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Penn graduate Mackenzie Fierceton speaks at a campus-wide walkout and rally in solidarity with Fierceton on April 13, 2023. Credit: Kylie Cooper

New documents released in Penn graduate Mackenzie Fierceton's lawsuit against the University in January provide new insight into the circumstances surrounding her allegations.

Penn administrators — including Deputy Provost Beth Winkelstein, Senior Vice President and General Counsel Wendy White, and former Interim Penn President Wendell Pritchett — gave depositions throughout June and July 2023, according to court documents. Though the lawsuit has been ongoing since 2021, excerpts of the deposition transcripts were only recently made public in the court docket.

In her initial lawsuit, Fierceton alleged that the University aimed to discredit her during an investigation into her background. She alleged that this was connected to her efforts to determine whether the 2018 death of Cameron Avant Driver, a School of Social Policy & Practice graduate student, was the result of inadequate accessibility in campus buildings.

In a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, a University spokesperson said that Penn has filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the case because “there is no factual or legal basis” for Fierceton’s claims. He described the student conduct investigation into Fierceton as “thorough and fair,” adding that the Rhodes committee investigation also concluded there were “misrepresentations in the application.”

“Discovery has confirmed what we have said from the outset,” the spokesperson said. “Every witness, including Ms. Fierceton, has acknowledged that Penn had an obligation to notify the Rhodes Trust when questions surfaced about the accuracy of the materials submitted in support of Ms. Fierceton’s scholarship application." 

Fierceton and her lawyer Dion Rassias declined requests for comment. 

On March 4, the plaintiff and defendants both filed motions for summary judgment in their favor on the case. The DP is in the process of reviewing Fierceton's and Penn's filings, which are part of a separate phase in the lawsuit.

In her applications to Penn and later the Rhodes Scholarship, Fierceton detailed her childhood, including an alleged history of physical abuse from her mother and sexual abuse from her mother’s boyfriend. She also identified herself as a FGLI college student as a result of her estrangement from her mother and financial independence.

In November 2020, the University received an anonymous email alleging that Fierceton had fabricated many of these details. On Nov. 30, 2020 — approximately one week after the University received the email — Winkelstein called Fierceton for questioning.

A disputed characterization of Winkelstein's questioning of Fierceton

According to a memorandum filed by Rassias in December 2023, Winkelstein stated in a July 2023 deposition that White and Deputy General Counsel Sean Burke scripted “all of" the questions that Fierceton was asked. The memorandum stated that — in the deposition — Winkelstein added that she proactively called Student Intervention Services before the questioning, recognizing that Fierceton may have needed support afterward.

Rassias contended in the memorandum that Winkelstein’s proactivity was evidence that the Penn defendants “certainly knew that the interrogation would be extremely painful and difficult for the Plaintiff.” He further condemned the University’s failure to give Fierceton advance notice.

In their response to Rassias’ memorandum, Penn denied the allegations that Winkelstein "aggressively and insensitively interrogated" Fierceton.

In his deposition, Pritchett acknowledged that Fierceton had the right to a presumption of innocence. When questioned further, he testified that students accused of sexual assault are provided a trained advocate, adding that he was unaware if Fierceton had been given an advocate.

Rassias asserted in the memorandum that Fierceton was never provided an advocate, describing this lack of support as “ironic” given that “Penn so thoughtfully provides for students accused of rape and sex crimes on its campus.”

Fierceton's professors come to her defense

Several Penn professors who wrote Fierceton letters of recommendation condemned the University’s response in their depositions.

In her Sept. 18, 2023 deposition, SP2 professor Amy Hillier said that “nothing would have prepared” Fierceton for the interrogation she received from Winkelstein. She cited Fierceton’s financial status as perpetuating inequity, adding that she would have benefited from an attorney.

“Most of the time that this happens where the University starts interrogating its own students, they have biological parents who hire attorneys who are there with them,” Hillier said. “And this was a very different situation and I think greatly contributed to Mackenzie's vulnerability relative to the University.”

In her June 27, 2023 deposition, professor of political science Anne Norton criticized Winkelstein and White for misrepresenting her letter of recommendation for Fierceton. Norton accused them of “violating terms of employment by failing to maintain procedural integrity and to accord to the basic standards of academic rigor and responsibility.”

