Mackenzie Fierceton on her war with the University of Pennsylvania
Earlier this month, the New Yorker published the story of a student’s battle with the University of Pennsylvania. It looked unassuming at first, but I had the magazine with me while I waited for my kids to finish a dance class, so I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did: despite it being, in the end, just the story of one young woman, it’s an utterly enraging and engrossing read, because of what it says about our elite institutions, what they’re capable of, and how they view anybody who smudges just a bit outside the boxes they want the people of this world to fit into.
This weekend, I interviewed Mackenzie Fierceton for our podcast, Deconstructed. It was great to talk to her, and get a sense of the person who’d gone through this, and get her take on how and why it could happen. I strongly recommend that New Yorker story, but the short version is this: Mackenzie was raised in a wealthy St. Louis suburb by a single mother who was repeatedly abusive, according to two state agencies. Her junior year at Whitfield, a prestigious prep school, Mackenzie showed up to school one day in a terrible state. Her history teacher described the incident this way: “She showed up at my classroom door with a bloodied and battered face and then fainted.”
Mackenzie was hospitalized. In The New Yorker piece, a nurse assigned to Mackenzie is quoted as saying, “She had two black eyes, and her hair was full of blood. She had bruises all over her body in different stages of healing — an obvious sign of child abuse.”
Mackenzie told the police her mother had pushed her down the stairs and struck her in the face. Her mother had no explanation for the injuries, other than saying perhaps she had done it to herself. Her mother was arrested and charged with abuse, and Mackenzie went into foster care. The mother hired a high-powered attorney and engaged in a local campaign to discredit Mackenzie. The prosecutor eventually dropped the charges and the arrest record was expunged.
The department of social services substantiated Mackenzie’s allegations, as did the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board, which is an independent state panel. Her mother’s name was entered into a registry of abusers. She petitioned the court, and was able to successfully have her name removed, with a judge ruling that there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate the abuse allegations specifically, saying, “While it is possible that Petitioner was the cause of the alleged injuries, the court cannot make that finding by a preponderance of the evidence based on the evidence presented.”
Mackenzie, for her part, was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and, in her sophomore year, won a Rhodes Scholarship. But her mother wasn’t finished with her.
An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer erroneously wrote that she had grown up poor. The reporter had assumed based on her status as a FGLI student — which stands for first-generation, low-income — that she had been poor her entire life. But it doesn’t mean you were always low-income, just that you are now. Within days of the article being published, the university’s general counsel was in touch with Mackenzie’s mother. Mackenzie’s critics even began nitpicking how much blood was in her hair while she was in the intensive care unit. Ultimately, she lost her Rhodes Scholarship, and Penn withheld her master’s degree, demanding a letter of apology.
Now the pendulum is swinging back the other direction. Under pressure, Penn has released her degree, and pressure is building for them to apologize and hold accountable the officials who made these decisions along the way. You can listen to the interview here or on any podcast platform.
And an update on Rising: I’m mercifully no longer doing the show every morning. What I expected to be a two-week fill-in role extended for nearly a year. Instead, Emily Jashinsky and I’ll be doing Rising Fridays, starting this Friday morning at 9:30. There are things I’ll miss about doing it daily, but I’m also looking forward to getting a little bit of sleep, and being able to spend a bit more time reporting and a bit less time talking.