In the technology world, there is a bit of a tempest brewing about a recent blog post by John C. Dvorak, a long time tech journalist with a known persona as being cranky, argumentative, and skeptical about salesmen. He got interested in the academic and professional background of Vivek Kundra, the man recently selected to the the Chief Information Officer of the United States of America. The bottom line is that Dvorak found that the man who has been called a “techno-wiz” has inflated his resume by claiming a degree that he apparently did not receive and by emphasizing his role at the CEO of a single man company operated out of his home.
(Aside: Far be it from me to be negative about trying and not succeeding as an entrepreneur, but it is not a situation where you get much executive experience. There was a time when my business card listed me as President and CEO of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. but my resume simply indicates my position as “founder”.)
Some people who read Dvorak’s commentary have rushed to Kundra’s defense and claimed that degrees do not matter all that much – after all, they say, look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. From my perspective, that is not the point. Neither Jobs nor Gates has ever tried to claim academic successes or degrees.
The point is that Mr. Kundra is just 34 years old and he is being placed into a position of public trust where he will be making decisions that affect the expenditure of billions of dollars. Unlike an entrepreneur who might succeed in building a multi-billion dollar company by age 34 and be making billion dollar decisions about his own money, Mr. Kundra has been appointed to make those decisions about YOUR money. If he was applying for a job with similar responsibilities as a professional civil servant, a resume with his credentials, if properly checked, would not make the first cut, especially if someone realized that the resume included some exaggerated claims.
I know that this post is seeming like a real detour from my normal topics, but I do have an energy related point to make. At least two very influential people in energy debates over the past three decades rose to prominence as “energy experts” partially based on similar efforts to buff up their resumes. Neither of these people is currently making decisions with your money as government employees, but both continue to have a major influence in a debate where it is important to be able to trust your sources since the issues can be terribly complicated.
The first is Amory Lovins, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute. His organization’s web page continues to describe him as follows: “Amory B. Lovins, Cofounder, Chairman, and Chief Scientist, is a consultant experimental physicist educated at Harvard and Oxford.” It continues by listing a whole raft of honorary degrees and one designation – Oxford MA (by virtue of being a don) – that sounds like an impressive degree to an American. However, here is what the Oxford Information Office told me on March 15, 2006 after I wrote to ask them what the phrase “Oxford MA (by virtue of being a don)” meant:
Thanks for your message.
Due to the restrictions imposed by the UK Data Protection Act we can’t discuss the details of an individual’s academic or employment record without their permission. In general terms, though, members of academic staff are awarded what is known as the MA by Special Resolution to allow them to become members of Congregation, the University’s governing body, if they fulfil all the necessary criteria other than being a holder of one of the qualifying degrees (usually an Oxford doctorate or an Oxford MA). I should explain that the Oxford MA is awarded to holders of the Oxford BA (Hons) seven years after they first become members of the University, and is not awarded as a result of following a course of postgraduate study. Our Masters degrees are known by different titles eg MSt, MSc.
I hope this helps.
University of Oxford Information Office
Though it is couched in bureaucratic language, I am pretty sure that it means that Lovins was on the academic staff at Oxford. He arrived there after having dropped out of Harvard – twice – without completing more than a few semesters.
The prodigy Lovins, who was born in Washington, D.C., and attended public schools in Amherst, Massachusetts, arrived at Harvard in 1964 having already done “most of undergraduate physics,” he says. His proactive instincts were already alive: he took a special freshman seminar with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Edward Purcell that, he says, “was open to all freshmen named Lovins.” Due to some knee problems, he left college at the start of his second year and began mountaineering to help strengthen his knees—a pastime that helped crystallize his environmental interests.
Lovins returned to Harvard in 1966, only to drop out permanently after his sophomore year, “largely because I ignored the normal curriculum structure,” he explains. “I very much enjoyed my classmates and had some wonderful teachers, like Albert Lord on oral literature and Paul Freund on constitutional law, but I refused to pick a concentration. Chemistry, physics, linguistics, law, and medicine all interested me. Also music—piano and composition. I thought the world had too many specialists and I wanted to be a well-rounded generalist.”
(Source: Harvard Magazine Jan-Feb 2004: The Hydrogen Powered Future)
I must admit that I am generally a bit suspicious of people in Lovins’s generation who dropped out of Harvard in 1967 and migrated to Oxford. My question would be – what was his draft lottery number? While nominally studying at Oxford, Lovins began working for Friends of the Earth and living in London, never getting around to completing any formal requirements for a degree.
