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Throughout the conversation — Fierceton would later refer to it as an interrogation — the 23-year-old graduate student struggled to maintain her composure. Just a few days before, Fierceton had been selected as a Rhodes scholar, one of 32 scholars chosen from more than 2,300 applicants. She had graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political science and was close to completing her master’s in social work. Her background made these accomplishments all the more remarkable: Fierceton was a low-income, first-generation college student who had passed through the foster-care system and had written her capstone thesis on how foster kids often end up in prison. And now she was off to Oxford.
But after The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about Fierceton’s scholarship, university officials received an anonymous email raising doubts about her biography. In reality, the email said, Fierceton had grown up in an affluent suburb of St. Louis with her mother, a radiologist, and had attended private schools. A similar email, sent to the Rhodes Trust, accused her of being “blatantly dishonest in the representation of her childhood” and included photos from her high-school yearbook of Fierceton skydiving, riding a horse, and whitewater rafting. The anonymous email led to the meeting with the deputy provost and would prompt two investigations, one by Rhodes and one by the university, that would result in further accusations of deception. Much of that scrutiny focused on an essay in Fierceton’s undergraduate application that details alleged abuse so severe that it landed her in a pediatric intensive-care unit.
Writing about personal trauma in your college application is common enough that there are guides on how to do it. In an op-ed published last year by The New York Times, a high-school senior confessed to mixed emotions about the pressure to “sell your pain” in your essay, as if suffering was somehow a prerequisite. While admissions officers at highly selective institutions will insist that it’s not necessary to highlight the darkest aspects of your upbringing, the need to set yourself apart is real. In addition, those elite colleges, sensitive to the charge that they cater to the wealthy and well-connected, are eager to show that they’re transforming society rather than laundering its inequalities. They are always on the lookout for remarkable kids from less-fortunate circumstances.
That’s certainly the case at the University of Pennsylvania. Amy Gutmann, who became Penn’s president in 2004, was herself a first-generation, low-income student, and has made increasing the number of students from similar backgrounds a signature theme of her tenure. Under her leadership, her Penn bio says, the university has “more than doubled the number of students from first-generation, low-income, and middle-income families.” When Fierceton was selected as a Rhodes scholar, the university put out a press release noting that she was first-generation and low-income, and a former foster youth. “We are extremely proud of Penn’s newest Rhodes Scholar,” Gutmann said at the time. “Mackenzie is so deserving of this prestigious opportunity to build upon her Penn education and experience.”
But university officials now wondered whether Fierceton really was deserving of that opportunity. Over the next few months, the university would go to extraordinary lengths to verify her story — reaching out to dozens of people, including from her hometown, and scrutinizing what she had written about herself in several essays. That investigation would infuriate some Penn professors, who argue that the university was mistreating a young woman with a troubled past, and would lead to the withholding of her master’s degree. The student who had been celebrated by the university as among its best and brightest would come to believe that the same university was intent on taking away everything she had achieved.
She lived with her mother in Chesterfield, a suburb west of St. Louis, on a tree-lined cul-de-sac with large houses and well-groomed lawns. Her mother, Carrie Morrison, was director of breast imaging and mammography at a nearby hospital. Her parents divorced when she was in elementary school, and her relationship with her father was strained. She writes in her college application that her “life was never a fairy tale” and hints at years of alleged abuse. In 10th grade, she kept a diary for a couple of months in which she paints a disturbing portrait of her home life. One section of the diary is 103 pages long, handwritten, with wavy lines separating each dated entry. She labeled it “Property Of Mackenzie C. Morrison,” her last name before she legally changed it to Fierceton during college. Once that notebook was filled, she wrote another 42 pages on her laptop.
In those pages, which were later given to police, she touches on the sort of everyday problems that occupy the thoughts of most high-school students, like “guy dilemas,” “stupid clique teenage girl drama,” and her soccer coach yelling at her. She also gets excited about a school project and a presentation she gave that went well. But mostly it’s about her mother. In the first entry, dated March 1, 2014, she writes: “I know this isn’t how relationships are supposed to work right?” She writes that her mother screams at her, belittles her, and makes fun of her weight. She writes that she’s afraid of her mother’s boyfriend and that she and her mother argue about him. She writes that “no matter how hard I try I can’t forget all of the terrible things she’s said to me, or the awful things she’s done to me” and that being in the house is “physically, mentally & emotionally lethal to me.”
