Admissions of Guilt?

Adam Wheeler was hardly the first student to be accused of faking his way into the most hallowed grounds of academia — and he won’t be the last. Welcome to the new era of dishonesty.

adam wheeler

PHOTO BY DAVID YELLEN

JIM MCFADDEN WAS BORED, mostly, when he came up with the idea. It was a rainy afternoon during Harvard’s senior week, the days before graduation when “there’s no work left to do.” His mom called. The top story on the local news back home in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, was about Adam Wheeler, a classmate of McFadden’s who had been charged with faking his way through Harvard. That’s when McFadden knew the Wheeler story had gone big and that, like every juicy controversy, the matter deserved one thing: a T-shirt.

McFadden’s “Free Adam Wheeler” tees — which featured Wheeler’s mug shot on the front and his fake résumé on the back — were an instant hit. Donning their sartorial support of Wheeler at the senior talent show last May, McFadden and his friends fielded compliments, high-fives, and several requests to purchase. “It wasn’t a roaring business by any means,” says McFadden. “We didn’t even want to make a profit, just to break even and get people laughing.” Which they did. “To be honest,” he says, “we didn’t see what the big deal was.”

It may seem unusual that Wheeler ultimately became a source of amusement for students who’ve spent the past four years striving for a degree from one of the most hard-driving institutions in the world. Wasn’t he the guy who had made a national mockery of their soon-to-be alma mater?

But to some Harvard students, the media sensation that followed Wheeler’s arrest was baffling. After all, who doesn’t game the system?

FOR CENTURIES, HARVARD has been regarded as the pinnacle of academic achievement, a place where raging ambition meets endless opportunity. This year the College received a record 30,489 applicants for the 2,110 spots in the class of 2014. For those select students who can have their pick of any college, Harvard often triumphs for one reason: It’s Harvard.

Historically, the school has been criticized for representing the extreme end of the sort of exclusivity inherent in college admissions: crawling with well-off white kids. In his book Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, Ross Douthat, a 2002 graduate and New York Times columnist, argued that Harvard is a pit stop for shamelessly determined, entitled social climbers who want maximum success with the least amount of effort; that, like Gucci or Chanel, Harvard is simply a luxury brand, a nameplate that often overshadows its substance.

But today’s Harvard is quite different from the long-standing caricature. For many, in fact, the school has become more accessible than ever, thanks to admissions and financial aid reforms implemented in recent years (including generous need-based scholarships and the termination of early admissions, long seen as an easy entry for legacies and wealthy applicants). Though average yearly tuition — including room, board, and fees — for 2010 to 2011 topped $50,000, the average financial aid package was just over $40,000, and about 70 percent of students received some form of aid.

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