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Our New Elite

The Dredging – She was an Ivy League student with an inspiring story. Then her university started investigating (free registration):

One Monday morning in the fall of 2020, Mackenzie Fierceton received an email asking her to meet with Beth Winkelstein, deputy provost of the University of Pennsylvania. That afternoon, she spoke via Zoom with Winkelstein and Jane Morris, executive director of the university’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. “There are questions that now need to be answered,” Winkelstein informed her, according to Fierceton’s recollection. Who were her parents? Did her mother go to college? Was she given a car? Who was Darren? Would medical records show she had broken ribs? What about injuries to her face? The questions kept coming. At one point, Fierceton took a sip of water and began to cry.

When I initially read this story, it was somewhat sensationalized. I read the whole thing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and here are my conclusions:

1) Mackenzi Fierceton clearly violated the spirit of what the application essay was asking for. She had a grandparent who was college-educated at a time when most Americans did not graduate high school, and her mother is a doctor. She was not “first generation” university-educated, though she was first-generation elite university educated. Her mother is a radiologist, she grew up affluent.

2) Mackenzie Fierceton does believe she underwent serious trauma. She wasn’t lying in her perception. She did go into foster care for a year.

3) The system incentivizes high-achieving students from upper-middle-class backgrounds to emphasize how they are victims. Mackenzi Fierceton provided them with what they wanted, albeit a bit too thoroughly.

4) If the university went looking into the applications of many students they would find shadings of the truth and exaggerations. Not to the same extent, but the difference would be quantitative, not qualitative.

14 thoughts on “Our New Elite

  1. She sounds mentally off, so maybe enough to believe some of her story, but the abuse allegation against her mother doesn’t make sense without a history of multiple injuries. The primary indictment is against universities that encourage sob stories to claim how much they help the underdog.

  2. I wonder what she did wrong to get singled out when, like you say, they could investigate and boot a whole bunch of their applicants in any given year.

  3. The system is ridiculous. I think many people who have had real trauma don’t really want to talk about or use it as an excuse. My late wife was a diabetic alcoholic with border line personality disorder and died when my daughter was 13. Before she died, my daughter saved her life twice once by calling the EMTS and once by giving her a glucagon shot under my direction when she was 11. I told her that putting those struggles on her college applications would help but she refused and got rejected by many colleges although I don’t know how much difference it would have made.
    Seems to me all this system does is provide upper class game players tools to up their status.

  4. Puts me in mind of an old story:

    A little bird was sitting in a tree when an ice storm came along, knocked it to the ground and covered it with a layer of ice. The bird was lying on the ground freezing to death when a horse came along and dumped a huge load of steaming hot manure on it. The manure’s warmth melted the ice and caused the bird to revive. Feeling refreshed, the bird began to chirp. A passing cat heard the singing bird, pounced on it, and ate it. The moral of the story is: not everybody who dumps on you is your enemy, not everybody who gets you out of manure is your friend, and if you’re sitting in a manure pile, don’t sing.

  5. The Ivies get like ten thousand applications per class. Their admissions staffs are in the dozens. Each one must read hundreds of essays. It must be like mucking out a enormous pig barn every day for months on end. The idea that they read and rely on the essays is a bit ridiculous. White girls with good grades and board scores are a dime a dozen and they are a residual category.

  6. Yeah… That’s what emergence of norms of “Believe victims!” and empathy and a fall in a culture of repressed stoicism will do.

    Kind of see this as a trend that follows things from all my life. There’s an emerging “Caring and sharing” shift culture of at least of the last 30 years (probably since at least the 1960s), which I perceive to come from the United States and in the US the fall of its tight-lipped WASPs and the rise of the much more talkative people’s, and also with the rise of women.

    In practice “Caring and sharing” culture that de-stigmatizes “victims” and respects their pain strongly favours individualistic and assertive extraverts who are not so worried about stressing their group bonds by sharing pain. Obviously also the rise of competitive meritocracy – competition for social status – is going to lead that to be exploited as one more advantage for would be meritocrats.

    I guess the trade-off here is whether you believe the old Victorian stoicism of the “Stiff upper lip” and “Lie back and think of England” and of fixed hierarchy that didn’t try to give victims a hand up led to bad outcomes, and if you think this is worth the trade off (“1 liar in 10 is worth the 9 who wouldn’t otherwise come forward”).

    If you have this sort of culture, then I don’t think there’s a way around “The wheel that squeeks most loudly gets the most grease”.

  7. I wonder what she did wrong to get singled out when

    I would put my money on being ratted out by a “trusted” friend.

    Anyway, stories like this make me feel bad. I realize that I have little to no empathy for upper class people in these types of scenarios and it produces emotional discomfort because I know that it conflicts with the ideal that perhaps I should, regardless of class.

    But then I tell myself “naw”, she likely will write a best-selling sob story book about it someday, get it published because she will be well-connected, and her fellow class members and wannabes will reward her with many thousands of dollars by buying her book.

  8. The Big Trial POV of the story makes a lot more sense that the reportedly abusive mom is the ‘secret’ source who reported discrepancies to the college and press. I mean, the daughter seems to have exaggerated or let people fill in the blanks with her life story, but the mom sounds legit like a terrible person and I wouldn’t be surprised if the parental abuse the most accurate part of her life story.

  9. I am starting to get it. Thank you @Lesko Brandon (Love the nick)

    This thing has been all over the media.

    Why the University wanted this to be public is beyond me, and leaking by the University maybe a violation of the student privacy regulations.

    Assume the worst, the U wanted to be able to destroy her credibility in a third party law suit. They don’t have to destroy her credibility in public.

    Second, it would be a very bad idea to have the credibility investigation performed by the club footed cows in the academic administration. The investigation should be done by the law firm, and any examination of the subject should be by lawyers under oath in a deposition.

  10. You reward mendacity, you get more mendacity:

    “How college applicants embellish essays with sob stories, fake patents” By Isabel Vincent • January 13, 2022

    “As schools increasingly seek diversity on their campuses, white students are fibbing about their ethnicity in order to get an edge, according to a 2021 survey which found that 34 percent of white students admitted to lying about being a racial minority. Of those students, 48 percent admitted to lying about being Native American and 75 percent of those who lied were accepted into the schools of their choice, according to Intelligent, a Seattle-based company that provides education resources for students in higher education.”

    It seems that Elizabeth Warren was just the beginning of the trend.

  11. How do you ascribe intentionality to an admissions process?

    I’d been meaning to ask you about this, because I thought you ascribed a fair amount of intentionality to the movement to reduce testing. But a quick google search suggests that you seemed to say that only California schools did it to reduce Asians and that most schools are just following the trend without any idea of the consequences.

  12. most schools are just following the trend without any idea of the consequences.

    That’s funny.

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