Penn graduate and Rhodes Scholar Mackenzie Fierceton spoke to The Daily Pennsylvanian about her feature in The New Yorker, the Penn administration’s response, and what she hopes to accomplish by sharing her story — on Penn’s campus and beyond.
Fierceton recently re-emerged in the national spotlight when a feature in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv was published on March 28, detailing the story of her history of abuse at the hands of her mother, journey to Penn, receiving of the Rhodes Scholarship, and the subsequent investigation by Penn and the Rhodes Trust that would change her life forever.
In December 2021, 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, she alleged that Penn unjustly withheld her master of social work degree from Penn's School of Social Policy & Practice. The University announced on April 12 that it would no longer withhold her master’s degree.
In an emailed statement sent to the DP on April 4, Interim President Wendell Pritchett said that The New Yorker article “did not accurately reflect” the University’s investigation into the questions raised by the prior findings of the Rhodes Trust.
“It is our mission to do everything possible to support all our students and to ensure that under-resourced students have access to Penn’s world-class educational opportunities. We have always recognized that this particular situation involves a painful family experience, and we have consistently approached it with empathy and a thoughtful consideration of all of the facts available to us,” Pritchett wrote.
He added that Penn cannot ignore “clear violations of our principles and ethical code” given the University’s responsibility to provide “fair and honest access to opportunities" to all members of the Penn community.
Fierceton said that Penn's questioning of The New Yorker's journalistic integrity is an indication of the University’s “vulnerability and desperation” in handling the situation. She added that the March 28 article had taken eight months of work until it could be published.
“I really find it unacceptable because that was eight months of work by [The New Yorker], and they had the most incredible moral compass throughout their reporting. I was honestly a little shocked by how robust their fact-checking process was,” Fierceton said.
Penn political science professors Anne Norton and Rogers Smith have supported Fierceton from the start, and they expressed in a Jan. 7 article by The Chronicle of Higher Education that they disapproved of Penn's treatment of Fierceton.
Smith told the DP that he believes the Penn administration “decided prior to any formal investigation” that Fierceton had falsely accused her biological mother of abuse and had self-inflicted injuries in order to get herself put into foster care and then “cynically employed” Penn’s broad definitions of FGLI students to enhance her chances at success.
He said that the premise that Penn based their evaluation of Fierceton on resulted in the Penn administration treating Fierceton in a way that lacked compassion, transparency, sensitivity to trauma victims, and respect for the protections granted to students in the University Charter.
“I am profoundly disappointed in the conduct of Penn officials whom I have previously admired, and I am profoundly impressed with the courage, resiliency, and fundamental human decency of Mackenzie Fierceton,” Smith wrote in an emailed statement sent to the DP.
Fierceton said her immediate next steps will be to finish her remaining two years of schooling for her Ph.D. at the University of Oxford, where she studies the relationship between the foster care system in England and the United States.
Although Fierceton lost her funding for her doctoral education when she withdrew from the Rhodes Scholarship, she said that a Penn professor who requested anonymity offered to pay her first year’s tuition, allowing her to attend.
“In terms of my educational experience being impacted, I’m really lucky,” Fierceton said. “[Oxford] has been exceptionally supportive and has really had my back and every step of the way, which is obviously night-and-day to my experience at Penn."
She added that she has been overwhelmed by the amount of support she has received from her former classmates at Penn, adding that she has received messages from Penn students she has met.
“The most meaningful part of the outreach I've received has been the hundreds or thousands of messages from survivors — including other students, and FGLI students who will say things like ‘I've thought it was just me. I didn't think anyone else had a similar story.' And this makes me feel less crazy and more seen,” Fierceton said. “I've even gotten emails titled ‘I am Mackenzie.’ It has been so powerful to see that other people feel that way.”
Fierceton said that she hopes her story will inspire other FGLI alumni at Penn to share their own stories, so that current FGLI students feel heard and seen on Penn’s campus.
“Some of the messages I've received from current FGLI students have said ‘Thank you so much for sharing. I'm grateful because I feel scared to speak up because [administrators] can take everything away from me.' And that is so heartbreaking, but it's also so true," Fierceton said.
Fierceton said that her story represents a tragic narrative that spans far beyond Penn's campus.
“Something that I am really hoping will not get lost is that obviously, this story is specifically about myself, but it's also so much bigger than that. This happens everywhere. It's not a story of one bad institution. This is something that happens across the country, and across the world,” Fierceton said.
A walkout and rally in solidarity with Fierceton, survivors of abuse, and FGLI students took place earlier this morning in front of the Caster Building, which was built in 1966 and serves as the home to SP2.
Fierceton said that she hopes for change at Penn and that incoming Penn President Liz Magill, who will assume the office on July 1, will listen to and believe the stories of student survivors of abuse and FGLI students.
“At the end of the day, the University administrators have the power to make changes,” Fierceton said. “I hope that [Magill] will make the decision to start her tenure by making changes — listening to survivors and other marginalized communities. This is an inhumane and devastating situation, again, not just for me, but everyone who's involved in these marginalized communities.”