Penn student and Rhodes Scholarship recipient Mackenzie Fierceton filed a lawsuit against the University following its investigation into allegations that questioned her status as a first-generation, low-income student and survivor of abuse.
In the lawsuit filed on Dec. 21, Fierceton, a 2021 School of Social Policy & Practice graduate and 2020 College graduate, accused Penn of discrediting details about her upbringing and unjustly withholding her master's degree. She alludes to a tie between the University's investigations and her previous attempt to determine whether the 2018 death of her classmate Cameron Driver was due to alleged inaccessibility issues on campus.
Fierceton has since withdrawn from her Rhodes Scholarship, and her master’s degree is being withheld, according to an investigation published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The investigation led to extensive national media coverage and strong reactions from the University community, drawing attention to what it means to qualify as a first-generation, low-income student in higher education.
As one of 32 American Rhodes Scholars selected in 2020 from a competitive pool of 953 applicants, Fierceton was given the opportunity to pursue post-graduate work at the University of Oxford for up to four years. She planned on conducting research on the foster care-to-prison pipeline.
After The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Fierceton in November 2020, Penn and the Rhodes Trust received anonymous tips suggesting Fierceton had been dishonest about aspects of her past on her application. Separate investigations were then launched by Penn regarding Fierceton's undergraduate and scholarship applications detailing her alleged experiences of abuse.
After receiving the anonymous tip, Deputy Provost Beth Winkelstein, who was Interim Provost at the time, began to lead Penn's inquiry in fall 2020. Following a conversation with Fierceton, The Chronicle reported that Winkelstein sent a letter to the Rhodes Trust. The letter stated that Fierceton attended a private high school in St. Louis, was raised in an upper-middle-class household with a radiologist mother, and that her grandfather had been a college graduate.
Penn’s Office of Student Conduct also issued a report that investigated Fierceton’s family background, according to The Chronicle.
Fierceton’s narrative was “replete with falsities, including but not limited to a fictitious account of abuse by her mother," the University wrote in its legal response to Fierceton's complaint issued earlier this month.
Fierceton previously told The Chronicle she was questioned about her mother’s profession, family income, and foster history. She said that her mother pushed her down a flight of stairs in their home in 2014, which she testified about in court hearing five years later. That incident and other events that took place in her household, which she described as “physically, mentally & emotionally lethal,” placed Fierceton in foster care at the age of 17.
Fierceton held that her strained relationship with her parents during her application period to Penn validated her stance as a first-generation student. According to the Penn First Plus website, students qualify as first-generation if they “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelors degree.”
The Rhodes Trust launched an investigation and completed a 15-page report in April 2021, which The Chronicle reported contradicted the University's investigation. While the Rhodes Trust report praised Fierceton as “gifted,” it concluded that Fierceton’s representations of herself and her situation were “canny” in order to make herself a more appealing candidate. According to a statement provided by Penn to USA Today, the Rhodes Trust gave Fierceton the opportunity to withdraw her candidacy to the program after a report was given to her and her attorney.
Fierceton later withdrew her candidacy.
Reports from the University and the Rhodes Trust did not arrive at a definitive conclusion, and Penn’s Office of Student Conduct stated it “could not make findings related to abuse that would be helpful," The Chronicle reported.
Advocating for Fierceton, political science professors Anne Norton and Rogers Smith expressed to The Chronicle that they disapproved of Winkelstein's treatment of Fierceton. Norton wrote that idea that Fierceton lied about her experience in the foster care system or her economic status is "not consistent with [Fierceton's] character, nor is it in accord with the evidence."
“I identify as a FGLI student based on Penn’s own definitions of FGLI,” Fierceton told The Chronicle.