How an Ivy League School Turned Against a Student

Mackenzie testified that her mother had pushed her down the stairs and that, after she had fallen, “my mom was on top of me and she was striking me in the face.” One of the next things she remembers is waking up in her bedroom early the next morning. Her mom knocked on the door and told her, “I’m taking your keys and I’m calling you in sick to school.” When Mackenzie heard her mother leave the house, she got a spare key and drove to school, though she had no memory of doing so. She did recall that, once she was inside, there was a “kind of commotion, and eventually, like, a bunch of administrators kind of rushed into the room, and somebody said, ‘Call 911.’ ”

Morrison’s lawyer, Allison Schreiber Lee, had obtained a personal statement that Mackenzie had written to get a scholarship, which was nearly identical to her college essay, and she interrogated Mackenzie about differences between her medical records and her rendering of the experience. “It says that ‘your facial features are so distorted and swollen that I cannot tell them apart’—did you write that?” she asked.

“Can I help you find anything or prevent you from folding that shirt in such a way that I will immediately have to refold it?”
Cartoon by Brendan Loper

Mackenzie said yes.

“Well, you could tell them apart, right?”

“I had bruising around my face,” Mackenzie replied.

“It says that ‘your hair is caked with dried blood.’ That didn’t happen, did it?”

“I remember there was some blood with my lip, yeah,” Mackenzie said.

In the essay, Mackenzie referred to the “metallic taste of the feeding tube.” Lee asked her, “It was metallic?”

“That’s what I tasted, yeah,” Mackenzie responded.

Lee informed Mackenzie that the tube was plastic.

“It’s what I tasted, though,” she said.

A month after the trial, the judge concluded, “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.” The judge ordered that Morrison’s name be struck from the state registry. In an e-mail, an attorney for the D.S.S. notified Mackenzie’s lawyer of the decision, writing, “I am very saddened by the result in this case as I have always believed Mackenzie 100% on everything and I always will.”

Morrison declined to speak with me on the record, except to write, “Our greatest desire is that Mackenzie chooses to live a happy, healthy, honest and productive life, using her extraordinary gifts for the highest good.” Speaking for her side of the family, she added, “We will always be here for her.”

After the trial, Mackenzie decided to change her last name. She wanted to sever her remaining ties with her biological family, and she hoped a new name would make it harder for her mother to find her. After filling a notebook with lists of surnames that she thought sounded bold (Fairstone, Stronghill, Silverfield), she submitted a petition with the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, changing her name to Mackenzie Fierceton. In January, 2020, the winter of her senior year, she wrote in a Facebook post that the process of choosing a name had been about taking “ownership of my identity” and exerting “agency in a way I was never able to growing up.”

Two months later, as COVID hit the Northeast, Penn urged students to leave campus within a week. One of Mackenzie’s professors, Anne Norton, who teaches political science, checked in on students who she suspected might be stranded. Norton said, “Mackenzie always tried to say, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine’ ”—after she and her roommates gave up their apartment off campus, she lived with a roommate’s family in Ohio and then stayed at a classmate’s home in Philadelphia—“but eventually it became clear she was just couch-surfing at friends’ houses, and you can’t couch-surf in a pandemic.” In late May, Norton invited Mackenzie, who had just graduated with a B.A. and had one more year until she completed her M.S.W., to move in. Norton and her partner, Deborah Harrold, live in a large house in northwest Philadelphia. Norton said, “I told Mackenzie, ‘You don’t have to spend any time with us if you don’t want to, but you need to be safe.’ ”

That summer, Mackenzie decided to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship, to get a Ph.D. at the University of Oxford. Her friend Stephen Damianos, who had just been chosen for the scholarship, had told her she would be an ideal candidate. “She was tireless—she seemed to be fighting the world’s fight and really engaged in the struggle for a more just world,” he said. In addition to having an excellent academic record, Mackenzie was a policy fellow for a Philadelphia City Council member, a volunteer birthing doula with the Philadelphia Alliance for Labor Support, and a social-work intern at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Mackenzie talked with Cannon, her mentor at Civic House, about whether to apply. “It was a pretty emotional conversation, because of her fear that, if she did get the scholarship, there would be press, and her bio family could find her and tear her down,” Cannon said. But she said that Mackenzie concluded, “I’m going to continue to try to move forward in my life.”

In a form that Mackenzie submitted to Penn, which formally nominates students for the Rhodes, she described her sense that students applying for scholarships “sometimes felt confused and pressured to be someone they were not amidst their application process.” In an interview with a writer working on a guidebook for F.G.L.I. students, she had expressed a similar concern about the sorts of personal statement expected from disadvantaged students: “The expression that comes up is ‘poverty porn’—continually being pressured by your school, when you get to a higher-education institution, or even in high school, to share your story—and thank donors, and whatever the case is.” (Penn said that it doesn’t pressure students to tell their stories but supports them when they choose to do so.)

In her Rhodes application, Mackenzie proposed studying the entanglement between the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems (the subject of her undergraduate thesis, too)—a project she hoped would “uplift the voices of my foster peers.” But, in two paragraphs that drew connections between her personal background and scholarly interests, she took some liberties, such as describing a kid at one of her foster homes as a foster child, even though he was actually her foster parents’ biological child. Mackenzie told me, “I wish I had taken more time to precisely describe the nuances of their lives—it was a simplification of a complex story.”

A letter of endorsement from Penn, signed by Beth Winkelstein, the deputy provost, said that “Mackenzie understands what it is like to be an at-risk youth, and she is determined to re-make the systems that block rather than facilitate success.”

The sixteen-year tenure of Penn’s president, Amy Gutmann, had been defined by her efforts to position Penn as a school that addressed inequality rather than perpetuating it—a pivot that many élite universities have attempted. Gutmann more than doubled the number of Penn students from low-income and first-generation families, her faculty biography explains. In an interview, she described how she, too, had been a “first-generation, low-income student.”

Universities didn’t start regularly tracking first-generation status until the early two-thousands, and there has never been a clear definition of the term, which emerged in part because it was a more politically digestible label than race. In a 2003 ruling regarding race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan Law School, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld affirmative action but wrote that the practice should not continue indefinitely. Universities began looking for other ways to encourage diversity. The number of first-generation students on campus became a new benchmark, a sign that a university was fulfilling its social contract. But institutions used different definitions of the term; one study analyzed eight definitions of “first-generation” commonly used by researchers and found that, in a sample of more than seven thousand students, those who qualified as first-generation ranged from twenty-two to seventy-seven per cent, depending on which definition was used.

In November, 2020, the Rhodes Trust named Mackenzie one of thirty-two scholar-elects from the United States. Penn seemed to embrace Mackenzie’s story as evidence of its commitment to promoting social and economic mobility. In a press release, Gutmann expressed pride that the award had gone to a “first-generation low-income student and a former foster youth.” After the announcement, Wendy Ruderman, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer, interviewed Mackenzie for roughly twenty-five minutes. That day, the Inquirer published an article that began “Mackenzie Fierceton grew up poor.” Mackenzie says that she never described her childhood this way. Ruderman acknowledged that Mackenzie didn’t use those exact words, but she said that Mackenzie did describe herself as an F.G.L.I. student—an abbreviation that may invite confusion, because it can refer to people who are either low-income or first-generation, not necessarily both. The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof tweeted the Inquirer article, saying it was thrilling that a Rhodes Scholarship had gone to “a first-gen low-income foster youth,” and Mackenzie retweeted what he wrote. She told me that she wished she’d pushed back harder on the way she was characterized. “I just kind of crumbled behind the pressure,” she said.