Why do executives lie about their education?

Commentary about business and finance.
Oct. 22 2002 3:54 PM

School Lies

Why do so many executives lie about their education?

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In fact, some large corporations today probably conduct more exhaustive background checks on entry-level security guards than they do on CEOs. For even a cursory probe would uncover educational fibs quickly. Companies like Kroll Associates provide a background check for a mere $5,000. A free-lance fact-checker will divine the necessary data for $15 per hour. Given the fact that the unearthing of a suspect educational credential can be costly—Veritas' stock lost nearly $1.14 billion on the news of Lonchar's resignation—it's certainly a worthwhile investment.

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But those who falsely claim the most cherished diplomas rarely escape being found out. Graduates of credential mills like Harvard and Stanford are inordinately jealous of their diplomas and have developed exceptional abilities to ferret out posers. That's why Lonchar's presumption of a Stanford degree was so brazen. Silicon Valley is rotten with Stanford MBAs, and it's a place where discussing school ties is a way for people to break the ice and establish connections. Falsely claiming a Stanford degree on Sand Hill Road is a little like walking around Park Slope, Brooklyn, and trying to pass as a book editor—within a few minutes you'll run into somebody who, with a well-aimed "Do you know?" or "I just had lunch with," can unmask your falsehood.

Self-created entrepreneurs have frequently found it necessary to invent the educational credentials that those in the circles to which they aspire possess effortlessly. Take last century's greatest self-made entrepreneur. Jay Gatsby claimed he was "educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years." In his pocket he carried a "souvenir of Oxford days," a photo of himself holding a cricket bat with, among others, the Earl of Dorcaster.

Gatsby's claim to an Oxford education—he may have spent a few months there but certainly didn't have a degree—impressed the book's most significant financier. Meyer Wolfsheim took a shine to Gatsby in part because, as an "Oggsford" man, he was presumed to have important "gonnegtions."

It took a jealous Yalie, Tom Buchanan, who made a "small investigation of his past," to lay bare Gatsby's lie:

'An Oxford man!' He was incredulous. 'Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit. …Oxford, New Mexico,' snorted Tom contemptuously, 'or something like that.'

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.