Recently a few things have gotten me thinking about credentials, in particular, academic credentials and its evil component, credentialism, the excessive attention to formal credentials. Credentials are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but excessive attention to them leads to some pretty serious problems which I will elaborate below. What put me on this train of thought? Pretty disconnected stuff, actually. First, it’s graduation time, so a lot of people are getting their degrees (congratulations if you are getting one). Second, it wasn’t all that long ago that students were choosing their schools, where they hope to get their degrees (congratulations if you got into a good one). Third, the case of Marilee Jones, former admissions director at MIT ousted for faking her credentials, has been in the news of late (sucks to be her). Finally, Rush released a new album, which, longtime fan that I am, I bought and have been rocking out to; get it if you like the band. This reminded me of the old claim that drummer/lyriecist and now book and magazine author Neil Peart had “a PhD in English” because he writes lyrics with lots of literary references. I’ll tackle these in reverse order.

(1) Neil Peart, “PhD” I’m not sure where the rumor that Neil has a PhD in English got started. Quite possibly it came about from a telephone-game style mutation of Neil’s early stage moniker “The Professor of Drums.” I remember hearing it (and possibly repeating it) back in high school (mid to late 80s). Neil’s obviously a very smart, highly articulate and well-read man but, as it used to say on his web page (I can’t find it anymore—sorry, but his Wikipedia bio has similar info as does Andy Olson), he’s a high school dropout who moved to London from Canada and back again while working odd jobs and playing in unsuccessful bands before hooking up with Geddy and Alex when he was in his early 20s. Then they worked their tails off for several more years touring and recording before making it big. So there was no time for finishing high school, much less college or a PhD in English, but plenty of time for reading tons and tons of books in the back of the tour bus, which is exactly what he did. Rather than spending all his time screwing groupies and sniffing coke, Neil read some pretty heavy stuff, starting with the works of Ayn Rand but branching out greatly from there (thankfully, if you ask me). Hazarding a guess, I suppose the rumor spread as a way of legitimizing one’s own tastes, particularly against parents and other adults like high school English teachers (“fascists” that they are, at least in the minds of high school students).

Of course, this is far from uncommon. By no means comparing Peart’s literary talent—I think Neil would remote-choke me from a distance Darth Vader style if I did—the longstanding debates about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote his plays are similar, the thought being essentially “How could a lowly commoner have written what he did?” Well… let’s just say that thirty years of writing, directing and acting in plays is a pretty strong education on what makes a good play. Mark Twain went through a similarly sordid set of careers, including deserter from the Confederate Navy, before finding success as an author, though no one doubts his existence or authorship. Again, no formal education. Writing is one field where credentials count for relatively little, it turns out.

(2) Marilee Jones was obviously good at her job and it turned out she had a degree, just not the ones she claimed (bizarrely enough she didn’t list the one she did have…). Fraud, at least when it’s been aired in public is something that MIT seems to be unable to deal with. Rather than let it turn into a circus, she did the honorable thing and resigned (possibly with help). I have to concur: for someone in the position of an admissions director, —even if you’re good at your job and have a good message—lying about your credentials is a pretty serious thing. It undercuts your authority to check on students’ credentials. If there was a real remedy for it short of termination, maybe, but I just don’t know what. In this day and age, an honorable resignation seems to be relatively rare. “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” —Voltaire, Candide Translation: In England it is good, from time to time, to kill an admiral to encourage the others. It refers to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757. (If only George W. Bush and his cronies would get the message.)

This seems to be the object of some disagreement, with very well-reasoned opinions like this arguing for something short of termination for dishonesty nearly three decades ago. Unfortunately, universities aren’t very consistent on this point. I recall reading a quote from someone at MIT basically saying “integrity is what we’re about.” I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, MIT has somewhat of a dark reputation among us researchers for being a place where you have to watch your back among your colleagues, who frequently appropriate your ideas for themselves. True? I don’t know since I’ve only interacted with a few people from MIT, but I definitely watch my back around people I don’t know aren’t thieves. This isn’t something I’m entirely happy about since the free exchange of ideas is thereby hampered. I do know from personal experience that cheating and plagiarism are rarely punished. Instructors know better than to take a plagiarizer or cheater to discipline committees, where the instructors get the third degree as often as not—we usually solve the problem by finding a way to give the offender a nasty grade, which is easier than you might think, since plagiarists and cheaters (at least the ones we find out about) aren’t usually top students. A co-author and I were plagiarized by someone (a faculty member at another institution) who copied about a page from one of our articles without quotation or attribution. When called on it, he said essentially “well I can’t be bothered to get my citations right.” (My co-author pursued it but I can’t recall the final outcome.) I know of another case of faculty plagiarism of a student’s thesis that eventually lead to a retraction in the journal. Student and former advisor no longer speak. So universities have no special claim to being ethical… welcome to the human race.

