Penn releases hold on master’s degree for student at center of controversy over university mistreatment of trauma victims

There’s a campus rally in support of Mackenzie Fierceton set for Wednesday morning.

The University of Pennsylvania campus

The University of Pennsylvania campus

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
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The University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday announced it will stop withholding a master’s degree from Mackenzie Fierceton, the former student at the center of a recent New Yorker magazine investigation accusing the Ivy League school of intimidation and retaliation against the young woman.

While denying any wrongdoing by the university, a Penn spokesperson told Billy Penn via email Fierceton’s master’s of social work would be released.

“After a careful review of all materials, and considering the recommendations made to Dean [Sally] Bachman by two [School of Social Policy and Practice] faculty committees, she has determined that the student has met the sanctions recommended by the SP2 faculty,” the spokesperson said. “Following these recommendations, she has instructed the registrar to release the hold on the degree.”

Fierceton, who also attended Penn as an undergrad, was heralded in 2020 after receiving the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship as a self-identified first-generation, low-income (FGLI) student. She garnered widespread praise throughout the city and a profile in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Shortly thereafter, questions about whether she had falsified her background led both Penn and the Rhodes Trust to withdraw her honorifics. Penn also withheld Fierceton’s master of social work degree, demanding she issue a formal apology to receive it.

Recent reporting in The New Yorker by Rachel Aviv, however, alleges that Penn targeted and discredited Fierceton, unfairly challenging her FGLI status and improperly handling questions of her abusive childhood. While both the University and the Rhodes Trust asserted Fierceton deliberately and nefariously misrepresented her childhood in order to further her academic career, Aviv’s reporting outlines a pattern of administrative failure by Penn.

The university unequivocally denied the allegations published by the magazine, which is known for its robust fact-checking.

“The New Yorker article did not accurately reflect the university’s thorough, careful, and sensitive investigation into the very serious questions which were raised by prior judicial rulings and the findings of the Rhodes Trust, another reputable institution that conducted its own extensive review of the facts,” the Penn spokesperson said, in part

The release of Fierceton’s master’s degree comes at the heels of increased campus activism on her behalf.

Student groups have galvanized around what they see as a larger pattern of Penn’s mistreatment of FGLI students and survivors of abuse. There’s a “Justice for Mackenzie Fierceton and All Survivors Walkout and Rally” set for 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 13.

In an Instagram post advertising the rally, student group Police Free Penn wrote, “Reminder that the institution does not care about you. @uofpenn will ‘care’ about and exploit students’ trauma narratives in so far that it serves their savior complex and quest for power & prestige.”

What does ‘first generation’ mean?

In fall 2020, Fierceton took the spotlight in Philly as a first-generation, low-income Rhodes Scholar from the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, as Aviv’s recent reporting underscores, Mackenzie navigated a complicated relationship with the terms “low-income” and “first generation.”

Carrie Morrison — Mackenzie’s biological mother — had graduated from college and was a successful doctor. Through her high school graduation in 2017, Mackenzie attended the Whitfield School, a private preparatory school in St. Louis which boasts a yearly tuition of $29,875.

Nonetheless, according to The New Yorker, Fierceton’s home life was marked by an endless cycle of abuse. She experienced physical violence by Morrison and sexual violence by Henry Lovelace, Jr., Morrison’s boyfriend. This abuse culminated at the beginning of Fierceton’s junior year, when she was hospitalized for three weeks with injuries she alleged were the result of a physical attack by her mother. Morrison was charged with felony child abuse and misdemeanor assault and the Department of Social Services placed Fierceton in the foster system, where she moved around from home to home. By her senior year, she attended Whitfield on a full scholarship and had not seen her mother in months.

It was under these circumstances that Fierceton applied-and was admitted to-the University of Pennsylvania through the QuestBridge program.

Fierceton wrote her college admissions essay about her time in the pediatric intensive-care unit her junior year, after her alleged assault by her mother. When applying to Penn, Mackenzie omitted any data about her biological parents, given her estrangement from both of them. This automatically delineated Fierceton as a “first generation” student in Penn’s system. Upon her arrival to campus, Fierceton would soon become involved in Penn First, an organization for FGLI students.

Penn’s definition of FGLI is broad. According to Penn First Plus, first-generation students can fall into a number of categories. One such definition of first-generation is students with “a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelor’s degree.” When Fierceton applied to the MSW program at Penn during her sophomore year, she marked herself as “first-generation,” identifying with the language outlined in this category.

After all the publicity she received for receiving the Rhodes Scholarship, the father of a former high-school classmate of Fierceton’s reached out to Penn to say he thought her FGLI status was inaccurate. Soon after, Penn Deputy Provost Beth Winkelstein questioned Fierceton about her abuse allegations against her mother and her overall story. The university contacted the Rhodes Trust, which opened its own investigation.

In April 2021, the Rhodes Trust issued a recommendation that Fierceton’s scholarship be rescinded due to a misrepresentation of her background. Fierceton later withdrew herself from the scholarship.

Around the same time, Penn accused Fierceton of misrepresenting herself as a FGLI student in her grad school application. Penn’s committee ultimately recommended sanctioning Fierceton for dishonesty, handing down a $4,000 fine and a note on her transcript of her condemnation. Penn also withheld Fierceton’s master’s degree, demanding an apology to the University before it would be released.

The $4,000 fine was withdrawn after the university confirmed it is not allowed to impose financial penalties on academic integrity cases.

In December 2021, Fierceton filed a lawsuit against Penn, alleging that the university’s actions against her may have been retaliation for her involvement in a wrongful death lawsuit around late SP2 graduate student Cameron Driver.

Penn students disappointed, but not surprised

Sarah Payne, Penn senior and campus activist for survivors of sexual violence, felt disappointed with Penn administration upon hearing about Fierceton’s case, but not surprised.

“I have myself experienced, and I have seen a lot of other people experience, this systemic gaslighting by administration,” she said.

Payne underwent her own Title IX sexual violence investigation during her first year at Penn, which she felt the administration improperly handled. She drew similarities between her own negative experiences with University’s leadership and Fierceton’s when reading The New Yorker article. “There were a lot of parallels there,” she said.

In an April 6 op-ed in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s independent student newspaper, college undergraduates Allison Santa-Cruz and Liala Sofi called on Penn to “Give Fierceton her degree.”

In an open letter to the administration of SP2, dozens of SP2 students and alumni outlined how Penn “exploited, retraumatized, and mistreated Mackenzie Fierceton.” The letter issued five clear demands, including an immediate release and award of Fierceton’s MSW degree and an apology to Fierceton for the exploitation of her trauma.

And on Tuesday, the dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice instructed the registrar to release the hold on Fierceton’s degree.

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