Salvos Adam Wheeler Went to Harvard

Jim Newell

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On December 23, 2011, the dons of Harvard University finally got to see Adam Wheeler sentenced to a year in prison. Wheeler, a twenty-five-year-old whom they admitted in 2007 on the strength of an academic record he’d fabricated out of thin air, had been caught again—and this was not something a young gentleman does to America’s most highly self-regarded institution of advanced credentialing.

A few months earlier, Wheeler had submitted a résumé to U.S. Green Data Inc., on which he said he had attended Harvard. Technically, this was true; he’d been one year short of graduating when someone at the school belatedly noticed he had falsified the credentials that won him admission, and that he had plagiarized the papers that won him scholarships and prestigious awards. But the ten-year probationary punishment that the Middlesex County Superior Court had meted out upon the discovery of his fabulism forbade him ever from claiming he had attended the school, and the new offending résumé landed on the desk of a Harvard alum, who forwarded it to a dean, who turned it over to the district attorney’s office. And Adam Wheeler, who attended Harvard and who had been forced by the Court to lie about his having attended Harvard, was packed off to jail for lying about his having attending Harvard. The school of George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger (the war criminal who was feted on campus this spring as a conquering hero) took all appropriate measures to ensure that its name would never be sullied by associating with an immoral, egomaniacal charlatan, at least one who never held high office. And all the useful knowledge that Wheeler picked up in more than two years of classes was no longer something from which he could draw on to contribute to society.

College credential fraud may seem like a nitpicking offense for throwing a nonviolent offender into the overcrowded prison system for a tour of the seasons. But Wheeler embarrassed Harvard; his puncture of arbitrary power was so trifling that, paradoxically, it couldn’t be ignored. Harvard officials had little choice but to make an example of him through an aggressive, custom-tailored prosecution whose real aim was to restore the correct order of things. Adam Wheeler, after all, is merely a mediocre public school graduate from Delaware. But Harvard—well, everyone knows that Harvard shines across the fair land as a beacon of meritocratic upward mobility universally accessible to a nationwide corps of upper-middle-class teenagers of arbitrary intellectual ability.

Take a look at the victim impact statement Harvard presented to the Court in 2010, and notice how the country’s mightiest and richest institution of enlightened learning asks for the maximum punishment to be inflicted upon a lying schoolboy. The victim wanted to send a message to the entire world that fraud on campus will not be tolerated, no ifs, ands, or buts about it:

Wheeler’s acts of deception and fraud not only harmed Harvard University directly, but also undermined the public perception of integrity in higher education nationally and around the world. We require honesty as well as excellence from our students, which is why, when we discovered Mr. Wheeler’s fraudulent conduct, we brought it to the attention of the district attorney’s office. In terms of sentencing, we believe restitution is appropriate, so that the financial aid and other funds that Mr. Wheeler stole from Harvard can be put to use to support deserving Harvard students. We also feel strongly that Mr. Wheeler should be prohibited from profiting from his fraudulent schemes for as long a period as the court has the power to impose. Were he permitted to profit from the notoriety he already has gained as a result of his flagrant dishonesty, all of higher education would continue to be negatively impacted.

It’s not as though Harvard lacks for alums whom the institution should be ashamed to be associated with, or who have befouled “the public perception of integrity in higher education.” Wheeler’s final prosecution came just three years after a cabal of alumni known as the financial services sector destroyed the economy by playing computer games with the planet’s accumulated wealth. There was former Harvard President, Treasury Secretary, and deregulator extraordinaire Larry Summers; there was Summers’s predecessor at Treasury and mentor in the intricate art of fucking up global economies of weaker nations for no good reason, Robert Rubin (AB ’60 and member of the Corporation, Harvard’s governing body); there was the CEO of America’s most ruthless megabank (“the smart ones,” in financial expert circles), Lloyd Blankfein (AB ’75, JD ’78); and then there were approximately 100 percent of the other key figures who engineered this wholly preventable near-reversion to the state of nature—all Crimson men with at least one tour of duty. The university offers no protest as these apocalypse machinists drop John Harvard’s name in their pursuit of sinecures atop whatever remaining elite institutions and systems they have yet to destroy; instead, it covers them with laurels and showers them with money.

Wheeler’s puncture of arbitrary power was so trifling that, paradoxically, it couldn’t be ignored.

