Mackenzie Fierceton, a 2020 College graduate who had been pursuing her clinical master’s in social work at Penn, received widespread acclamation in 2020 after being awarded the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship.
Fierceton has been at the center of a scandal that was documented in a widely shared New Yorker article entitled “How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student.” The article chronicles how Fierceton arrived at Penn as a first-generation, low-income student, the work that led to earning and then losing her Rhodes Scholarship, and everything in between. It tells her story from her perspective, shedding light on an array of horrifying details previously unknown to the public, from her experiences of parental abuse to the intensity with which Penn attempted to rescind Fierceton’s degree.
We are not trying to dispute any facts or arguments of the case — that is not our place. Instead, we want to analyze Penn’s response and what it reveals about this school and institutions like it. Without focusing on the basis on which Fierceton received the Rhodes Scholarship, what this situation has made abundantly clear is the way in which Penn truly views the students in whom it appears to take so much pride. Regardless of your opinion on Fierceton’s categorization as an FGLI student, the central question remains: Why has Penn chosen this to be its hill to die on?
The answer is unclear. Could it be in anticipation of potential retaliation against Fierceton’s complaints about the Caster Building? Maybe. Does Penn simply want to avoid bad press? Probably. Is it because Penn’s administration genuinely believes that Mackenzie Fierceton is a bad person who attempted to deceive the University and manufacture a fraudulent past for personal gain? We seriously doubt it. Fierceton is a student who suffered — at the hands of her mother, at the hands of a broken system, and at the hands of a university that refused to acknowledge that suffering.
“I'm worried,” said Wharton junior Derek Nhieu, the Class of 2023 president, who also identifies as FGLI. “Being someone that the University loves to basically showcase … we can be in photos for admissions, come speak to admitted students, be a tour guide, but it also seems like the University can turn on you, just like that, and it makes me feel super uncomfortable. This is something that could happen to any of us in the community.”
Much of the contention in this case revolves around the definition of FGLI and what qualifies those who supposedly deserve this label. Wharton senior Jadah Daley stated, “If you were to ask anyone who goes to Penn what the definition of first-generation was, they would probably all give you different answers.” The questions then arise: How are we meant to define these terms? Is it even our place to do so?
“Not everyone fits into a nice pretty box for us to write,” continued Daley. We can’t really quantify someone’s hardships and emotional struggles through objective criteria. It’s evident that Penn had a certain image of who constituted being FGLI — an image that, at first glance, Fierceton didn’t necessarily resemble. Yet, instead of exploring that complexity and asking questions about how we define identity, about what it means to be FGLI, and about how Fierceton’s past informs her work now, Penn abandoned her and sought to completely discredit her, causing her unimaginable anguish in the process.
We can’t change how Penn will deal with Fierceton’s situation. But if there’s something you should take away from her plight, it is this: You cannot rely on Penn to support you if you directly challenge its reputation. To put it frankly, Penn’s ultimate goal is to sell a service and a product: education and academic prestige. Penn’s administration isn’t necessarily obligated to defend its students when their place in the Penn community or broader academic world is complicated, and from Fierceton’s story, it’s evident that it won’t.
In many ways, Penn is a great place to be — we gladly admit that being here has given us opportunities that we likely would not have gotten elsewhere, and we are grateful for these opportunities. But we hesitate to agree that Penn cares about us more than transactionally; it seems instead that Penn only values us for what we provide to it: tuition, intellectual property, and diversity. To Penn students and alumni, recently admitted high school students, and parents who glorify the Ivy League — take Penn’s treatment of Mackenzie Fierceton (regardless of the basis of the case itself) as a testament to the caveats that come with Penn’s prestige and the attitude that fuels its oftentimes disingenuous image.
VALERIE WANG is a Wharton sophomore from Bethesda, Md. studying business analytics and cinema and media studies. Her email address is email@example.com.
VARUN SARASWATHULA is a College senior from Herndon, Va. studying the biological basis of behavior and healthcare management. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.