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Updated: May 20, 2010 01:53 IST

Duping Harvard

    Jacques Steinberg
    Katie Zezima
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Adam Wheeler at his arraignment in Woburn on Tuesday.
Adam Wheeler at his arraignment in Woburn on Tuesday.

Adam Wheeler submitted fake documents claiming to be an MIT graduate and went on to receive nearly $50,000 in scholarships.

There were, in hindsight, plenty of reasons for the admissions office at Harvard to be suspicious of Adam Wheeler.

When Wheeler, now 23, applied as a transfer student in 2007, for example, he sent along fabricated transcripts from Phillips Andover Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In fact, he had graduated from a public high school in Delaware and had attended Bowdoin College, in Maine.

One tipoff could have been that MIT does not give letter grades in the fall semester of freshman year, like the straight A's that appeared on the grade report that Wheeler submitted. And the names of the four MIT professors who wrote his glowing recommendations? The letters were fakes. And while the professors were real, each teaches at Bowdoin.

In the end, it was Wheeler's parents who intervened and brought an end to his adventure in fabrication.

At an arraignment on Tuesday in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn, Massachusetts, Wheeler was charged with 20 criminal counts, including larceny, because he received nearly $50,000 in scholarships and awards from Harvard.

In recounting how the case came to light, Assistant District Attorney John Verner told the court of a phone call that Wheeler's parents, Lee and Richard, received from Yale University this year.

By then, Wheeler had left Harvard, rather than face an academic hearing over accusations he had plagiarised the work of a Harvard professor in his application for a Rhodes Scholarship. He then applied as a transfer student yet again, this time to Yale and Brown.

After Yale contacted Wheeler's parents, who were in court on Tuesday, to express doubts about the veracity of parts of his transfer application, they insisted that their son tell Yale the truth.

“Mr. Wheeler's life of deception would not have stopped if it were not for his parents,” Mr. Verner said.

Wheeler's defence lawyer, Steven Sussman, said after the hearing that his client “pleaded not guilty, as everyone heard” and that “he's never been in trouble before”.

Wearing a denim jacket and a T-shirt, his gaze mostly downward, Wheeler listened as Mr. Verner spun a narrative reminiscent of the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley.

But the prosecutor provided no answer to a central question: how had Wheeler slipped through the Harvard admissions committee?

Harvard officials declined on Tuesday to comment on the case, citing the inquiry and federal rules on student privacy.

Other prestigious colleges have seen similar cases before. Two years ago, Yale determined that a student who successfully transferred from Columbia had forged his transcript to give himself straight A's. Connecticut authorities later charged him with larceny, over the $32,000 in scholarships he had received.

In 1993, another man pleaded guilty to theft by deception in New Jersey, for obtaining $22,000 in financial aid from Princeton.

Edward de Villafranca, dean of college counselling at the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey, said that such applicants can sometimes slip through admissions screening because “there is an expectation that students in this situation act honourably and truthfully”.

“It is not in our inherent nature in our industry to be suspicious,” added Mr. de Villafranca, who has worked in admissions at Manhattanville College and the University of Richmond. “This is not ‘CSI Harvard'.” Mr. de Villafranca said that Wheeler had likely exploited one potential loophole: because he applied to Harvard as a transfer student several years removed from high school, his school counsellor — ostensibly at Phillips Andover — might not have been contacted by Harvard about his application.

Wheeler had come close to being caught at Harvard after his admission interview with a Harvard alumnus. It took place in 2007 at Bowdoin, which, Mr. Verner said, was a red flag to the alumni interviewer, who had been told he was meeting a student from MIT.

But, as was apparently so often the case with Wheeler, he had a ready answer for the alumnus, who was not identified.

Wheeler said he had finished his MIT coursework early, telling the alumnus, “Instead of wasting time, I decided to come to Bowdoin to help a professor work on a book,” according to Mr. Verner.

It was not immediately clear whether the alumnus' skepticism, and Wheeler's response, were ever passed on to officials at Harvard. (As Harvard would later learn, he had been suspended from Bowdoin for “academic dishonesty”, according to the indictment.)

Even before Yale reached out to Wheeler's parents this spring, officials and professors at Harvard had their own concerns.

In September, when Wheeler began his senior year at Harvard, an English professor read his Rhodes submission and saw similarities between it and the work of a colleague. When confronted by Harvard faculty members, Wheeler remarked, “I must have made a mistake, I didn't really plagiarise it,” according to Mr. Verner. He soon withdrew from Harvard.

Harvard officials then began reviewing his transfer application, and discovered it had been falsified — including the MIT and Andover transcripts, Mr. Verner said.

Harvard said in a statement on Tuesday that “in the rare instance where we discover that someone has falsified his or her application materials to Harvard College, we typically rescind that individual's admission” and “revoke” any course credits received.

Separately, Yale began its own inquiry when Wheeler applied for transfer admission earlier this year.

Officials at Caesar Rodney High School in Camden, Delaware, from which Wheeler graduated in 2005, said they were contacted in April by Yale admissions officials. Yale wanted to confirm that he was the class valedictorian (he was not, though he was in the top 10 per cent of the class) and that his SAT scores were perfect (they were several hundred points lower.)

Wheeler's father taught shop and drafting at the high school, and retired last year. “It seemed out of character that the young man we knew would try to pull off this type of hoax,” said Kevin Fitzgerald, the district superintendent, who was principal of Caesar Rodney when Wheeler attended. “That conversation between our guidance office and the Yale admissions officer sent up the red flags.”

But there were other warnings. In February, Wheeler applied for an internship at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, in which he “provided fraudulent information regarding his credentials and student status at Harvard,” the hospital said in a statement.

In applying to Yale and Brown, though, he not only suggested he was a McLean employee, but also submitted a false letter of recommendation from the McLean official who had refused to hire him.

He also provided Yale and Brown with a falsified recommendation from David Smith, his resident dean at Harvard, the district attorney's office said.

It was Mr. Smith who had informed Wheeler of the plagiarism accusations regarding his Rhodes application.

The New Republic reported on Tuesday that Wheeler had recently applied for an internship at the magazine, and it posted the resume he submitted online.

It included references to his being able to speak French, as well as “Old English”, “Classical Armenian” and “Old Persian”. — New York Times News Service

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