Take the case of Andrei Shleifer, a prominent Harvard economics professor and former head of the disgraced Russia Project at the Harvard Institute for International Development. In the nineties, Shleifer won a contract from the U.S. government to administer “shock therapy” to the Russian economy, to theorize and implement its transformation from failed socialism to a market economy dominated by private capital and guided by legal norms. The key to establishing a favorable investment climate was teaching the Russians respect for the rule of law—because every academic economist knows that underlying market economies lies a rational consensus, an agreement to play by the rules duly articulated and enforced. And out of this orthodoxy came not only a failed mission and a reaction inside Russian power circles that set a baleful course, but a tale of personal and institutional corruption as awesome as you are likely to find anywhere in scandal-plagued higher education, with sordid details of fabricated expense accounts, no-show jobs, and leisured junkets that make Adam Wheeler seem like a piker. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office investigations of Shleifer’s activities turned up large quantities of credible evidence of money laundering, embezzlement, tax evasion, and fraud, evidence that directly implicated his wife, a hedge fund manager. In 2004, a Boston judge in the federal district court ruled Harvard liable for breach of contract in the Shleifer debauch and found the celebrated economist liable for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. Adam Wheeler’s tangle of lies cost Harvard $45,000 and change, a pittance next to the $26.5 million they paid in the Shleifer settlement, the largest in the university’s history.

The Russia Project, launched with all the overweening arrogance due the gilded dogmas of business, showed up the shock troops of the market’s ideological vanguard as a pack of self-dealing crooks and swindlers who help themselves to giant heapings of public wealth when no one is looking. Yes, you already knew that. But how do you think Harvard responded as the evidence piled up and the investigation closed in on one of their own? Right again: Andrei Shleifer was promoted, given the coveted Whipple V.N. Jones chair in the Department of Economics after his pal and mentor Larry Summers intervened with the dean of the faculty. In other words, a closely conjoined pair of global market fraudsters successfully headed off accountability for their crimes by exploiting the elaborate masquerade that keeps Harvard’s worship of power and money spinning. The undergraduate imposter is in jail. The economist, who has never presented the defense he said all along was forthcoming, is today what he has always been: a member in good—and indeed, ascendant—standing of the Harvard economics department, one of those superstar professors who travel abroad to give expert advice to backward peoples and then come back to campus to instruct drooling students in how the world works.

Nobody at Harvard, none of the admissions officials, deans, or professors who were too lazy or incompetent to notice Adam Wheeler’s lies, appears to have been punished. At this most elite of elite institutions, it’s standard operating procedure to shift the blame downward, so that Harvard can continue collecting donations from financial wizards and garlanding them with the occasional honorary degree. The journalism world, a collection pool for the few Harvard College graduates who rebelliously reject law or consulting careers but hardly have to make it the hard way (the New York Times, notably, reserves a junior reporter job or two each year for graduating staffers of the Harvard Crimson), has been thorough in its anti-journalistic investigations of the perps behind the ’08 crash—low-income mortgage holders, minorities, recipients of unemployment benefits, Congressman Barney Frank, and unionized public school teachers, to name only a few major players in this shadowy network—while the ever upward-falling meritocracy of high finance has been deemed too petulant to fail.

So there was a certain grim fitness to the high Victorian melodrama of Middlesex Assistant District Attorney John C. Verner seeking maximum punishment for the lying schoolboy. It’s one thing to despoil retirement funds, lay waste to the mortgage sector, plunge countries to the brink of bankruptcy, and reduce the life expectancy of a whole people, but the American republic plainly will not stand for the trespass of writing “Harvard” on a job application—even if the young applicant in question needed that job in order to pay off some of the $45,000 and change in fines arising from the previous year’s prosecution.

“Despite everything that has happened to Mr. Wheeler prior to being put on probation, he still continues to do what he has been doing: falsifying résumés, lying, and stealing,” Verner pontificated, the winds of profound moral certitude puffing his every word. “Mr. Wheeler is not going to stop doing what he’s doing”—saying he went to Harvard—“unless he’s sentenced. He has to be punished.”

Superior Court Justice Diane M. Kottmyer obliged. Wheeler was not mentally ill, she allowed, but “simply has a character flaw that makes him dishonest.” Sending him to a mental facility would only feed “his sense of himself as a person who can do these things and get away with them without repercussions.” And so Adam Wheeler was sentenced to one year in prison, for saying, truthfully, that he went to Harvard.

