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.

AT AN ELITE SCHOOL LIKE HARVARD, temptation to reinvent oneself can be especially tricky. Having spent years distinguishing themselves as the brightest, most talented people they know, Harvard freshmen must endure the shock of suddenly living among thousands of others just like them.

Judging by his record, Wheeler seemed to be your typical undergrad: bright, ambitious, driven. Maybe a bit arrogant, but why shouldn’t he be? As a high schooler at Phillips Academy in Andover, he had aced the SATs and gotten into MIT, where he’d earned straight A’s before deciding to transfer to Harvard for a more-supportive literary community. As he explained in a 2007 e-mail to fellow transfers, with pretension so thick it seemed almost self-mocking, “[At MIT] I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain…. I was inspired thereby to apply to Harvard, where the humanities, in short, are not, simpliciter, a source of opprobrium.”

Wheeler appeared to flourish at Harvard. By the time he was a senior, he’d coauthored four books with a preeminent humanities professor, was frequently invited to lecture on Armenian literature, had earned $45,806 in grants and aid, and was fluent in Old Persian, Classical Armenian, and Old English (French, too). He’d received more than 15 academic prizes, including, as a junior, the prestigious Thomas T. Hoopes Prize for a project titled “The Mapping of an Ideological Demesne: Space, Place, and Text from More to Marvell.” (He’d been the first nonsenior to earn the award.) But those who knew him say he was modest about his achievements. As far as anyone could tell, he was just another ambitious Ivy Leaguer. Except, of course, the Adam Wheeler they knew didn’t really exist.

Harvard students are divided on the subject of his duplicity. A few blame Harvard admissions for inadequately vetting Wheeler’s application, which authorities say included forged transcripts showing him getting A’s as a freshman at MIT — a school that does not issue letter grades to first-year students. “[The Adam Wheeler case] makes it seem as if the people who are deciding who gets in and who doesn’t are absolute morons (hence putting greatly into question the legitimacy of those who actually go to Harvard),” wrote one Harvard Crimson commenter on the newspaper’s website. “This kid broke through the system and now will likely make millions in a book deal.”

Other students, though, praise Wheeler’s ingenuity, throwing out words like “genius” and “poster boy for situational ethics.” Facebook groups like “Free Adam Wheeler!” and “Adam Wheeler is a Genius” celebrate Wheeler as both physically attractive (“I think Adrien Brody could play Adam in the movie, no?” reads one Facebook post) and as “someone who fought the system and almost won.”