Two senior Penn administrators have been asked to testify in Penn graduate Mackenzie Fierceton's lawsuit against the University.
In an ongoing personal injury lawsuit filed on Dec. 21, 2021, Fierceton — a 2021 School of Social Policy & Practice and 2020 College graduate — accused Penn of discrediting her status as a first-generation, low-income student and unjustly withholding her master’s degree after she became a Rhodes Scholar. In a move that revives an ongoing legal battle, on April 3, Fierceton filed a motion to compel depositions from defendants Interim Provost Beth Winkelstein and Office of General Counsel's Senior Vice President Wendy White; as well as former Interim President Wendell Pritchett.
A pre-trial discovery hearing has been scheduled for May 3, where lawyers representing Fierceton and the University will be present to cross-examine witnesses. The subject of the hearing is Fierceton's motion to compel, Philadelphia Discovery Court Manager Peter Divon wrote to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
In a counter-filing dated April 18, Penn opposed Fierceton's motion to compel depositions from Winkelstein, White, and Pritchett, calling the motion "without merit" and accusing Fierceton of failing to put "reasonable and good faith effort" into resolving disputes between parties. The filing indicates that the two parties were planning for Winkelstein, White, and Pritchett to deliver testimony in June.
In her initial lawsuit, Fierceton alleged that there is a connection between the University’s accusations towards her and her attempt to determine whether the 2018 death of SP2 graduate student Cameron Avant Driver was the result of limited accessibility in campus buildings. The lawsuit also called Penn's investigation of Fierceton's FGLI status a "sham" and said that the University sought to discredit her during an investigation led by the Rhodes Scholar Foundation.
A request for comment was left with University spokesperson Ron Ozio. None of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit responded to an emailed request for comment by publication.
According to court documents, the parties have conducted two depositions to date, while several depositions are in the process of being scheduled, including those of two Penn professors. Other depositions were canceled "[a]s a result of many factors and not blaming anyone,” according to the court docket. These depositions include that of Winkelstein, White, and Pritchett, which the court ordered on April 18 but then vacated on April 20. A court filing read that no “unprofessional behavior” has occurred.
Fierceton’s story received national attention one year ago as the result of a March 2022 investigative New Yorker article detailing her experiences. While the University released its hold on her master’s degree in response to the national outcry, Fierceton told the DP on April 25 that the degree sent to her was conferred a year after she graduated. Fierceton said that the University refused to issue an accurate diploma after she reached out and added that she is still fighting to have the issue resolved.
While she said that she is unable to discuss specifics of the lawsuit, Fierceton told the DP that it has remained “steadfast” in her life.
“Law can be a pathway to change,” Fierceton said. “I filed this case because I felt like it was the only way I would be taken seriously. I’m remaining committed to the lawsuit and taking it day by day.”
Fierceton also believes that the drawn-out nature of the case is an intentional tactic to ensure her case is forgotten about by the majority of the Penn community.
“Penn has endless money, lawyers, and resources while I’m just one person,” Fierceton said. “Continuing to stall until students graduate or run out of money is both an unfortunate and effective tactic for making the problems go away quietly.”