Higher Ed’s Version of the Great Impostor

The following is another item that I am re-posting from Futility Closet (www.futilitycloset.com). It is re-posted with the permission of Greg Ross, who maintains the site. You can have daily updates delivered to your e-mail each morning.

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Marvin Harold Hewitt was bright enough to find schoolwork boring, so he dropped out of high school. That didn’t hold him back:

To get a job at 23, he claimed he was a Temple University undergraduate and found himself teaching arithmetic, geography, and history at Camp Hill Military Academy in Philadelphia.

Discovering a taste for teaching, he borrowed the identity of Columbia physicist Julius Ashkin and began teaching calculus, algebra, and trigonometry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, where he also bluffed his way through managing a physics lab.

Still posing as Ashkin, he taught analytical and solid geometry, algebra, and physics at the Bemidji State Teachers College in Minnesota; moved to St. Louis University, where he taught graduate courses in nuclear physics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics, and tensor analysis; and arrived finally at the University of Utah, which hired him as a full professor of physics.

Here his luck finally ran out — a number of people noticed discrepancies in his stories, and he had to admit his real identity and return to his mother in Philadelphia.

Chastened but not discouraged, he applied next to teach at the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, posing as “George Hewitt,” a former research director of RCA. They hired him, but a former RCA employee exposed him the following spring and he was fired.

Posing as “Clifford Berry,” he took a job teaching second- and third-year physics and calculus at the New York State Maritime College in the Bronx.

Posing as “Kenneth P. Yates,” he taught physics at the University of New Hampshire at Durham, where he was finally outed by a suspicious student amid publicity too wide to live down.

In all, Hewitt spent nine years teaching mathematics, engineering, and physics at seven different schools and universities, using forged credentials throughout. “The ease with which Hewitt obtained these jobs fills him with indignation,” reported  Life  magazine, which profiled him in 1954 when it was all over. “The unquestioning acceptance of a transcript and careless checking of references is, in his fairly expert opinion, a universal weakness throughout the U.S. higher educational system. When he considers what might have happened to a great many people had he made medicine or surgery his field, he shudders.”

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