In November 2020, when University of Pennsylvania graduate student Mackenzie Fierceton won the prestigious and highly competitive Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford — one of just 32 scholars selected from a pool of 2,300 applicants — she was praised by the Ivy League school’s president in a newsletter.
“Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious
opportunity,” declared President Amy Gutmann of the 23-year-old from suburban St. Louis. “As a first-generation [to go to college] low-income student and a former foster youth, Mackenzie is passionate about championing young people [and] dedicating herself to a life of public service.”
But a few months later, Fierceton had lost her prestigious scholarship and was fighting against accusations that she had been “blatantly dishonest” about her childhood in her Penn and Rhodes applications.
Now, the investigation into her story is being revealed by the Chronicle of High Education — including the Rhodes committee’s findings that Fierceton “created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself,” using these “misrepresentations” to “serve her interests as an applicant for competitive programs.”
The case also exposes the murky underbelly of elite schools like Penn and their quest to “show that they’re transforming society rather than laundering its inequalities” by accepting “remarkable” applicants with truly tragic backgrounds, according to the Chronicle report.
Multiple college consultants told The Post that the college application process now features more questions about overcoming obstacles. The 2021-2022 essay prompts from Common App, the organization that oversees undergrad applications for more than 900 schools, include “Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.”
“There are a lot of pressures out there for applications right now,” Marco Santini, a New York-based college education consultant, told The Post. “I always try to tell students not to do the sob story because there is always someone with a sadder story. I tell students that when they submit their application they have to make sure that everything they have said in their personal statement is true … that they have to stand by what they wrote.”
Categorizing herself as a first-generation, low-income student with a history of horrific abuse — who also earned nearly straight A’s and was student-body president in high school — Fierceton certainly fit the bill. She was admitted to Penn in 2015 to study political science, then began studying for a clinical master’s degree in social work in 2018.
When Fierceton’s Rhodes scholarship was announced, the Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the academic star in November 2020, noting that she “grew up poor, cycling through the rocky child welfare system [and] bounced from one foster home to the next.”
As Fierceton said in that story: “I would trade [the Rhodes honor] to have been adopted and have a family.”
But after that Nov. 22, 2020, profile ran, an anonymous accuser sent an email to Penn and the Rhodes Trust, claiming Fierceton’s story was “blatantly dishonest.” The email reportedly alleged that Fierceton grew up in St. Louis, Mo., with her mother, an educated radiologist; that her family was upper-middle class; and that she had attended a fancy private high school and enjoyed such high-end hobbies as horseback riding.
According to the Chronicle, Fierceton lived with her mother, Carrie Morrison — a divorcée and director of breast imaging and mammography at a local hospital — “on a [suburban] tree-lined cul-de-sac with large houses and well-groomed lawns.”
She attended Whitfield, a $30,000-a-year private school in St. Louis, although the Chronicle does not note how her tuition was paid for or if she received financial aid.
In 2019, Fierceton later testified in a court hearing that, in September 2014, her mother allegedly pushed her down a set of stairs and hit her in the face several times. The teen said she was sent to the hospital the next day after collapsing at school. Fierceton’s mother denied the account and said the teen had accidentally gone down two or three steps while Morrison was helping remove gum from her hair.
Morrison told the Chronicle in a statement: “Mackenzie is deeply loved by her mom and family. Our greatest desire is that Mackenzie chooses to live a happy, healthy, honest, and productive life, using her extraordinary gifts for the highest good.” (The Post was not able to reach Morrison, Fierceton or Fierceton’s lawyer, Dion Rassias, for comment.)
After the 2014 incident, Morrison was arrested and charged with two counts of felony child abuse or neglect and one count of misdemeanor assault — charges that were later dropped. An email from assistant prosecuting attorney Michael Hayes, quoted in the Chronicle, said: “The more I learned [about the case], the less certain I became about what really happened.”
When Penn received the anonymous accusations about Fierceton, she was reportedly questioned in the fall of 2020 by the university’s deputy provost, Dr. Beth Winkelstein, about everything from her mother’s job and income to the trash bag of donated clothes she said she had dragged from one foster home to another in her essay application for Rhodes.