She’s torn about whether to tell anyone. She worries about “destroying my mom’s whole world” if authorities get involved. “Aren’t your parents supposed to love you & protect you?” she writes. “I think she loves me in her own way, it’s just a little messed up.” One page of the diary has a line drawn down the middle, with “Pros of telling” on one side and “Cons of telling” on the other. On the cons side are items like, “could go into Foster Care,” “no college money, car, etc.,” and “no one could believe me. mom could convince everyone I’m crazy.” On the pros side, she writes, “the truth is finally out, I don’t have to lie or cover things up,” and “I get out of this dangerous house.”
Then something happened that would sever Fierceton’s relationship with her mother. What exactly occurred on the night of September 22, 2014, remains in dispute despite a police investigation and a court hearing. There were no witnesses, other than Fierceton and her mother. Fierceton testified in a 2019 court hearing that her mother pushed her down the stairs in their two-story house — about eight to ten carpeted steps — during an argument about her mother’s boyfriend. After she fell, Fierceton testified, her mother struck her multiple times in the face. The next thing she remembers, she says, is waking up in her bedroom. The following morning, Fierceton drove herself to school, collapsed in front of a teacher, and was taken to the hospital.
Her mother’s version of what happened, and of their relationship, is entirely different. Morrison testified that she and her daughter were “two peas in a pod” and did everything together. She also told the court that Fierceton was a difficult child, had long struggled with anxiety, and could be defiant. That night, according to Morrison, Fierceton told her she had gum in her hair and asked for help getting it out. They were on the stairs, she said, and while Morrison was trying to remove the gum, Fierceton jerked her head back, went down two or three steps, and then sat. At the hearing, Morrison was asked whether she had ever hit Fierceton or pushed her down the stairs. “No,” she answered. (Morrison, who declined an interview request, emailed the following 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.”)
Fierceton made that night — or, more precisely, its aftermath — the focus of her Penn essay. Applicants are encouraged to write about an “accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood.” It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic, life-altering event than the one Fierceton recounts. Her 494-word essay opens with her lying in a hospital bed, a feeding tube in her mouth, her “facial features so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart.” Her “blonde hair is caked with dried blood.” Going to the bathroom requires an “army of nurses,” and there are “braces stabilizing most of my body.” She can’t smile, and only one eye will open. “Every single part of my broken body hurts,” she writes. She doesn’t describe the incident that caused these injuries, but she does identify her alleged assailant. “The one who almost killed me,” she writes. “The one who is my mother. She broke me.”
Winkelstein also quizzed Fierceton about the personal statement she had submitted to Rhodes. After she was released from the hospital, Fierceton was placed in foster care, where she stayed for nearly a year. When she turned 18, she officially exited the system but continued living with one of her foster families during her senior year. Her Rhodes statement begins with her moving in with a new family: “I drop the trash bag of donated clothes and sink to the floor,” she writes. Fierceton then shifts from her own struggle to the problems of four other foster kids she knows. She remembers sitting around a kitchen table with them, talking and laughing in better times. “Now, Chandra is institutionalized for the seventh time,” she writes. “Darren and Will are incarcerated. Casey is terminally ill.” She views her own fate as bound up with theirs: “Why does this keep happening to us? Why does no one care?"
Who are these people? Winkelstein wanted to know. “I don’t feel comfortable answering that,” Fierceton told her. She will say later that the names were changed but that their stories are true. Fierceton didn’t want to violate their privacy, she says, by divulging their identities or by revealing how she knew them.
More questions followed, about her mother’s profession, her family’s income, how many foster homes she’d lived in. Winkelstein asked about the trash bag filled with donated clothes. It seemed to Fierceton as if everything she had written about herself was now under suspicion. (In a statement, the university said Fierceton’s transcript of the meeting contained “numerous omissions, distortions, and inaccuracies.” However, a Penn staff member who was also on the call, and helped create the transcript, said it is consistent with her memory of the conversation.) In a letter to Sara Bachman, the dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice, Fierceton would write of the “worthlessness, hopelessness, and shame” she had felt following the meeting with the deputy provost: “There have been days since Dr. Winkelstein’s interrogation where I wonder how to live in a world where survivors are treated this way.”
