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.

Many, like T-shirt entrepreneur Jim McFadden, have mixed feelings. “Someone like [Adam] and his actions cheapen the work that the rest of us legitimate Harvard students put toward our accomplishments,” he says. And yet, “We did, however, think it was pretty badass that he could pull off such a ruse for so long.”

Indeed, there is a sense that when it comes to getting into an elite school — and surviving there — gaming the system is part of the deal. While top-flight schools certainly make exceptions to admit academically subpar students (often athletes, legacies, or children of donors), Wheeler is commended, in a way, for getting in “on his own.” He neither inherited nor bought his way in; he worked for it. “[Adam Wheeler has] learned our language, mastered our ways, and taken the self-promotion and ambition that we’re all groomed for — yes, all — to its natural conclusion,” wrote Alex Klein, coeditor in chief of the Ivy League news and gossip blog IvyGate. “If it walks like an Ivy student, talks like an Ivy student, then it is, without a doubt, an Ivy student.”

Says Klein, “Knowledge of the system is one of the core tenets of an Ivy League education. The Wheeler phenomenon is that, taken to high art form…. When you think of the Ivy League as a place for self-aggrandizement, which it often is, Adam Wheeler becomes the model Ivy League student.”

Or, as one IvyGate blogger wrote: “[Adam] got into the Ivy League the real fucking way — he picked himself up from his bootstraps, and without the help of Mommy, Daddy, and Kaplan SAT review. While he might not have the degree to prove it, Adam Wheeler probably learned more getting into college than most students learn in four years spent here legitimately.” Wrote one Crimson commenter: “Adam did something that most people are scared to do, which is fight for something he wanted. Most people go about it on the same path: good grades, SAT scores, connected families, etc. But Adam saw another path, a path not any easier, certainly not any safer, and most certainly not without consequence. I respect the creativity and genius that Adam showed in doing something not many people can do.”

Twenge, for one, isn’t surprised by such reactions. “This is what happens when you have a narcissist culture and the sort of insane competition in college admissions, which many people think is not fair,” she says. “And they’re probably right. Eighty percent of the applicants can do the work, but only 6 percent get in. When it’s seen that way, there’s a growing aspect of, ‘Okay, let’s game the system.’”

In late September, his Rhodes application file was referred to the Administrative Board of Harvard College, which launched a full and immediate review of his academic history. Wheeler was asked to defend himself at a university disciplinary hearing on the allegations of plagiarism and falsifying documents, according to prosecutors. He declined, saying he’d go home to his parents’ house in Delaware to await the school’s verdict.