‘Rhodes Scholar’ sues U of Penn after being accused on ‘blatant dishonesty’ over childhood poverty claim

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A graduate student named Mackenzie Fierceton was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship by the University of Pennsylvania in 2020 only to have it stripped from her a few months later after allegations surfaced of her being “blatantly dishonest” concerning her childhood description in her application.

Fierceton, 23, competed against 2,300 applicants and in the end, was one of 32 scholars who were selected in November of 2020 to study at Oxford. She received accolades and a massive amount of praise from the Ivy League school’s president in a newsletter, according to the New York Post.

“Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity,” President Amy Gutmann proclaimed. “As a first-generation [to go to college] low-income student and a former foster youth, Mackenzie is passionate about championing young people [and] dedicating herself to a life of public service.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education is now digging into her story including the Rhodes committee’s findings that Fierceton “created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself,” using these “misrepresentations” to “serve her interests as an applicant for competitive programs.”

It also raises the question of political correctness as it appears that the university intended to “show that they’re transforming society rather than laundering its inequalities” by accepting “remarkable” applicants with soul-wrenching and tragic backgrounds, according to the Chronicle report.

The New York Post went on to highlight the grad student’s alleged plight:

Categorizing herself as a first-generation, low-income student with a history of horrific abuse — who also earned nearly straight A’s and was student-body president in high school — Fierceton certainly fit the bill. She was admitted to Penn in 2015 to study political science, then began studying for a clinical master’s degree in social work in 2018.

When Fierceton’s Rhodes scholarship was announced, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the academic star in November 2020, noting that she “grew up poor, cycling through the rocky child welfare system [and] bounced from one foster home to the next.”

As Fierceton said in that story: “I would trade [the Rhodes honor] to have been adopted and have a family.”

 

This is where the story gets murky. An unidentified individual evidently sent an email to Penn and the Rhodes Trust claiming that Fierceton’s story was “blatantly dishonest.” It asserted that she had grown up in St. Louis, MO with her mom who was a radiologist and that her family was upper-middle class. The email also contended that she had gone to an expensive private high school and was an equestrian.

Fierceton reportedly made comments to her hometown paper acknowledging she went to the school in an article that was published on Nov. 24, 2020.

The grad student testified in 2019 that in September of 2014, her mother pushed her down a flight of stairs and then hit her in the face numerous times. She claimed she had to go to the hospital the next day after she collapsed at school. Her mother denies it ever happened, claiming instead that the girl had fallen down two or three steps while she was trying to remove gum from her hair.

“Mackenzie is deeply loved by her mom and family. Our greatest desire is that Mackenzie chooses to live a happy, healthy, honest, and productive life, using her extraordinary gifts for the highest good,” her mother told the Chronicle.

Following the alleged incident, the mother, Carrie Morrison, was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse or neglect and one count of misdemeanor assault. Those charges were later dropped.

Fierceton was questioned about the allegations in the email by the university’s deputy provost, Dr. Beth Winkelstein. She was grilled on everything from her mother’s job and income to the trash bag of donated clothes she claimed to have dragged from one foster home to another in her essay application.

Winkelstein issued a report stating that the grad student was raised in an upper-middle-class household and that her mother is a radiologist. Her grandfather also graduated from college.

The girl actually did spend a year in foster care and was assigned to different homes. But Winkelstein charged that she “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood” and recommended that the committee conduct an investigation.

The committee questioned an undergraduate essay that Fierceton wrote when she applied to the university. It concerned her stay in the hospital after the alleged incident with her mother. She claimed that her hair was “caked with dried blood” and her facial features were “so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart.”

The committee found her assertions to be highly dubious and inconsistent. They recommended that her Rhodes Scholarship be revoked and Fierceton withdrew from the honor.

Since her grandfather earned a degree, the university is claiming that her assertion that she is the first in her family to graduate from college is false.

The university is also withholding Fierceton’s Master’s degree pending a disciplinary decision.

The University of Pennsylvania told the Chronicle: “Truthfulness is essential to academic integrity at Penn as well as a core selection criterion for the Rhodes Trust.”

Fierceton has now filed a lawsuit against the university, its trustees, and three Penn officials.

She is alleging that the university conducted a “sham investigation” into her background and unjustifiably withheld her Master’s degree. Fierceton also accuses the school of writing a “secret letter” to the Rhodes committee to discredit her. Wendy White, Penn’s general counsel, is also charged with threatening to “come after” both of Fierceton’s degrees if she refused to give up her Rhodes Scholarship.

“It’s horrible to be disbelieved over and over and over again by the people with the most power in the institution,” Fierceton told the Chronicle. “Being told that you are wrong about the experience you know, one-hundred percent for fact, and that you spent the majority of your childhood saying wasn’t happening because you felt so ashamed and worthless… and then to finally be able to tell the truth — to have that thrown back in your face has felt like the most severe kind of gaslighting that is possible.”

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