Faking Your Way Through Harvard–Almost

Here’s how easy it is to find out whether Adam Wheeler, the 23-year-old who allegedly faked his way into Harvard, was the preternaturally accomplished young scholar he said he was: Google. That’s how I spent a productive half-hour after I found Wheeler’s resume posted on the New Republic‘s website. Wheeler had submitted the resume when he applied for a literary internship at the magazine last fall (he did not get the job). That was either just before or just after he abruptly left Harvard during his senior year to avoid a disciplinary proceeding for allegedly getting himself admitted as a transfer student in 2007 (from MIT, he said) on the basis of forged transcripts, forged SAT scores, and forged letters of recommendation–and also for bilking Harvard out of $45,000 in financial aid, research money, and cash prizes for plagiarized student essays. He is now facing criminal prosecution on 20 counts of fraud, larceny, and identity theft.
So I typed into Google’s search box the title of one of the three lectures that Wheeler, who claimed to know classical Armenian, said on his resume that he had delivered to a meeting of the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research in 2009: “From Parthia to Robin Hood: The Armenian Version of the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son (Koroghlu)” The lecture was real enough, except that it had actually been delivered by James R. Russell, a professor of Armenian studies at Harvard. Russell had also delivered another of the esoterically titled Armenian-themed lectures that Wheeler attributed to himself: “The Rime of the Book of the Dove: Zoroastrian Cosmology, Armenian Heresiology, and the Russian Novel.”
Moving on, I Googled the titles of the four books that Wheeler said he had co-authored with Marc Shell, a professor in Harvard’s English department (Wheeler was an English major). Again, the books are real—Shell lists them on his own Harvard website–but they’re the sole work of Shell, with no credit given to co-authors. Shell had evidently captured Wheeler’s imagination, because Wheeler also stated on his resume that he had delivered three lectures at Shell’s Seven Days Work Educational Foundation on Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick in 2009 (a busy lecture year for Wheeler!). I admit that my Google search didn’t unearth any sources for those lectures—which deal with famous authors of the English Renaissance including Thomas More, Shakespeare, and Andrew Marvell—but a visit to the Seven Days Work Foundation’s website (which took less than five minutes to find) led me to wonder how Renaissance poets and playwrights could have fit into the 2009 conference, which was devoted to the ecology and economy of Grand Manan, where Shell has a residence and an interest in the local culture.

That was just me in 30 minutes. A team of reporters for the Harvard Crimson did more digging and discovered, for example, that Wheeler did not receive at least two of the numerous grants and fellowships he listed on his resume (although he did get one $8,000 research grant) and that he was never a writing tutor for other Harvard students as he said he had been. But it seems apparent that hardly anyone at Harvard—and possibly at the New Republic (whose spokesman declined to answer my queries about why Wheeler was not hired for the internship or whether New Republic editors had discovered Wheeler’s alleged fraud on their own)—wanted to check anything he told them or any of the written essays that had won him prizes.
My theory is that Wheeler told people at Harvard what they wanted to hear and submitted prose stuffed with trendy and unintelligible postmodernist jargon that they wanted to read. To use the language of con artists, Harvard was a perfect mark. Indeed, although Wheeler had actually attended not MIT but Bowdoin College (from which he had been suspended for academic dishonesty), had combined SAT scores that never totaled more than 1220 instead of the perfect 1600 that he said he did, and did not accumulate the 4.0 grade point average at Harvard that he put down on his resume, he was a quite successful Harvard student. According to prosecution exhibits in the criminal case, Wheeler had racked up a respectable mix of A’s and B’s (plus one D) during his two full years at Harvard before he left.
Let’s look at the essay—pretentiously titled “The Mapping of an Ideological Demesne: Space, Place, and Text From More to Marvell” and according to the Boston Globe, allegedly plagiarized nearly word for word from a Cornell graduate student’s dissertation–that won Wheeler Harvard’s prestigious Thomas Temple Hoopes Prize for Excellence in the Work of Undergraduates and the Art of Teaching. The prize, typically awarded to several Harvard undergraduates during any given year, pays $4,000 apiece to winning students. Most applicants for the prize submit their senior thesis, but Wheeler managed to capture the Hoopes in 2009 while only a junior. To win the Hoopes a student can’t turn in any old term paper but, rather, a “work of very high quality” that “was written or produced under faculty supervision.” That is, the faculty member is expected to monitor the paper closely, which presumably means reading drafts and suggesting revisions—the usual procedure for a senior thesis or other longer paper. The faculty member, not the student, nominates the essay for the prize and receives his or her own cash award of $1,000 if the essay wins the Hoopes.
The faculty member in charge of Wheeler’s Hoopes Prize essay was Suparna Roychoudhury, a graduate student and teaching fellow in Harvard’s English department. A clue to Roychoudhury’s own ideological predilections—and a clue to why she deemed the po-mo stew that Wheeler fed her to be a “work of very high quality” may lie in this Women’s Studies 101 comment on the Internet by a Suparna Roychoudhury of Cambridge, Mass., concerning a New York Times story about the paucity of female film directors: “This is so incredibly depressing….{W]e could all stand a break from watching women as they are portrayed through the eyes of men.”
Roychoudhury—and also the Hoopes committee—were evidently bowled over by this sort of prose (taken from Wheeler’s summary of the essay in his resume): “The massive proliferation, from the fifteenth through the seventeenth century, of technologies for measuring, projecting, and organizing geographical and social space produced in the European imaginary an intense and widespread interest in visualizing this world and alternative worlds….[E]ach of the texts I examine betrays an awareness of writing as a spatial activity and space as a scripted category. The critical topographies that these writers created are maps of ideology, figural territories within which social conflict and political antagonism are put into play.” Come again? “Scripted category”? “Critical topographies”? “Imaginary” as a noun? Isn’t the correct word “imagination”?
Roychoudhury did not response to an e-mail I sent her asking her to describe the nature of her supervision of Wheeler’s essay, and a spokesman for Harvard invoked “[f]ederal privacy laws” in declining to discuss the specifics of his case. Wheeler’s alleged brazenness in pulling a series of elaborate scams upon Harvard is shocking. What is even more shocking is that the most prestigious university in the nation awarded four semesters’ worth of respectable grades to and heaped nearly $50,000 upon a student whose aptitude (judging by his SAT scores) was sub-par and whose prize-winning, faculty-impressing work—even if he had written it himself—was essentially lit-crit bloviation.
Wheeler would likely have a Harvard diploma to hang on his wall in a couple of weeks if he hadn’t allegedly gone a con too far and hubristically applied for Rhodes and Fulbright graduate scholarships. Only then did a professor recognize yet another of his essays as plagiarized from the writings of the Harvard Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt. Even after he was forced to withdraw from Harvard, he applied to transfer to Yale and Brown, allegedly fabricating letters of recommendation from Harvard professors and an internship at McLean Hospital, the Harvard Medical School’s psychiatric facility. Wheeler’s parents finally put a stop to it all after a Yale admissions officer called their home in Milton, Del. When that phone rang, their son must have been saying to himself, “Oh, drat!”.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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