According to Winkelstein’s subsequent report, Fierceton was raised in an upper-middle-class household; it also notes her mother is a radiologist and that her grandfather had graduated from college.
No one disputes that Fierceton spent a year in official foster care, during which she bounced around to different homes, and then continued to live with a foster family. But Winkelstein said in a letter to the Rhodes committee, sent a week after her call with Fierceston, that the student had “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood” and recommended that the committee conduct its own probe, which it did in April 2021.
The Rhodes committee questioned Fierceton about the undergraduate essay she wrote when applying to Penn. In it, she detailed her hospital stay after the alleged incident with her mother, including claims that her hair was “caked with dried blood” and her facial features were “so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart.”
The committee concluded that this was “inconsistent with the hospital records,” adding, “Either [Fierceton] has fabricated this abuse by her mother, or her mother has lied about the terrible abuse…”
The committee recommended that Fierceton’s Rhodes scholarship be revoked. In response, she withdrew herself from the honor.
“Penn and the Rhodes Trust received credible information that called into question statements Ms. Fierceton made in her applications for admission, financial assistance, and scholarships,” a Penn spokesperson told The Post. “The Rhodes Trust conducted its own investigation, during which it considered evidence and arguments provided by Ms. Fierceton and her attorney … The Trust then gave Ms. Fierceton the opportunity to withdraw her candidacy if she chose to do so. Ms. Fierceton accepted that offer and withdrew her candidacy.”
The Rhodes Trust did not get back to The Post for comment.
Penn then followed up with its own formal investigation in August 2021, probing Fierceton’s assertion that she would be the first in her family to graduate from college.
As the Chronicle reports: “If ‘first generation’ means the first in one’s family to attend college — the widely used, common-sense meaning — Fierceton’s answer would be plainly false.”
However, according to the school’s website, this definition can also include students who are the first in their families to “pursue higher education at an elite institution.” Fierceton’s mother did not attend an Ivy League university, though the Chronicle does not note where Morrison went to college.
Furthermore, the website for Penn First Plus, the school’s inclusivity initiative, broadens the definition of first-generation to include students who “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelors degree.”
By the time she applied to Penn, Fierceton was estranged from her mother and supporting herself. Still, the school found Fierceton describing herself as “first-generation” on her application to graduate school to be “objectively inaccurate.”
Santini, the college consultant, noted: “On the economic side, there are so many applications to schools that it is impossible for schools to fact check everything.”
Penn is now withholding Fierceton’s master’s degree — which she was scheduled to receive in May 2020 — pending a final disciplinary decision. Her bachelor’s degree is seemingly not in question.
The University of Pennsylvania said in a statement to the Chronicle: “Truthfulness is essential to academic integrity at Penn as well as a core selection criterion for the Rhodes Trust.”
Just before Christmas, Fierceton — who changed her last name while in college — filed an explosive lawsuit in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, claiming the university, its trustees and three Penn officials had participated in a complex conspiracy against her.
She alleges that Penn conducted a “sham investigation” into her background, unjustifiably withheld her master’s degree and wrote a “secret letter” to the Rhodes committee to discredit her. The claim also accuses Wendy White, Penn’s general counsel, of threatening to “come after” both of Fierceton’s degrees if she did not give up her Rhodes scholarship.
Furthermore, Fierceton claims in her suit that the school conducted its investigation because she had complained to administrators about insufficient access to emergency services at Penn after she had a seizure at school in early 2020.
“We are disappointed that Mackenzie Fierceton has chosen to file a lawsuit, especially after she has received so many opportunities at Penn,” a Penn representative told The Post. “There is no basis for Ms. Fierceton’s claims.”
Fierceton seems to have few regrets about her essays. As she told the Chronicle: “Where I’ve landed is that I have a right to write about my experiences as I experienced them. Period.”
Jerry Oppenheimer is a bestselling biographer and a frequent contributor to The Post.