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.

Once inside, students tend to do well, and not just because they’re smart. Grade inflation has long been a problem; a 2007 report released by Harvard’s dean of the College revealed that more than half of the school’s grades were in the A range. Ninety-seven percent of Harvard students graduate; by contrast, at MIT, graduation rates hover at around 90 percent. “Harvard was more manageable than I thought it would be,” says Benjamin Kultgen (’08), who transferred from Tufts as a junior. To stand out, students tend to focus on advanced means of competition, from seeking leadership in social clubs and extracurriculars to garnering academic prizes.

In the case of Wheeler, prosecutors say, the desire to belong among the best and brightest began with extensively misrepresenting himself on his application and culminated in compulsive plagiarism of class papers, honors projects, and even parts of his application for the heavily vetted Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. “People are accepted [at Harvard] because they are the best of the best, and nothing else,” wrote Douthat, who once used the word “pathological” to describe Harvard. “In the Harvardian universe, then, the advantage often goes — at least in the short term — to the manipulative and dishonest and cutthroat, the people willing to backstab and lie and cheat their way upwards.”

Some students disagree. “I think we can assume that not a lot of people plagiarize or fake transcripts to get into elite universities,” says Kultgen. “In my experience, plagiarism was unheard of at Harvard…. If you’re at a place like Harvard, you’re already ahead. Why jeopardize that?”

Kultgen knew Wheeler. He led the orientation group for transfer students that Wheeler was a part of, and describes the former student as smart and quiet. “He quickly made friends,” Kultgen says. “There was no suspicion that his credentials were dubious.”

McFadden says Harvard’s honors policy is drilled into students from day one, and that faculty display high levels of trust and respect for students — a trust that, perhaps, too often assumes the best of students. “The school places integrity and excellence above all,” he says. “As such, there wouldn’t seem to be a need for strict skepticism of excellent student achievement…. I would be more afraid to plagiarize a Harvard paper than to be caught doing drugs.”

Even if everything said about Wheeler is true, he’s hardly Harvard’s first con. Esther Reed was a teenage runaway and gifted chess player when, in 2002, she assumed a fake identity in order to enroll at Harvard, from which she accepted more than $100,000 in financial aid. (Reed is currently serving four years in prison.) And in 1999 Harvard Extension School student Edward Meinert pretended to be a College undergrad so he could join myriad organizations, rush fraternities, and take advantage of other networking opportunities exclusively limited to College students.