
By Marissa VogtFeb. 5, 2008
Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones resigned abruptly in April 2007 after admitting to lying on her résumé, shocking the MIT community and putting herself and MIT in the national spotlight.
When MIT administrators discovered that Jones had, at various times, falsely claimed degrees from three universities, she was asked to resign publicly to preserve the integrity of the Institute. Jones issued a brief statement through the MIT News Office apologizing to the community and saying that she “did not have the courage to correct my résumé.” Since then, Jones has been unresponsive to attempts to reach her, and MIT administrators have been relatively terse on what Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 called in April a “very sad case of personal tragedy.” These circumstances have complicated the question of what will be Marilee Jones’ lasting impression on the Institute.
Jones had worked in the Admissions Office since 1979 and became dean of admissions on Jan. 1, 1998. During her 28 years at MIT, admission to the Institute became increasingly more competitive and the incoming classes became more diverse. As the associate director of admissions, Jones was tasked with increasing the percentage of female students, which grew from 28 percent in 1985 to 42 percent in 1996.
Michael C. Behnke, director of admissions during that time, said in an e-mail that although Jones was his point person on female recruitment, the increase was the result of a team effort by the Admissions Office and was supported by MIT administrators, including then-President Paul E. Gray ’54. “Marilee has obviously brought some discredit on herself, and I would hate to see any of that reflected on the increase in female enrollment that happened while she was there,” Behnke said.
When Behnke left MIT to take a position at the University of Chicago, Jones was named interim director of admissions and a national search began to find Behnke’s replacement. “By conducting a serious national search, we wanted to ensure that any internal candidates would be measured against the highest standards,” Professor Rosalind H. Williams, dean of students and undergraduate education from 1995 to 2000, said in an e-mail.
The search committee, which included then-Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72 and other MIT administrators, eventually chose Jones for the job based on her familiarity with MIT and the admissions process and her commitment to diversity and equity, Williams said. After Jones was selected, the chair of the search committee, then-Associate Dean of Engineering John B. Vander Sande told The Tech, “I feel confident that I can speak for the committee in saying that in Marilee Jones we have gained for MIT the best dean of admissions in the country.”
Jones was known nationally for her efforts to reduce the stress associated with the college admissions process. In her public statements and writings, including in her book Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond and a 2003 editorial for USA Today, Jones criticized the amount of pressure placed on students applying to college and encouraged high school students to participate in a few activities that they were passionate about rather than spreading themselves thin to make their applications appear more impressive. That attitude was reflected in MIT’s admissions decisions year after year, where “passion” was a common factor among admitted students.
“We look for people with passion — self-initiated, self-motivating individuals who get stoked up about something,” Jones told The Tech in 2001. She often became emotional when discussing her work, especially when referring to the many well-qualified students who could not be admitted to MIT.
Outspoken but also approachable, Jones was well-liked by most students until her resignation, though her strong opinions were sometimes polarizing. Jones drew a particularly strong amount of student criticism for a 2001 essay in the faculty newsletter in which she refers to students born after 1979 as “millennials,” a generation that requires praise, instant gratification, and a strong amount of guidance. “[Students] need to be involved in decision making, but they need for us to make the final decisions,” she wrote.
Many students resented the characterizations Jones made and took particular offense to her claim that in loco parentis is necessary for students to thrive at MIT.
In recent years Jones has been a strong presence at Campus Preview Weekend, where she has given well-received speeches welcoming admitted students to the Institute and assuring them that they were not admitted by mistake.
At Jones’ last CPW, held less than two weeks before her resignation was announced, she shared the stage with the admissions bloggers, whose online posts have become a popular way for prospective students to connect with MIT.
Jones was also well-respected among administrators, faculty, and her colleagues in the Admissions Office. She received a 2001 MIT Excellence Award for Leading Change, given for her “visionary” approach to college admissions.
“She had strong and warm relations with many faculty members and a keen sense of MIT culture,” Williams said. “She looked at individual applicants as individuals, valuing strength of character and accomplishment even if on the quirky side.”
Two and a half years ago, Marilee Jones, the highly regarded dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, vanished from public sight when it came to light that nearly three decades earlier, when she was first hired there, she had lied about her academic credentials.
That revelation was a major scandal in academic circles, where Ms. Jones was well known for trying to help students calm down as they competed for admission to the most selective colleges. From the day she resigned, April 26, 2007, Ms. Jones went silent, cutting off contact with most of her colleagues at M.I.T. and in other admissions offices, and not responding to messages.