One week after that Zoom call, Winkelstein sent a letter to Elizabeth Kiss, the CEO of the Rhodes Trust, alerting her that allegations had been made regarding one of the organization’s newly selected scholars. The letter states that Fierceton had been raised in an upper-middle-class household and had attended a private high school. It also points out that her mother is a radiologist and that her grandfather was a college graduate as well. “We have concluded that there is a basis for serious concern and that further investigation by the Rhodes Committee may be appropriate,” Winkelstein wrote. She went on to say that it was “evident from multiple sources” that Fierceton had “constructed a narrative regarding her childhood.”
Rhodes did indeed conduct an investigation. According to a 15-page report, completed last April, a committee at the trust “reviewed extensive evidence gathered from confidential whistleblowers,” along with information handed over by the university and from Fierceton herself. The report calls Fierceton a “gifted, driven, and charismatic young woman” but employs the adjective “canny” to characterize how she presented herself as “someone who is first-generation, has been low-income throughout her life, and grew up in foster care.” The evidence the committee collected showed that Fierceton had, according to the report,"created and repeatedly shared false narratives about herself” and that her “misrepresentations also served her interests as an applicant for competitive programs.” The report recommended rescinding her scholarship. Fierceton withdrew from the program instead.
The university followed with an investigation of its own. In August, Penn’s Office of Student Conduct sent a 31-page report marked “confidential” to the university’s provost, Wendell Pritchett, detailing its findings. The document is a more thorough examination of Fierceton’s background than the Rhodes report. Investigators interviewed people connected to her abuse case and pored over her applications to the university, Rhodes, and to scholarship programs, along with emails to administrators, legal records, and texts sent by Fierceton to the Inquirer reporter who wrote about her scholarship. The nearly 15,000-word report examines those sources line by line. For instance, Fierceton wrote in her undergraduate application that by the time she was 6 years old she knew “all of the police officers in my county by first name” as a result, presumably, of problems at her home. Investigators did confirm that Fierceton’s family had been visited by child-welfare officials when she was young. As for whether she knew all of the officers in the county by name, Fierceton granted that was a rhetorical flourish meant to emphasize her dire circumstances. She told the student-conduct office that she was “extremely fearful of her biological family” and that this “led her to be very focused on conveying the gravity of the situation.”
The university’s report devotes several pages to whether Fierceton qualifies as a first-generation student. It zeroes in on a question in her master’s application: “Are you the first generation in your family to attend college?” To that, she answered “yes.” A written section below offered space for more information about how being a “member of a community that has been historically underrepresented in higher education” will help the applicant contribute to the program. In that space, Fierceton identifies as a “low-income, first-generation woman” and writes that she believes that this has given her an “understanding of the unique barriers low-income females face in accessing higher education.” While she allows that she does “possesses several privileged identities,” she doesn’t mention her mother’s career or the fact that, for the majority of her childhood, she would not have been considered low-income.
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. But at Penn, it’s not that straightforward. The term is defined in multiple ways on the university’s website, encompassing a much broader array of students. The university’s first-generation, low-income student organization has included as first-generation those who are the first in their families to “pursue higher education at an elite institution.” What “elite” means is up for debate, but Fierceton’s parents were not Ivy League graduates. The current website for Penn First Plus, the university’s “hub for efforts to make the campus more inclusive,” says that students qualify as first-generation if they “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in your family who hold(s) a bachelors degree.” Fierceton’s relationship with her parents was more than strained at the time she applied to college, and she considered herself a family of one.
Fierceton has long identified as a member of the university’s first-generation, low-income community, often abbreviated as FGLI. Was she obligated to reveal how, in her mind, she came to hold that designation? Fierceton concedes in a response to the university that it “could have been helpful to have explained in the comment box below that my biological mother’s income and education provided, for some years, access to resources and knowledge that some FGLI students do not have.” But she believes her embrace of the term was warranted. “I identify as a FGLI student based on Penn’s own definitions of FGLI,” she explains.
In several instances, the university’s report contradicts the Rhodes investigation. Rhodes called Fierceton’s claim that her family’s income fell below a low-income threshold “highly misleading.” The university’s report, however, “accepts that Mackenzie was independent and low-income” because she was not living with her mother when she applied to college and was supporting herself. Relatedly, Rhodes found that Fierceton had misrepresented herself as someone who “grew up poor,” even though that language was used by the Inquirer reporter and did not appear in a quote from Fierceton. The university’s investigators did not find “evidence that this clearly misleading statement can be attributed to specific actions by Mackenzie.”
