Fierceton’s story is immensely powerful: She has gracefully risen above people and systems that have continued to victimize her unfairly, especially the ones that had the responsibility to protect her.
Coming to Penn and escaping a life with her abuser was supposed to be a new beginning. Yet, the administration of the University of Pennsylvania, a world-renowned institution that has a duty to empower its students to feel protected and secure, retraumatized and isolated one of its very own.
Last week, The New Yorker published a powerful piece revealing in detail the suffering of former Penn student Mackenzie Fierceton both at her home and subsequently at Penn. Penn’s administration called Fierceton’s experiences of prior abuse and her status as a first-generation student into question, putting her through a grueling investigative process that ultimately resulted in the revocation of her Rhodes Scholarship and withholding of her master’s degree. After eight months of thorough investigation, thanks to journalist Rachel Aviv, Fierceton’s story is finally starting to be heard.
We stand with you, Mackenzie. We believe you and your story.
What happened to Fierceton was by no means a simple bureaucratic accident. Thus, it is vital to call attention to the following actors: former Penn President Amy Gutmann, Interim President Wendell Pritchett, Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein, general counsel Wendy White, and the Rhodes Trust. Whether by negligence or malicious intent, the aforementioned played very active roles in contributing to the revocation of Fierceton’s scholarship and isolation from the Penn community.
Professor Anne Norton, Fierceton’s recommender for the Rhodes Scholarship and the one who eventually took Fierceton in for nearly a year, agreed to a conversation with us in which she spoke on Fierceton’s unjust treatment and the University’s wrongdoing.
Norton revealed that she had read the letter Winkelstein sent to the Rhodes Trust expressing her concern that Fierceton falsely characterized herself as a first-generation, low-income student: “It was immediately evident to me that Winkelstein had made false charges. Winkelstein said Fierceton had misrepresented herself to her recommenders. I am a recommender, and I knew that was untrue. It is unacceptable for an administrator to bring false charges against a student, or fail to check her facts.”
Furthermore, it is unfathomable to us that White contacted and maintained contact with Fierceton’s abuser, but never spoke to Fierceton herself, according to Norton. The mere existence of this line of communication is both bizarre and unusual — especially given the fact that Fierceton was in foster care at the time of her enrollment at Penn. University officials rarely, if ever, communicate with parents of students, especially when the parent in question has no relationship with the student, legal or otherwise.
This grim reality leads us students to question whether the Penn administration genuinely cares about our well-being. Or, do they solely care about using students, especially FGLI students, to aggrandize the University’s prestige?
Gutmann, an FGLI college student herself, identified that one of her key priorities as president of the University was to increase access for FGLI students and to establish a community in which resources were made available for the improvement of their mental, emotional, and academic health. However, this does not seem to be actualized. It is evident through Fierceton's case that students at Penn are still vulnerable.
In reaching out to several senior administrators at Penn, specifically Pritchett, Gutmann, Winkelstein, and White, we relayed our disappointment in the treatment of Fierceton’s situation and called on them to make a comment addressing the recent article in The New Yorker to the Penn community.
In his response, Pritchett began by stating that The New Yorker did not accurately portray the University’s “thorough, careful, and sensitive” investigation into the handling of Fierceton’s case.
Yet, as Norton stated, Aviv and The New Yorker went through a thorough fact-checking process in their communications with Fierceton: “They fact-checked every claim … date … quote … and statement. They would ask us questions such as, ‘Do you agree with this? Do you think this is accurate? Does this represent [the story] correctly?’”
Simply asserting that The New Yorker piece was inaccurate does not render Pritchett’s claim true, especially when it is at odds with the reputation of The New Yorker as a diligent publication and Norton’s personal experience with Aviv’s thoroughness.
Pritchett went on to speak about the University’s mission to support all students including “under-sourced students,” who, through Penn, have access to world-class educational opportunities. Finally, he stated that “as an institution, we cannot overlook the importance of integrity in our University community or ignore clear violations of our principles and ethical code because we have a responsibility to ensure that all members of our community, most especially other young people, have fair and honest access to opportunities.”
Penn administrators, if this is true, then why haven’t you been transparent about your dealings with Fierceton? Show the Penn community that you have ethically and responsibly followed principles to protect your students by emphasizing transparency, student agency, and dignity in disciplinary hearings. Apologize to Fierceton and members of the Penn community to ensure that this case does not set a precedent for the future.
It is important that we remember that Penn is not solely its administration: Administrators are a mere piece within a large community of students, faculty, and alumni who are dedicated to bettering their community.
In accordance with Norton’s recommendation for how the University could support Fierceton going forward, we believe that students need to “press for some real reforms in disciplinary and investigatory hearings.” Furthermore, we firmly believe that Winkelstein and White should be thoroughly investigated by the University for their conduct in Fierceton’s case.
This case is largely related to the failure of the University to acknowledge its students' dignity enough to let them defend themselves. Thus, administrators need to be investigated and right their wrongs accordingly. Give Fierceton her degree. If feasible, restore her Rhodes Scholarship. In time, more procedural details of this case will become public, and justice will surely prevail.
ALLISON SANTA-CRUZ is a College first year studying communications from Jackson, Miss. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
LIALA SOFI is a College first year studying health and societies from Roanoke, Va. Her email address is email@example.com.