“I dropped off the grid, on purpose,” she said in a recent interview. “I needed time to reground and heal.”
But now, like many others tainted by scandal (think Martha Stewart), she has begun a second act. After a move to New York, and a divorce from Steven R. Bussolari, of M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory, she has re-emerged with a new consulting business, offering her services both to admissions offices and to parents.
Ms. Jones still will not discuss what happened at M.I.T., or how her lies unraveled. “I’ve put that behind me,” she said.
Only the bare bones of her misrepresentations are known. According to M.I.T., Ms. Jones, 58, had on various occasions represented herself as having degrees from three upstate New York institutions: Albany Medical College, Union College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In fact, she had no degrees from any of those places only a 1973 bachelor’s degree, in biology, from the College of St. Rose, an independent college in Albany, where she grew up.
Ms. Jones said that she had never read a single word of the news coverage of her resignation but that she very much appreciated the support she had received since.
“I got hundreds and hundreds of letters and e-mails and packages and angels, from people I hadn’t heard from in years, people I’d helped, and people I didn’t know,” she said. “It was awesome, and it really carried me through a hard time.”
Ms. Jones’s fall from grace came as she was reaching a nationwide audience, touring and speaking about the book she wrote with Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, a pediatrician, “Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond,” which cemented her reputation as the leader of a movement to calm the college-admissions frenzy.
It did not take long for Ms. Jones to gravitate back to what she knows best: college admissions. About four months after leaving M.I.T., Ms. Jones was hired as consultant by the admissions office at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“We knew of her reputation, that she was someone who could give us excellent advice,” said Damien Bracken, Berklee’s dean of admissions. “Obviously we were aware of what happened at M.I.T., but she had such a stellar reputation as a dean there that we felt the value of the consultation was in the expertise she could provide. She spent close to a year working with me, and it was really, really great.”
And since then, Ms. Jones said, she has been hired as a consultant by two other institutions, which she would not name.
Ms. Jones said she had also been approached by institutions she would not name them either interested in hiring her as an admissions dean, but had not been tempted.
“I don’t want to work that hard,” she said. “And at this point in my life, I’m not interested in institutions that don’t really move me.”
One part of her new life is volunteering as a college expert for teenage cancer survivors at the Center for Survivor Wellness at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia.
Ms. Jones, who has a college-age daughter, remains committed to the mission of taking the stress out of college admissions. And to that end, she is consulting with parents, sometimes offering reduced fees, sometimes charging about $500 for a three-hour session, plus unlimited e-mail messages. So far, she said, not a single client has mentioned the M.I.T. résumé scandal.
Ms. Jones would like to expand her reach, with parent seminars at public schools.
“The bottom line is that I’m really afraid of how we’re raising kids, with so many expectations, and so much fear of failure,” she said. “Failure is practice, and we seem to want everything perfect, the first time. It’s important to learn to fall and get back up again. And if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
But her plans to move into the broader public arena are being delayed. She had offered to speak last Thursday at a college night for juniors at Montclair High School in New Jersey, but Scott White, a guidance counselor there, canceled the appearance.
Mr. White said he had no comment on the cancellation and no plans to reschedule.
Ms. Jones sees herself as a guidance counselor for parents, and stresses that she is not an independent college counselor mapping out strategies to get a child into college, but rather a counselor helping parents learn to support their children through a time of tension.
And New York City, she said, may be where she can be most helpful.
“I moved to New York because I’ve always wanted to live here and also because there’s a lot of work to be done here,” she said. “In New York, you have so many parents asking: ‘What’s the secret? Who do I have to know? How much do I have to pay?’ It’s so pervasive, it’s a cultural difference. It’s terrible for the system and it’s terrible for democracy, and it really hurts the kids.”
She added: “In their worrying about college, a lot of parents lose touch with who their kids are. I want them to fall in love with the child again.”
Usually, Ms. Jones said, after parents share their worries about whether their child will get into an elite college, will be Ivy League material, will find a comfortable place in the world, they realize that the issue is not so much their child’s college admission as coming to terms with their own dreams and wishes.
“After they talk about their concerns, they reach the point, pretty soon, where they can say, ‘Oh, this is really about me,’ and then they can get out of the way and support their child,” she said. “Ultimately, this is about facing ourselves.”