Penn has released its hold on a master of social work degree from Mackenzie Fierceton — the former Rhodes Scholarship recipient who filed a lawsuit against the University following its investigation into allegations that she falsified her status as a first-generation, low-income student and survivor of abuse.
University spokesperson Ron Ozio told The Daily Pennsylvanian on April 12 that School of Social Policy & Practice Dean Sara Bachman instructed the registrar to release the hold on Fierceton’s master's degree. Ozio wrote that this decision was made following "a careful review of all materials, and considering the recommendations made to Dean Bachman by two SP2 faculty committees."
Ozio declined to specify what the specific sanctions recommended by the SP2 faculty committees were, or which faculty members make up the committee.
Fierceton told the DP that she was first informed of Bachman's decision to release the hold on her degree on Monday. She added that, while she will no longer be required to write a letter of apology, it is to her understanding that she will still have a "permanent mark" on her transcript.
"This was a very sudden and unexpected development, and I believe it is a result of the widespread public outcry and fierce organizing by students, faculty, the local community, and well-known advocates, as well as my refusal to issue an apology," Fierceton wrote in a statement sent to the DP.
Fierceton cited a recent open letter written by SP2 students and alumni regarding Fierceton's situation, which was sent via email to a number of Penn administrators within SP2. The letter called for a release of Fierceton's master of social work degree, an introduction of policies to protect survivors experiencing disciplinary processes, and the disclosure of the names of the faculty members of the SP2 panels that reviewed Fierceton's case.
The University’s decision to release her master of social work degree comes as Fierceton re-enters the center of a national conversation about Penn's handling of the investigation, which was documented in an investigative piece published in The New Yorker on March 28.
Fierceton said she was originally told by administrators that her degree would not be granted unless she submitted a letter of apology for misrepresenting her FGLI identity on her application to Penn’s SP2.
Fierceton was initially also required to pay a $4,000 fine, a disciplinary action that was later withdrawn due to a regulation in the University’s charter that prohibits the imposition of financial restitution in cases concerning academic integrity, according to The New Yorker.
“My understanding is that the letter was intended to be a letter of apology for broadly misrepresenting myself. I feel very strongly that the only people who deserve an apology are the survivors of abuse and other FGLI students — period. So that's how I feel about that,” Fierceton told the DP on April 7.
Penn First Plus, the University’s office for FGLI students on campus, defines “FGLI” broadly. First-generation students, according to P1P’s website, could also include students whose parents did not attend an institution comparable to the “resources and opportunities a Penn education provides.” It could also include students who have a “strained or limited relationship” with parents who hold degrees from institutions of higher education.
In the lawsuit filed on Dec. 21, Fierceton alleged that Penn is unjustly withholding her degree, as well as discrediting details about her upbringing.
After The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled Fierceton in November 2020 when she was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship, Penn and the Rhodes Trust received anonymous tips suggesting Fierceton had been dishonest about aspects of her past on her application.
Penn and the Rhodes Trust both launched separate investigations regarding Fierceton's undergraduate and scholarship applications detailing her alleged experiences of abuse.
The University claimed that Fierceton’s narrative was “replete with falsities, including but not limited to a fictitious account of abuse by her mother" in its legal response to Fierceton's complaint issued earlier this month.
Fierceton previously told The Chronicle of Higher Education that she was questioned by administrators 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 a 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.
A campuswide walkout organized by students to support Fierceton — which aims to bring students together to stand in solidarity with survivors of abuse and FGLI students — is planned for April 13 at 10:45 a.m.