Friday, August 24, 2012

Fooled by Harvard

In the August 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine, Thomas Frank writes of the faux degree business.  It is incredibly easy to buy a college degree these days from a growing proliferation of faux institutions.  Indeed, the fake degree business has become so big that you can actually have your fake degree accredited by a fake accreditation organization.

Some of those using fake credentials have been exposed.  The CEO of Yahoo, for example, who quit his job when his fakery was exposed.  "In 2006, the CEO of Radio Shack stepped down amid a similar scandal--he had exaggerated his accomplishments at a California Bible College.  And in 2002, the CEO of Bausch + Lomg admitted that the MBA attributed to him in a corporate press release was nonexistent."

Frank has other stories, such as a "high-ranking official in the Department of Homeland Security."  She insisted her minions call her "Doctor."  But her "doctorate was gotten from a diploma mill and was worthless.  Then there was "a senior vice president at Texas A&M [who] lost his job for faking both a master's and a doctorate."  But my favorite story has to do with the person responsible for ensuring academic credentials were in order at MIT - the Dean of Admissions.  Turns out "each of her advanced degrees was strictly imaginary."

Adam Wheeler, however, is the fake who takes the cake.  He was "a young man who first cheated his way into Harvard as a transfer student, then cheated his way straight to the top of its internal meritocracy, winning honor after honor with fake transcripts, fake grades, and plagiarized essays."

Eventually Wheeler was caught and Harvard was not in a mood to treat him nicely.  They got him for identify fraud and larceny.  His sentence included repayment of $45,806 in scholarships and financial aid and he was to serve two years in jail.  The jail sentence was suspended but he got caught using Harvard on a resume and so he was marched off to sit in a cell for a time.

And, says Frank, "That's what you get, I suppose, when you fool Harvard."

But what do we get when Harvard fools us and I think this is really the point of Frank's essay.  The fact of the matter is, no matter what the Republicans claim, that our financial situation and the terrible stresses so many millions of our citizens are undergoing at this time must be pinned directly to our country's elite.

"When Harvard fools you," says Frank, "a different set of incentives applies."  Then Frank refers to an essay by Jim Newell about Harvard's grads.  Frank writes, "the school's legitimate graduates and grandees--the very cream of our meritocracy crop--count among their number many of the folks who engineered the subprime disaster and the bank bailouts that haunt our economy still.  They haven't paid for those crimes of misrepresentation and fraud, nor will they ever.

"Never has the nation's system for choosing its leaders seemed more worthless.  Our ruling class steers us into disaster after disaster, cheering for ruinous wars, getting bamboozled by Enron and Madoff, missing equity bubbles and real estate bubbles and commodity bubbles."

Then, Frank says, and here's where I think he hits the proverbial nail on the head.  "...accountability, it seems, is something that applies only to the people at the bottom, the ones who took out the bad mortgages or lied on their resumes.  The pillars that prop up the system, meanwhile, are visibly corrupt: the sacred Credential signifies less and less each year but costs more and more to obtain.  Yet we act as though it represents everything.  It's a million-dollar coin made of pot metal--of course it attracts counterfeiters.  And of course its value must be defended by an ever-expanding industry of resume checkers and diploma mill hunters.  The boundaries are artificial, and that is precisely why they must be regulated so intensely: they are the only thing keeping the bunglers and knaves who rule us in their jobs."

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