Rhodes Scholar who went to a $30k-a-year private school is accused of faking poverty to win a place at Oxford University, report says

·4 min read
The Radcliffe Camera at Oxford University
The Radcliffe Camera at Oxford University, England.Getty Images
  • A 24-year-old Rhodes Scholar has left the prestigious program after being accused of lying about growing up poor, reports say.

  • Mackenzie Fierceton described herself as s a "queer, first-generation, low-income" student, per The Times.

  • But according to reports, she attended a $29,875-a-year private school.

A 24-year-old Missouri woman who won a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University has left the program following accusations that she misrepresented her life experience on her application form about being poor, according to The Times.

Mackenzie Fierceton described herself as a "queer, first generation [to go to college], low-income" student at the University of Pennsylvania, The Times reported. She also claimed to have grown up in the foster care system in an interview published by The Philadelphia Inquirer after she was named as a recipient of the scholarship in November 2020.

The prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which takes on 32 US students a year, is the oldest graduate scholarship in the world. It counts former President Bill Clinton and US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg among its recipients.

But an anonymous tip-off to the University of Pennsylvania in response to that glowing Inquirer article led to questions as to whether she deserved to be listed among the distinguished past scholars.

The tip-off alleged that Fierceton had, in reality, enjoyed a privileged upbringing. According to an investigative report by Tom Bartlett of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the email said that Fierceton used to go by Mackenzie Morrison and had lived in an affluent suburb in St Louis, Missouri while attending the $29,875-a-year Whitfield private school.

It also said that her mother was a college-educated radiologist, per The Chronicle.

A similar email to the Rhodes Trust described Fierceton as being "blatantly dishonest in the representation of her childhood," and included images of her in the private school's yearbook of her skydiving and riding a horse, The Chronicle said.

An investigation was launched into her application, led by a Rhodes Trust committee, and found that she had spent less than a year in foster care as a 17-year-old, the newspaper reported.

Fierceton was placed into foster care in 2014 after she accused her mother of pushing her down the stairs in their $750,000 home, The Times said. According to the Chronicle, she also spent time in hospital after the incident. Charges against her mother, who denies this happened, were dropped due to lack of evidence, according to the newspaper.

The committee said that evidence showed that Fierceton had "created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself" and used these "misrepresentations" to "serve her interests as an applicant for competitive" academic programs, The Chronicle reported. It recommended that her scholarship be rescinded, but Fierceton reportedly withdrew from it herself.

University of Pennsylvania
University students walking on pedestrian road , near University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USAStock Photo/Getty Images

The University of Pennsylvania conducted a follow-up report and also concluded that Fiercton had not been honest about her background. The university is withholding her master's degree pending the final outcome of its disciplinary process, The Chronicle said.

According to The Times, Fierceton claims that she did not lie on her application and that the Rhodes Trust is targeting a "survivor" of abuse. She filed a lawsuit last month accusing her university and investigators of the trust of victimizing her, the newspaper reported.

Supporters at the University of Pennsylvania say Fierceton is the victim of an injustice. Anne Norton, a professor of political science and comparative literature, allowed the student to live in her house during the pandemic.

"The worst you can say about her is that retrospectively she exaggerated her injuries," Norton told The Chronicle. "Injuries that nevertheless kept her in the hospital for a long time and resulted in her being placed in foster care."

Norton wrote in a letter to Rhodes: "The idea that she has been dishonest about her experience of foster care or her economic status is not consistent with her character, nor is it in accord with the evidence," per The Chronicle.

Fierceton could not be reached for comment.

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