Why Kenny Jones’ HBCU Lies Cost More Than Just His Reputation

In the span of a few weeks, Jackson State University alumnus (maybe) Kenny Jones has gone from life as a sought-after speaker on Black Greek culture and LGBT advocacy, to fired from his job at the University of Pennsylvania and a black social media pariah. The alleged cause — for most of his academic and social career, he’s been lying about his letters, degrees and experiences at several HBCUs.

Revelations following a recent appearance he made before Penn State University’s Pan-Hellenic council have unearthed uncomfortable truths for Jones and others. The PhD he earned from Morgan State, the dissertation defense of which UPenn researcher Marybeth Gasman called ‘breathtaking?’ He never earned it.

The membership in Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. which he touted in his presentations and public profiles? He does have, just a little later than he originally claimed. From PSU student blog ‘Onward State,’ which ran the original story about Jones’ appearance at PSU, and retracted the story after confirmations and admissions of Jones’ alleged lies.

Onward State also received an email from the administrator of member records for the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. The email claims that there is no record of Jones ever being a candidate for membership of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity. A fraternity record keeper in our comment section also verified this claim.

When presented with these inconsistencies, Jones admitted that he never received his PhD. He still claimed to be a member of the fraternity — “just not through that chapter” — and claimed he joined the fraternity after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Jackson State. This contradicts Jones’ speech yesterday, which centered around his fraternity experience as an undergraduate at Jackson State.

When people lie on resumes or in professional listings, it typically is an effort to stand out in an applicant pool. This was something different, a more regrettable, more despicable form of cultural appropriation that is more heinous than the kind introduced to the world last summer by Rachel Dolezal.

Dolezal got caught in a web of cultural lies spun in tribute to black culture. She had little to gain from lying about her ethnicity beyond the escape it provided from personal problems which she tied to being white, and the affinity she developed for the struggle of American blackness. In many ways, if more white folks thought as she does, the nation would be much better off in the way of race relations.

But Jones made a mockery of those elements of blackness which many of us hold most dear. Black folks who earn terminal degrees comprise a very proud, very respected cultural subgroup in our communities. And those who earn them from HBCUs are part of an elite group of professionals who commit their lives and careers to bear a badge of racial pride.

Those who are made in fraternities and sororities at HBCUs hold a unique distinction within those organizations, and whether that distinction is tied to hazing or not, there is a unique sense pride associated with initiation into organizations seated at black colleges, which were designed for the betterment of black students and black communities.

Jones’ took all of that history, all of that pride, and slathered it on to a few resumes and emails to better himself. And when that lather worked, it seemed all too easy to mass produce it as slime to glaze his speeches and papers discussing his time as a maligned undergraduate experiencing both indignities and triumph at Jackson State; fake experiences which positioned him to be a unique expert on a taboo topic that, in truth, really is devoid of needed conversation throughout Black America.

He concocted stories about JSU’s Alpha Beta chapter and then snitched on its lineage through his fabricated lectures. He fictionalized his achievement as a Morgan Man, and used it to break into work and tutelage at one of the nation’s most highly-selective Ivy League institutions. In a way, his lies could almost be twisted as a subconscious case for HBCU culture — a testament to the culture existing on our campuses being so socially rich, so interpersonally fulfilling, so professionally competitive that people are wiling to lie about having them just to make it in America today.

But because he is an HBCU graduate (maybe), and because this still is America, plenty of black folks will use his tragic example as a way to denigrate HBCUs and the experiences they help to foster. They will say “these are the kinds of students HBCUs let in, the kind who would falsify years of their own existence and achievements.”

Lying on your degree, typically, isn’t a matter of complete moral bankruptcy or needing Jesus; it is a way to make more money and have more important titles that usually gets out of hand after you’ve gotten both. Lying on your letters, typically, isn’t a sign of disrespect of an organization; it usually is an extraordinary infatuation with the lifestyle which creates the illusion that you’ll never get caught.

But lying on HBCU culture, that place which creates the opportunity for degrees, letters and so much more for so many people, does more damage to our campuses than it would ever do to Jones or any other perpetrator with manufactured credentials. It sends the signal that our experiences can easily be counterfeited and sold to people, black and white, beyond our gates for profit and accolades. It would take a lot more nuance for some people to see past the lies and falsehoods to see that Jones, much like Dolezal, wanted to sell a unique brand of HBCU authenticity which he did not earn, and that he never considered the alternative ending; becoming little more than an HBCU-bred liar.