Conning Harvard

'Conning Harvard' is a fascinating look at a scandal written by a talented young journalist.

Conning Harvard By Julie Zauzmer The Lyons Press 240 pp.

Lectures about cheating are  – like visits to the dentist’s office – something that students scrupulously try to avoid and, failing that, unwillingly resign themselves to. Our faces assume the blank visage of the woolgatherer as the lecturer (have mercy, be brief!) discourses upon rules for proper attribution and permissible forms of collaboration.

No matter how eloquent the delivery, the speech always manages to rankle just slightly, for it implies that every last one of us needs to be reminded yet again of our duty to abide by the ethical laws governing a community of scholars. Yet we also pity the professor, for it’s clear that he or she doesn’t particularly relish being the mouthpiece of the university’s honor policy. Usually, those few minutes at the beginning of each semester devoted to going over academic violations constitute a well-rehearsed act. Students feign attentiveness while zoning out or zooming in on a friend’s Facebook photo, and professors deliver the trite remarks in the manner of someone reading fine print.

Once in a while, though, the act of declaiming and listening is not a mere formalism. Once in a while, it is imbued with a real sense of urgency.

For students at Harvard University, the reading of academic policies this fall promises to kindle not catnaps, but colloquies. Just last week, the university reported, in the words of Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, a cheating scandal of “unprecedented” proportions. Much information is still under wraps, but this much is known: About half of 279 students in a government course are currently under investigation for colluding on a final take-home exam last spring. Those found guilty could face a year’s suspension from the university.

What does all this say about the most vaunted institution of higher education in the nation? Cynics shrug and attest, perhaps with a hint of schadenfreude, that the news doesn’t elicit much surprise – that it's yet more evidence of an epidemic of academic deceit. Pragmatists talk of finally instituting an Honor Code on campus. Optimists say – well, there aren’t a whole lot of optimists. But if there’s no silver lining to this cloud, students and faculty could do worse than turn to a new book about the rise and fall of a singular fraudster who betrayed Harvard’s trust less than five years ago.

The name of the book is a neat précis of its content: Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way into the Ivy League. Its author, Julie Zauzmer, is a Harvard senior who, along with fellow student Xi Yu, covered the Adam Wheeler scandal from the get-go. Drawing upon an impressive range of sources – notably the numerous articles she has written for "The Harvard Crimson" as well as personal interviews with many of the individuals in her narrative – Zauzmer presents a fascinating and meticulously researched account of one young man’s circuitous and fraudulent route to Harvard and his downfall. (As a bonus for the hyper-curious, the book is interleaved with copies of Wheeler’s fake transcripts, test scores, and highly inflated resume.)

Wheeler is the antihero of Zauzmer’s tale. This may be putting it too strongly because much of the book is straightforward, unbiased reporting and Zauzmer judiciously refrains from making any explicit judgments of Wheeler’s character. But the book’s prologue and coda – by far its most impassioned sections – give a good idea of where the author’s sympathies lie.

One sentence in particular, with its eerily prescient tone, has direct bearing on the latest cheating scandal embroiling Harvard: “In the absence of integrity, a diploma is a meaningless piece of paper on the wall, a mockery of true intellectual achievement.” The following passage, too, demands to be read in the context of the current controversy: “The motto of Harvard is just one word: Veritas. Translated from Latin, it means truth. Harvard does not stand solely for accomplishment, fame, fortune, or even intelligence. When the university proclaims its own highest value, it embraces truth. Harvard understands, as the con artist never will, that without honesty, a degree is meaningless. One cannot lie in pursuit of veritas.”

Wheeler’s life of crime had relatively modest origins: he was accepted to Bowdoin College as a high school senior on the strength of plagiarized essays and decent, legitimate grades. At Bowdoin, he snagged a prize for submitting a poem actually written by the highly regarded poet Paul Muldoon. His luck went a bit sour after that when a professor caught him plagiarizing journal entries for class and brought him before the university J-Board, which decided to fail him for the course and impose a semester-long suspension from Bowdoin. At around the same time, he got accepted to Harvard as a transfer student by creating an alter ego of stratospheric intellect and by plagiarizing his personal statements. (A favorite source, we learn, is Harvard luminary and best-selling author Stephen Greenblatt).

Wheeler had an abysmal first semester at Harvard, but quickly got his act together his sophomore spring when he declared his English concentration. Passing off obscure monographs as his own, he managed to secure funding for study at Oxford University one summer and also to win the prestigious Hoopes Prize (usually awarded to senior thesis writers) as a junior. All told, Wheeler cheated Harvard out of $45,806.

His lucky streak finally ground to a halt when he applied for a Fulbright scholarship (as Zauzmer lets us know, the credit goes to James Simpson, a member of the award committee whose keen eye also terminated Wheeler’s dreams of winning a Rhodes scholarship). After being confronted with yet another charge of plagiarism by his dean, Wheeler withdrew from Harvard and attempted once more to gain admission to other elite universities as a transfer student. His abrupt leave-taking aroused enough suspicion for officials to do some more digging, and from there it was only a matter of time before his elaborate network of lies was unearthed and justice delivered.

For all its reportorial strengths, “Conning Harvard” isn’t flawless. One question that surfaced repeatedly in my mind was, “What were Wheeler’s parents doing at this time?” Now, I don’t mean to impugn Mr. and Mrs. Wheeler for failing to raise a morally upright son, but I do find it peculiar that it took them so long to finally catch on to their son’s act. Did they not, for instance, have the slightest reservations about the news that their son, facing suspension from Bowdoin, had been accepted as a transfer student at Harvard? Zauzmer’s reticence on Wheeler’s parents can be deeply frustrating, not least because of the fact that in the absence of counterevidence, the reader is often shoehorned into thinking of them as no better than a cartoonish pair of overly credulous caregivers.

Then, too, Zauzmer occasionally overplays her hand at irony for dramatic effect; for instance, she uses this sentence to introduce the fact that Wheeler stole lines from the poet Muldoon: “Literary critics may find it reassuring to learn that Wheeler won the poetry contest.” This is followed by a prolix and entirely superfluous dilation of the former point: “If some poetry is better than other poetry – based on the intrinsic quality of the writing rather than what magazine prints it or the poet’s name – then it follows that if someone slips a poem by a professional poet into a pool of works by undergraduates, the judges should be able to pick out that poet’s piece as the best in the bunch.” Irony suffers from explanation; the best of its practitioners know that for it to work, it must cut quickly to the point.

But this is nitpicking. “Conning Harvard” is, overall, an admirable piece of work by a talented young journalist whose substantial accomplishment is quietly underscored by the fact that, far from heading its death knell, the pursuit of truth – of veritas – flourishes yet.

Rhoda Feng is a Monitor contributor.

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