The Ivy Coach Daily

June 2, 2022

Did UPenn Bully Mackenzie Fierceton?

A piece in The New Yorker raises the question of what does and does not constitute a first-generation college student.

Remember the University of Pennsylvania graduate who was accused of fabricating significant details of her life story to not only get into UPenn as an undergraduate and graduate student but to also earn a coveted Rhodes Scholarship (a scholarship she subsequently withdrew from)? Well, we’ve been reading more about her case and the more we read, the more inclined we are to believe her story. The young woman, as our readers may recall, was accused of creating what was dubbed “poverty porn” by sharing her story of abuse at the hands of her mother, who happens to be a physician, and her mother’s boyfriend. The young woman, who changed her last name, ended up in America’s foster care system as a youth. She wrote about this story when applying to UPenn as an undergraduate, to a UPenn master’s program in social work, and to the Rhodes Scholarship.

The young woman, Mackenzie Fierceton, had begun a sociology Ph.D. program at Oxford before she ultimately decided to withdraw from the Rhodes when photos from her childhood — photos sent by an anonymous person who knew her at one point — came to light. These photos, which featured Mackenzie horseback riding and going to the beach, seemed to undercut Mackenzie’s less than idyllic portrait of her childhood. You see, the photos didn’t seem to fit snugly with her tales of physical and emotional abuse. But the more we read about Mackenzie’s story, the more inclined we are to believe her. After all, two things can be true. One can be abused and also ride a horse. One can be abused and also go to the beach.

The fact of the matter is, Mackenzie was placed in America’s foster care system. Young people don’t get placed in the foster care system for no good reason. And Mackenzie did show up to school with obvious signs of abuse. As Rachel Aviv writes in a piece for The New Yorker entitled “How An Ivy League School Turned Against A Student,” “Sherry McLain, a nurse assigned to [Mackenzie], told me, ’She had two black eyes, and her hair was full of blood. She had bruises all over her body in different stages of healing—an obvious sign of child abuse.’” More details of the abuse Mackenzie faced during her childhood are peppered throughout the piece in The New Yorker, which we encourage our readers to check out to get a sense of the full picture.

From what we’ve read, it seems the whole reason Mackenzie had to withdraw from the Rhodes is because she checked that she’s a first-generation college student when applying to the UPenn School of Social Policy & Practice (after her life experiences, she — naturally — wants to be a social worker!). In fact, she was even disciplined by the school for checking this box with a fine and notation on her transcript. But whether Mackenzie is a first-generation college student, we believe, is a matter of opinion. After all, as Aviv writes, “The federal Higher Education Act…says that first-generation status depends on the education level of a parent whom a student ’regularly resided with and received support from.’” Mackenzie did not regularly reside with her birth parents. Rather, she was in the foster care system. She also did not receive financial support from her birth parents for her college education. And while not everyone agrees with us, there is indeed room for opinion here.

As Aviv writes, “Anthony Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies low-income and first-generation college students, told me that he would not consider a student like Mackenzie first-generation. But he was troubled that her status as a low-income student had ever been challenged. ’When we allow stereotype to be our stand-in for disadvantaged groups, we are actually doing them a disservice,’ he said. ’That’s what scares me about this case. It’s, like, ’You’re not giving us the right sob story of what it means to be poor.’ The university is so focussed on what box she checked, and not the conditions—her lack of access to the material, emotional, and social resources of a family—that made her identify with that box.’ He went on, ’Colleges are in such a rush to celebrate their ’first Black,’ their ’first First Gen’ for achievements, but do they actually care about the student? Or the propaganda campaign that they can put behind her story?” Well said indeed. By this same logic, we’d add that Mackenzie had every right to classify herself as a first-generation college student in addition to being low-income. If she’s low-income because she has no association with her parents, she’s also a first-generation college student because she has no association with her parents. If p, then q.

And while the piece in The New Yorker paints a vivid account of Mackenzie’s story, it fails to mention the allegation — raised by Mackenzie and her attorneys — that UPenn retaliated against her for testifying against the university in a wrongful death lawsuit. As Ralph Cipriano writes for Big Trial in a piece entitled “In ’Pillow Talk’ Conspiracy, Penn’s Stonewall Cracks,” “On Dec. 21st, Big Trial broke a story about an explosive lawsuit charging that top officials at the University of Pennsylvania had allegedly conspired with journalists at The Philadelphia Inquirer to smear a Penn grad student who had just won a prestigious Rhodes scholarship. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of grad student Mackenzie Fierceton claims that Penn officials targeted her for retaliation after she became a key witness in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the university. As part of the alleged conspiracy, the lawsuit claims, Penn officials conducted a ’sham’ investigation that forced the student to voluntarily give up her Rhodes scholarship, after Penn officials threatened to rescind the student’s undergraduate degree and withhold her master’s degree. On top of that, the lawsuit claims that Penn officials had threatened to send the student to jail for allegedly fraudulently representing herself in her application to become a Rhodes scholar.”

Wow is right. It sure seems to us like Mackenzie got bullied by her alma mater. But, ultimately, that will be for our nation’s courts to decide since it’s a matter of ongoing litigation. Yet what we can decide right here and now is that we stand firmly with Mackenzie. We will never again question a student’s story of abuse, particularly when it can be corroborated. We sincerely regret that we jumped on the bandwagon against Mackenzie when we first heard of the horseback riding and beach-going photos. So she rode a horse? That means she wasn’t abused by her mother? What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? In our eyes, the administrators at UPenn have some explaining to do. It seems to us that by the legal definition, Mackenzie Fierceton was a first-generation college applicant. So how could her alma mater have played such a significant role in penalizing her for sharing her truth? And was it all in retaliation for her testimony against the school over a wrongful death matter? Who knows. But until — or rather, unless — it’s proven otherwise, we stand with the young woman who was forced into America’s foster care system who sought to serve young people like her as a social worker herself. We stand with Mackenzie.

Do our readers agree? Disagree? We imagine the conversation is about to get heated. Let us know your thoughts by posting a comment below. Keep those comments kosher.

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