Norton cited a line in the Faculty Handbook. She said “any member of the University community can bring charges and request for sanctions against any other member of the University community for making false charges, either maliciously or out of negligent indifference to the truth.”

“This is ground zero for us. You have to — you aren't allowed to lie, especially about your students or about research you have done or to make claims or statements about students or about your work, which are not true and that you have not researched,” Norton said. 

Norton told the DP that she stands by the statements she made in her deposition. 

Adjunct professor of law Catherine Carr, another of Fierceton’s recommenders, also said she was “pissed” at the University’s allegations in her Sept. 15 deposition, adding that she saw no inconsistencies in Fierceton’s Rhodes application.

“I was offended that nobody [involved in the allegations] picked up the phone or sent me an email and said ‘Let me ask you about your letters.' Nobody bothered. Instead, they just start taking her degrees away,” Carr said.

In a statement to the DP, Carr said that she hopes the litigation can be “resolved quickly so that Mackenzie can put this behind her and get on with her life and career.” 

“As I said in my recommendation letters, she is brilliant and compassionate and will be a wonderful advocate for change in the child welfare system,” Carr said. “That’s why she wanted the Rhodes Scholarship in the first place.”

New details about Penn's correspondence with the Rhodes Trust

The motion also includes email communications between White and the American Secretary for the Rhodes Trust Elliot Gerson.

In one email, Gerson asks White to give a “direct statement from what [Fierceton] wrote or said in those that are probably untrue.”

Rassias contended that this email is evidence that Gerson had been “spoonfed” evidence by Winkelstein and White instead of drawing his own conclusions independently. 

In another email, Gerson notes that Fierceton made a “brilliant effort not technically to lie.” White responded to this email by asking Gerson to call her. 

Rassias alleged that this response was “incredibly ironic considering the depths of the skullduggery now being perpetrated.” He specifically pointed to a moment in White’s deposition in which she states that she “destroys” her notes as an explanation for why there is no written record of what was said in the call. 

Rassias was referring to when White was asked about a call she allegedly had with Fierceton’s biological mother at the start of the investigation. White said she “doesn’t keep” and “destroys” her notes, a practice she learned while working for the Clinton administration.

“I learned that if you hold onto your notes, they are going to be produced to Congress,” White said in her deposition. “I learned early on when I came to the University of Pennsylvania, that while I may scribble some things down, it is not evidence.”

Rassias described the Clinton administration as “certainly a dubious mentor in this specific regard,” and points to “White’s learned lessons of leaving no paper trail” as the reason why she requested that Gerson call her.

Competing definitions of FGLI students

The depositions also examine the definition of FGLI, and show that Penn administrators gave competing definitions of the term.

Pritchett — who was deposed on June 9, 2023 — said that FGLI is an “evolving” phrase with “competing definitions.” 

“It is a vaguely defined category of students that has become en vogue as a term in the last decade,” he said, adding that Penn’s philosophy is generally to be “supportive.” 

White gave a different definition of FGLI in her June 14, 2023 deposition. She described it as a “student club,” explaining that “anybody who wants to identify and join that group is welcome to do so.”

“It is like a lot of student clubs we have … there is no application process. It is not a term that we use in the admissions process,” White added. 

Rassias alleged that these competing definitions, as well as 12 additional definitions for FGLI that have been used by Penn, show that it is a term subject to “a sliding scale analysis — a scale weighted by whatever suits Penn’s own interests at any given moment.”

"In the height of hypocrisy, the Defendants drew an absolute ‘FGLI’ line against the Plaintiff and enforced it so harshly that they have destroyed her forever,” Rassias wrote in a memorandum.

In a Jan. 12 response to Fierceton’s motions, the lawyers on the case denied the allegations, only admitting that the years Fierceton applied to Penn were accurate.

“Penn denies that it engaged in illegal and outrageous retaliation against Plaintiff. Penn further denies that Plaintiff’s representations about her background and placement in foster care in application materials were fully truthful,” the response reads. “Penn further denies that Plaintiff’s application as a first-generation, low-income student was correct.”

On Feb. 1, the court granted an omnibus discovery motion filed by Fierceton, which allows for the depositions of Winkelstein, White, and Pritchett to be reopened. The motion also requests that White provide a “full, complete and unredacted” copy of all text messages with Fierceton’s mother.