Despite that unfocused entry into the professional world, he had managed to convince people by 1976 that he was an energy guru. His writing attracted enough interest to enable him to publish a lengthy and still referenced article in the October 1976 issue of Foreign Affairs titled Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?. That article, which appeared in a wonkish publication owned by The Council on Foreign Relations, was published just in time to influence the debates leading up to the 1976 Presidential election in the United States. It may have even influenced Gerald Ford’s October 1976 Statement on Nuclear Policy. (That link is to a scanned copy of the original, a searchable version is on Atomic Insights at President Ford: Statement on Nuclear Policy October 28, 1976)
If Lovins’s article did influence the 1976 election, it helped to elevate another man whose resume has received some inflation. That inflation may have been done by political handlers, but there is something slightly questionable about allowing someone to create a life story that is simply not true. I would guess that somewhere north of 90% of the people who know who Jimmy Carter is would tell you that he was a nuclear submarine officer. Some who have watched a PBS show called The Presidents: Jimmy Carter might even say that he served as the engineer officer of the USS Seawolf, the second US nuclear submarine. If the person being questioned is a real buff who has taken a Pentagon tour and seen the wall displays that celebrate the presidents who have served as Naval Officers, he might even tell you that President Carter received a Master of Science in Nuclear Engineering from Union College in Schenectady, New York.
The problem with each of those descriptions of Jimmy Carter’s nuclear experience is that they are wrong, something one can figure out with a calendar that has accurate historical dates.
Jimmy Carter could not have been a nuclear engineer based on his college degree program; he graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1946 with a general Bachelor of Science, before that school offered any designated degree programs.
According to the Naval Historical Center, LT Carter was honorably discharged from the US Navy on October 8, 1953 so that he could return home to care for the family farm. He had only started his nuclear power training on March 1, 1953. The training, in those very early days of the Navy’s nuclear program before the start up of Navy training courses, was conducted at civilian colleges, and Union College was one of the locations. However, it was definitely not a place where one could earn a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in just 7 months. That is especially true when you understand a bit about the Navy and realize that LT Carter probably did not do too much studying after he found out that his father had passed away in July 1953. (Leaving the Navy is not as simple as walking out the door.)
The PBS documentary is quite misleading with regard to Carter’s service, since it states that he served as the engineer of the USS Seawolf, the second US nuclear submarine. That statement is made with a backdrop of the USS Seawolf in operation. Unfortunately, that would have been impossible. The keel laying for the Seawolf took place in September 1953. That means that the construction process started just one month before Carter left the Navy to return to Plains. His service record indicates that he was assigned to the crew that would eventually man the USS Seawolf, but that is certainly not the same as serving as the engineering officer of an operating submarine in terms of the opportunity to absorb nuclear technical knowledge.
It is possible, but unlikely that LT Carter ever watched a nuclear plant in operation. S1W, the prototype for the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear propulsion plant that the Navy constructed, started operating in March 1953, but it would be unusual to have nuclear power school students visiting the prototype during their first six months of training. After Carter left the Navy, there is no evidence of his having had any nuclear related employment; he was too busy growing and selling peanuts and serving as a Georgia state senator and later as Georgia’s governor.
President Carter’s exaggeration of his nuclear experience had an impact on the way that the public viewed his cautious statements about nuclear energy and the way that political leaders accepted his efforts to restrict its growth. When he issued an energy policy that emphasized the use of coal as a way to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, there were many who expressed the view that he must know what he is doing, after all, he was a “nuclear engineer”.
I fear that Dvorak’s warnings about the lightweight resume of the nation’s Chief Information Officer will have little effect. I am sure that there are plenty of people who want to remain on his good side – because he controls a great deal of money – and will refrain from commenting on his lack of knowledge and understanding of the highly complex task of setting information systems policy for the US government. Both Lovins and Carter prospered and continued in public careers, despite their common lack of real training or experience that would enable them to have a good understanding of energy issues, particularly those related to the use of nuclear energy. I just hope that Mr. Kundra is a better student than his resume indicates and that he makes a serious effort as quickly as possible to learn more about his job and surround himself with people who have genuine experience and real technical knowledge.