The university and Rhodes reviewed medical records that Fierceton provided. Rhodes concluded that Fierceton’s descriptions of her injuries in her undergraduate essay are “inconsistent with the hospital records” and that there are no references in those records to “dried blood, distorted facial features, or cessation of breathing.” The university’s investigators didn’t offer an opinion on whether Fierceton told the truth about how seriously she was hurt. As for whether Fierceton’s mother abused her, neither investigation arrived at a definitive judgment. “Either MF has fabricated this abuse by her mother, or her mother has lied about the terrible abuse inflicted on MF,” the Rhodes report’s authors wrote, referring to Fierceton by her initials. “In either case, it is a tragic story.” Penn’s student-conduct office similarly determined that it “could not make findings related to abuse that would be helpful.”
Still, Rhodes and Penn each concluded that Fierceton was not fully honest about her background. The university’s more equivocal assessment said her undergraduate record was “very impressive” and that there was “no question she encountered personal, medical, and financial obstacles that make her accomplishments all the more exceptional.” Even so, it calls her claim that she is first generation on her master’s application “objectively inaccurate.” (In a recent statement, the university said that the question on the application is “composed of ordinary words with everyday meanings, and it makes no reference to any term or definition appearing in any other publication.”) While acknowledging that “applications are not autobiographies,” the university found that Fierceton “may have centered certain aspects of her background to the exclusion of others — for reasons we are certain she feels are valid — in a way that creates a misimpression of that background.” Fierceton was supposed to graduate with her master’s last May and, in fact, received an email from her department congratulating her on completing the program. The university, however, is withholding her degree pending the final outcome of its disciplinary process.
The dropping of the charges, and the ruling in favor of her mother, didn’t undermine the belief of some close to her case. Ken Chackes, a lawyer who has represented survivors of clergy abuse, represented Fierceton and wrote a letter of support last January. In the letter, he writes that he believes Fierceton’s account of her alleged abuse. When the admissions essay was read to him over the phone recently, Chackes didn’t think, based on his memory of the case, that what she wrote was false. He remembers seeing photos of her taken in the hospital and having conversations with those involved in the investigation. “I don’t hear anything in there that doesn’t sound consistent with what I knew,” he said.
Fierceton provided The Chronicle with more than a hundred documents to support her claims, including academic transcripts, medical records, her applications to Penn and to Rhodes, along with testimonials from teachers, friends, lawyers, nurses, and a police detective. In addition, The Chronicle reviewed court transcripts and spoke to people in St. Louis involved in her case. Several key facts are not in dispute: Fierceton did officially spend nearly a year in foster care and then continued to live with one of her foster families (most children placed in foster care remain there for one to two years, making her experience, in that respect, typical). She did bounce between foster families. She did spend roughly three weeks in the hospital, including in the pediatric intensive care unit. She did tell police and testify in court that her mother had abused her.
Other elements of her narrative are more difficult, if not impossible, to fully pin down. The university’s student-conduct office obtained three versions of the personal statement she submitted to Rhodes, including one she used to apply for a scholarship. They’re largely identical, though in one version she says her foster friends referred to themselves as “the fab five,” and in another she says it was “the fantastic five.” Fierceton declined to reveal the real names of the four people to Rhodes or the university. When asked to provide proof of their existence to The Chronicle, Fierceton said she contacted one of them but that the person was suffering from mental-health issues and couldn’t give an interview. She has lost contact with the others, she says, and believes one of them may have died.
Both the university and Rhodes expended considerable effort investigating Fierceton’s claims, at times homing in on very specific details. The Rhodes report, for example, found no notes in her medical records indicating that Fierceton had blood in her hair when she arrived at the hospital, thus apparently refuting the line that her hair was “caked with dried blood.” But one of the nurses assigned to Fierceton, Sherry McClain, remembers washing blood out of Fierceton’s hair while helping her shower. She also remembers helping Fierceton walk to the bathroom because she was weak. “She was physically hurt, but even more so was how in shock she was,” McClain said in a recent interview. “She was just this vacant, broken, empty child.” The two developed a friendship, and McClain bought her toiletries and clothes when she left the hospital. The details in the essay don’t strike McClain, who is listed as a nurse on Fierceton’s medical records, as untruthful. “It could very well be more exaggerated than it was, but the fact of the matter was it was legit, you know?” she says. “I would never go to bat for somebody who I thought was making something up.”