(3) The Super College Admissions Grind What Marilee Jones had become famous for was her stand—as admissions director of MIT—that the college admissions process was overheated and that students needed to cool it. Simply put, it’s not the end of the world to go to a “lesser” university like, oh, U of I, compared to an Ivy, or to go to ISU rather than going to U of I. A lot of what you get out of your education comes from what YOU put in, and finding a school that matches you is the best way to make that happen. Lots of small liberal arts colleges give first rate undergraduate educations, but aren’t on students’ minds because they’ve got their eyes set on Harvard (or U of I). Unfortunately for most high schoolers, college admissions is a time fraught with parental sticker shock and lots of pressure from peers, teachers, family, etc., for whom the success of the prospie becomes a vicarious personal success having more to do with parents’ and high schools’ bragging rights than what’s a good fit for students. It’s also the first real decision that most high school students make and many of them think it’s irrevocable (it’s not), which doesn’t help. Universities often ratchet up the pressure, too, with things like early admissions. So I applaud Jones for trying to cool it down, but still stand by my statement that she had to go for her decades-old fraud and thus did the right thing by stepping down.

(4) Degrees In a very real sense, it’s funny that a college degree is required for many jobs that require them. This is probably going to seem strange to many readers, but it’s true. The vast majority of jobs requiring college degrees do so for no really good reason that relates directly to job performance. So why is it the case that degrees are required? There are a few reasons. One was aptly analyzed by the 2001 Nobel laureate in Economics, Michael Spence, in his dissertation(!). Spence essentially attributes it to the asymmetry of information between employer and employee. Basically, it’s in the incentive of employees to lie about themselves to employers. (Employers, alas, also have incentive to lie to employees about the state of their organization and how well they treat their employees.) As a consequence, prospective employees need to send an expensive signal to prospective employers that they’re serious about the job, so serious they went into debt for a non-trivial amount of money and spent several years of their lives. A college degree also demonstrates some basic educability and stick-to-it-iveness, which is useful. They can’t just talk about how committed they are, because “talk is cheap,” but spending time and money demonstrates it. In all areas of human endeavor the rite of passage is different, but it’s there. Nowdays, a humble Bachelor’s degree ain’t much, since so many people have them, which devalues their role as a signal. Of course, we should expect degree creep. Intelligent organizations will find ways to avoid this treadmill by figuring out ways to let prospective employees regardless of their backgrounds “try out” for a while.

The second big reason is that credentials are used as a barrier to market entry in industries like secondary school teaching or psychotheraphy, just to name two. Here’s where credentialism comes in. There are good reasons for requiring a demonstration of proficiency, but the credentialing system gets hijacked by professional organizations operating as craft guilds and the state being pointlessly bureaucratic (what’s new about that?). Our culture is unhealthily ambivalent towards those of us with advanced degrees: it grants those of us with them an undue amount of respect and deference (why else would fraudsters append the title “Doctor” to their name? why else would there be degree mills letting you get a doctorate for some Benjamins?) but also devalues what we do know when we are seen not to be infallible. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium (well except here and here). It’s amazing how many people try to “gotcha” those of us with alphabet soup after our names, not realizing that relatively trivial knowledge at the top of our heads isn’t what a PhD is about. It’s a research degree that (hopefully) demonstrates one’s ability to undertake an independent line of inquiry, which is harder than most people understand but also requires less raw intelligence than many expect, too. Certainly it doesn’t make one universally competent, though there are plenty of people with (and without) PhDs who think so.