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 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, Jones went silent, cutting off contact with most of her colleagues at MIT 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 MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, she has re-emerged with a new consulting business, offering her services both to admissions offices and to parents.
Jones still will not discuss what happened at MIT, or how her lies unraveled. “I’ve put that behind me,” she said.
Only the bare bones of her misrepresentations are known. According to MIT, 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.
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.”
Jones’ 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 Jones to gravitate back to what she knows best: college admissions. About four months after leaving MIT, 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 MIT, 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, Jones said, she has been hired as a consultant by two other institutions, which she would not name.
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.
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 MIT resume scandal.
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.
White said he had no comment on the cancellation and no plans to reschedule.
Jones sees herself as a guidance counselor for parents, and emphasizes 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, 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.”