It was June when the Globe broke the story alleging that Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, president of the prestigious Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences honorary society, had embellished her resume. Records, including academy applications for federal grants, suggest she’s been at it for at least a decade, inventing a doctorate from New York University she didn’t receive and inflating other aspects of her work experience. On July 31, Berlowitz resigned. Her paper trail is now under investigation by the state attorney general’s office.
This, of course, is not the first time an academic powerhouse has been caught padding his or her resume. In 2007, after working as MIT’s dean of admissions for nearly three decades, Marilee Jones lost her job after admitting she’d invented three college degrees. In 2012, having falsely claimed to have a PhD from Columbia University, Doug Lynch resigned as a vice dean at the University of Pennsylvania. The day Berlowitz resigned, a Boston Public Schools principal caught plagiarizing on job application materials submitted her resignation, too. There are disgraced executives from major corporations, governmental agencies, and college sports programs. (In 2001, Notre Dame football coach George O’Leary was busted when a journalist uncovered that he hadn’t played at the University of New Hampshire. He later admitted that he lied about his master’s degree from “NYU-Stony Brook.” No such university exists.)
Why would CEOs and lofty academics — presumably smart people — risk padding their resumes, knowing that if they were nabbed, they’d lose the jobs that inspired the lies in the first place?
Some see “white lies” as harmless, says Bill Driscoll, New England district president for the staffing firm Robert Half. But any falsehood uncovered by a potential employer may eliminate you from consideration for a position and damage your professional reputation. An example: claiming to have managed a project, having actually co-managed it with a colleague. Applicants are tempted to stretch the truth in this way, Driscoll says, because they want whoever’s doing the hiring to think they meet, or exceed, the requirements for the job. Even high-level candidates “will do whatever it takes to stand out.” And managers say they’re savvy to the ruse. In a survey of 1,013 senior managers at companies with 20-plus employees commissioned by the staffing company OfficeTeam, 43 percent of respondents said they believed job applicants included dishonest information on their resumes.
Resume embellishing occurs at every level of every industry, says Dana Manciagli, a former Microsoft executive who has written a book called Cut the Crap™, Get a Job! With an average of 250 applications per open position, she writes in an e-mail, she’s seeing “an increase in fibbing on resumes due to the highly competitive job market.”
In Boston, abundant superpowered academic institutions spit out throngs of hyperambitious but often insecure intellectuals. That’s what the culture tells us, that we’re not good enough. Academics are also under massive pressure to compete for dwindling funding and beat other researchers to the punch with a new study. Publish or perish. So perhaps adding a degree or fellowship can be defended in murky consciences as another way to keep up with the Dr. Joneses.
“Evolution didn’t shape us to be saints, it shaped us to be adaptable,” says David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University. Any time we humans think we can get away with something, he says, the temptation to deceive increases. In “cheating experiments” conducted in 2007-08, DeSteno and collaborator Piercarlo Valdesolo found that 90 percent of subjects will cheat if they think they’re doing it anonymously, won’t be caught, and are certain their misdeed won’t seriously hurt anyone. The vast majority of subjects “know the action was wrong but will create a story to justify it — to make themselves appear, at least to themselves, to be a good person,” he explains. “We have a built-in propensity to rationalize.”
Heck, we dye our hair and whiten our teeth. So why not a Botox injection for the sagging curriculum vitae?
In the case of Berlowitz and, in particular, the grant applications, Who is getting hurt? may have been her internal narrative. The academy deserves this National Endowment for the Humanities grant as much as the next nonprofit.
But there is one more factor at play: power. “As people increase in status or power, that increases the odds that they will engage in unethical behavior,” DeSteno says. We become a mover and shaker, he says, and “we think we are special. The rules don’t apply.” In a farewell letter to academy members, Berlowitz said she was tempted to rebut the claims against her. Instead, she offered this: “I always acted in good faith and with the best interests of the Academy at heart.”
But today, thanks to Google and specialized reference-checking technology, “good faith” and “best interests” can cheaply and quickly be verified. It’s easier than ever for prospective employers — and for disgruntled employees, rivals for a promotion, or other enemies — to suss out the truth.