Teachable Moment: George Santos’ Lesson to College Students

It has now been several weeks since George Santos was sworn into the United States Congress. We now know that he has lied about nearly every facet of his resume and background, including that his grandparents fled the Holocaust, his mother died as a result of 9/11, that he worked at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, and perhaps most notably, that he graduated from Baruch College with degrees in economics and finance—a college he never attended. To this lie, he added the darkly comedic touch that he was the star of a volleyball team that “slayed” Yale and Harvard.


It is now beyond any debate that this ersatz congressman is a walking fraud. But beyond the sensational story of how he lied his way into public office, there are larger takeaways.


As the President of Dickinson College, I constantly interact with our students at many levels. Common questions from them involve how to succeed. Time and again, I have repeated this mantra: Be cognizant of your good reputation because when you lose it, it is difficult—if not impossible—to reconstruct one in its place. Character counts. Moreover, prior to my service at Dickinson, I spent nearly 20 years as a United States District Judge. During that time, I sentenced dozens of white-collar criminals. Almost all of them said, prior to receiving their sentence, that if they had it all to do over again, they would have chosen a different path. My rejoinder was always that there are very few do-overs in life and that, generally, one reputation is all you ever have.


In the face of this advice, our students are now watching a Republican majority in Congress that cravenly turns a blind eye to Mr. Santos simply because ejecting him from that body would impair the razor-thin margin Republicans enjoy. There cannot be any other reason for keeping this world-class prevaricator in office. The message, contrary to what I have always believed, is that character does not count.


My students know well that they must act ethically when they graduate and leave this campus. But I wonder, what are they to think about an institution that is clearly rewarding this kind of mendacity? I’d like to think that they view this as aberrational, but I’m less than certain about that. For some, the clear takeaway is that you can wantonly lie your way to some measure of success and do so without any immediate penalty whatsoever.


I suspect that if this sad saga persists, in November 2024, Mr. Santos’s district voters will send him into retirement. However, that potential electoral rejection misses the mark. As one who has long urged my fellow citizens to put aside their jaded attitudes about government and respect our institutions, I am frankly embarrassed that Republican leadership has acted so benignly in dealing with this fraudster. I am watching what happens here, as are my students. Will this panoply feed the cynical narrative that our government institutions are badly broken, or will the message be sent that character and integrity still matter?


I urge the leadership in Congress to look beyond the Capitol walls and recognize the larger ramifications of allowing this spectacle to continue unabated. If I or any of my students had committed this kind of fraud, we’d pay a terrible price for it. It is incomprehensible that Mr. Santos has not, and the negative message it sends speaks volumes about the integrity of the institution in which he serves.


Photo courtesy of Dickinson College

John E. Jones III

John E. Jones III is the president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. He previously served as the chief judge of the U.S. Middle District Court of Pennsylvania, where he was appointed to the bench by former President George W. Bush in 2002.

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