Yet if you’re searching for inconsistencies between what Fierceton wrote in her admissions essay and the records, you can find them. She writes, for example, that the medical equipment in her room is there “to make sure I don’t stop breathing again.” There is no evidence that Fierceton ever required resuscitation. She writes that she had “braces stabilizing most of my body.” She had no broken bones, and it’s unclear why braces would have been required (photographs taken on her first day in the hospital show that she was placed in a neck brace initially, but her medical records say her neck had a “normal range of motion”). She was given a feeding tube, but her eating difficulties were listed as “behavioral.” According to her records, Fierceton did experience “seizure-like activity,” post-traumatic stress disorder, and post-concussion syndrome.
Read as journalism, her essay falls short. But what if it’s viewed as an impressionistic piece of writing — a poem, as she has called it? She does tell doctors that it hurts to breathe. Is it possible that she felt as if she had stopped breathing? The photographs taken in the hospital don’t confirm that her features were “distorted and swollen,” but her bottom lip is cut, and there does appear to be bruising around one eye; doctors noted swelling on her forehead. Could the more-negative appraisal be how it seemed to her in the moment? In other words, was this canny self-presentation meant to elicit sympathy, or was reality being filtered through the feelings of a teenager in distress?
The professor has become one of Fierceton’s primary supporters, helping her organize her defense against charges from the university and Rhodes. Norton considers Winkelstein’s questioning of Fierceton “profoundly inhumane.” She argues that the university has disregarded its own disciplinary procedures and subjected Fierceton to a months-long inquiry that has led nowhere. “The worst you can say about her is that retrospectively she exaggerated her injuries,” Norton says. “Injuries that nevertheless kept her in the hospital for a long time and resulted in her being placed in foster care.” In a letter she wrote to Rhodes last January, Norton vouches for Fierceton’s integrity. “Over the last year, I have come to know Mackenzie well, for the pandemic does not lend itself to concealment,” Norton wrote. “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.”
Rogers Smith also thinks Penn has failed Fierceton. Smith, a professor of political science, didn’t know Fierceton before her case was brought to his attention by Norton. He writes in a recent email that the university “treated her brutally, with a harsh, invasive interrogation followed by bullying and threats and a contrived process that included an unjustly withheld degree.” Smith says that the letter sent by Winkelstein to Rhodes should have included responses from Fierceton herself, not just a summary of what she said in the Zoom meeting. What’s more, he contends, dual reviews, one by the student-conduct office and one by the School of Social Policy & Practice, have created administrative confusion and hindered her ability to appeal. Smith, who is a former associate dean for the social sciences, calls the whole thing “Kafkaesque.”
So what should the university have done? While Smith and Norton object to how Penn handled the situation, neither argues that the university should have ignored the anonymous email. Had Penn officials done that they could have been accused of covering up for a student the university’s president had publicly commended. And, as it turns out, Rhodes officials received a version of the anonymous email shortly afterward, which would have likely triggered an investigation regardless. In a statement, Penn insisted it had a responsibility to investigate once Fierceton’s credibility had been challenged. “Truthfulness is essential to academic integrity at Penn as well as a core selection criterion for the Rhodes Trust,” the statement said. “When Penn becomes aware of information questioning a candidate’s purported background and qualifications, Penn has a duty to determine if that information is material and, if so, to report such information to Rhodes so that it can determine if there are grounds for reconsidering the award.” (Penn officials involved in Fierceton’s case, including Winkelstein, either declined or did not respond to interview requests.)
The Rhodes Trust would not comment directly on Fierceton’s case, other than to confirm that she withdrew from the program. “Rhodes Scholars are selected on the basis of a powerful set of core criteria which include ‘truth … devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak,’” the statement says. “We strive constantly to ensure that the Trust’s policies and procedures uphold our core values and the fairness of our processes.”
Fierceton filed a lawsuit against the university a few days before Christmas, accusing Penn of conducting a “sham investigation.” At the heart of the complaint, which also names three administrators as defendants, are her claims that the university withheld her master’s degree without justification and also wrote a “secret letter” to Rhodes intended to discredit her. But it goes beyond that. The complaint accuses Wendy White, Penn’s general counsel, of saying she would “come after” Fierceton’s master’s degree and her already awarded undergraduate degree if she did not withdraw from the Rhodes program. The complaint also alleges that White threatened to send Fierceton to “‘federal prison’ for fraud with regard to her Pell grants.”
The most surprising section of the complaint suggests that the university’s investigation was carried out in retaliation for Fierceton’s involvement in a different matter. In 2018, Cameron Driver, a graduate student in the School of Social Policy & Practice, died after suffering cardiac arrest during a class. His estate is suing the university, arguing that the basement classroom he was in at the time isn’t sufficiently accessible to emergency personnel (Penn has denied any negligence in that case). Fierceton says she suffered a seizure in the same building in early 2020 and later complained to administrators about similar access problems.
How exactly the two issues are connected isn’t spelled out in the complaint, nor is there any sign in their reports that investigators for Rhodes or the student-conduct office were aware of the other lawsuit. In Penn’s answer to Fierceton’s complaint, filed this week, the university denies retaliating against her. Penn also denies that White, the general counsel, threatened her, though the university acknowledges that White discussed with Fierceton’s lawyer “the extent of Fierceton’s misrepresentations and the potential consequences.” In addition, the university argues that Winkelstein’s questioning of Fierceton was not “aggressive, improper, relentless, or in violation of Penn’s policies.” Penn’s legal filing includes stronger language than either the Rhodes or the student-conduct office report when it comes to Fierceton’s descriptions of her background, characterizing her narrative as “replete with falsities, including but not limited to a fictitious account of abuse by her mother.”
Fierceton’s story doesn’t fit that mold. No one questions her academic bona fides, and she didn’t slip into college by pretending to be an athlete. At issue is whether, in the course of telling her life story, she sought to make her experience appear worse than it really was in order to gain an advantage. In a recent interview over Zoom, Fierceton says she’s had a lot of time to think about what, if anything, she would have done differently. Sometimes she finds herself wishing that she could go back in time and not apply to Penn in the first place. As for whether she would alter her essays, perhaps removing or tweaking some of the phrases that the university and Rhodes questioned, she’s reflected on that too. “Where I’ve landed is that I have a right to write about my experiences as I experienced them,” she says. “Period.” In an email to the student-conduct office, she insists that the emphasis of her undergraduate essay was not on the severity of her injuries but rather on how “gratitude helped heal and radically transform” her: “I did not think, ‘If I write about how bad my abuse was, they’ll feel sorry and let me in.’”
Fierceton wipes away tears from the corners of her eyes. She’s wearing a necklace with the word “fierce” engraved on a charm; a friend gave it to her shortly before she adopted it as part of her new surname. The constant back and forth with the university has taken a toll, she says, making it hard to sleep or to concentrate on her academic work. Fierceton was admitted to a doctoral program at Oxford despite losing her Rhodes scholarship and despite not yet having received her master’s. She’s studying the foster-care-to-prison pipeline, just as she originally planned. Fierceton knows that by sharing her essays, transcripts, medical records — even her diary — she is inviting additional scrutiny. And she’s aware that filing a lawsuit against the university, rather than reaching an agreement behind closed doors, will prolong the conflict she’s been mired in for more than a year. But she sees what happened to her as part of a larger conversation about how survivors of abuse get silenced. “Sharing my story and sharing my truth,” she says. “That’s how I feel like change and accountability can happen.”
The student-conduct office recently recommended issuing Fierceton’s degree, but imposing a retroactive suspension — essentially a note in her academic file indicating that she had been disciplined. She would also be required to write a letter of apology. Fierceton doesn’t think she deserves a black mark on her record, and she believes it’s the university that needs to apologize. “It’s horrible to be disbelieved over and over and over again by the people with the most power in the institution,” Fierceton says. “Being told that you are wrong about the experience you know, one-hundred percent for fact, and that you spent the majority of your childhood saying wasn’t happening because you felt so ashamed and worthless … and then to finally be able to tell the truth — to have that thrown back in your face has felt like the most severe kind of gaslighting that is possible.” Asked what Penn should have done when it received an anonymous email accusing her of fabricating her life story, Fierceton has a ready answer: “Believed me.”