Wheeler came to Harvard to study English and left as a bit player in a twisted Dreiserian tragedy, exaggerated to hammy effect by a humiliated university covering its ass. He bought into Harvard’s great enabling social myth at face value: the notion that twenty-first-century meritocratic advancement is available to all through the procurement of a college diploma. Like any rational economic actor, he sought to procure a diploma from the finest college, with maximum efficiency. Wheeler’s crime, in the institution’s eyes, was that he saw Harvard degrees for what they are—items for purchase that cloak the owner with a manufactured prestige that, in our pretend meritocracy, automatically raises one’s market value upon the deal’s closing. The only thing propping up that value is the admissions office’s carefully maintained scarcity of supply—a luxury good ostensibly awarded to society’s most able. So Wheeler once more called the bluff of the Harvard admissions crew: he gave them whatever song-and-dance they were looking for, and, shockingly, came close to completing the purchase.

It’s quite apparent that Harvard administrators couldn’t merely expel Wheeler and demand he return the money when they finally noticed the obvious lies on his academic résumé. There was an urgent example to be set here, after all: enterprising young minds watching the news coverage might have reasoned that the people who run Harvard are utter morons who caught Wheeler only after a final fabrication so flamboyant that he must have wanted to get caught. With the great meritocratic ruse at last exposed in the light of day, young strivers might well give it a go themselves. Even better, forget going to Harvard—why not simply throw “BA, Harvard” on the ol’ résumé right now and start making tons of money playing financial computer games tomorrow? All Wheeler did, anyway, was spot major systemic inefficiencies and disingenuously exploit them for personal financial reward. And if Harvard is a place that would expel such a Capitalist of the Year, then it’s everyone else’s moral duty as Americans to pick up where he left off, and continue looting the place until it reaches a competitive market-clearing equilibrium: when looting a Harvard degree would no longer be worth the trouble—when Harvard, horror of horrors, becomes but one college of many!

To say that Harvard caught Wheeler in 2009 gives the school far too much credit. He’d almost certainly be selling crappy derivatives to some vain aristocrats in Eastern Europe right now if he’d just glided quietly through his senior year. Instead, he applied for Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, for which he had to submit a résumé, a Harvard transcript, several letters of recommendation, and a project statement (on “cultural mobility”), all of which he must have known would be thoroughly vetted. Since these documents were nothing more than collections of absurd lies, anyone reviewing Wheeler’s scholarship applications for a minute or two would certainly catch something. Plagiarists famously continue raising the stakes of their fabulations in the need to be caught, and to win some perverse admiration for their crooked genius. This seems to have been the case with Wheeler, who at this juncture in his fake career had come as close to turning himself in as possible without saying the words, “I’m guilty, you can take me away now.” The moment of unraveling came when English Professor James Simpson noticed that Wheeler had plagiarized the work of fellow Professor Stephen Greenblatt.

That relatively recondite discovery led Harvard investigators to all of the much more obvious falsifications, ones that shouldn’t have required the efforts of a professor reviewing Rhodes scholar applications with a fine-tooth comb to detect. As a junior, Wheeler had submitted a (plagiarized) research paper with the unassuming title “The Mapping of an Ideological Demesne: Space, Place, and Text from More to Marvell.” The paper was nominated for Harvard’s prestigious Thomas T. Hoopes prize—and it won. By the time he was a senior, Wheeler was peddling an even rosier view of his years at fairest Harvard. On his Rhodes application, he claimed to have a 4.0 average. He did not. His résumé said he had coauthored four books with a Harvard English professor. The professor he listed did not coauthor books with undergraduates, and college students, even at Harvard, typically do not have four advanced books in their oeuvre by senior year. Wheeler also wrote that he was fluent in Old Persian, Classical Armenian, and “Old English.” Down here on Planet Earth, the only reason you would select such a trifecta is to signal to your readers that you are fucking with them, and are not really fluent in any foreign languages. At Harvard, they loved it.

An investigation into Wheeler’s initial application to Harvard proved, even more gobsmackingly, that the High Lords of America’s most prestigious university couldn’t smell bullshit if they were walking in a pasture half an hour past feeding time and felt a squish under their boots. Wheeler billed himself as a graduate of the Phillips Andover Academy who had scored a perfect 1,600 on his SATs. In reality, he had been an above-average student at Caesar Rodney High School in rural Delaware, where his parents, Richard (a former shop teacher) and his wife, Lee, now own an interior design firm. He scored a 1,160 and a 1,220 in his two stabs at the SATs.

Wheeler applied to Harvard as a transfer student, but—as you should be able to guess by now—he did not attend the school from which he told Harvard he was transferring. He alleged he was an MIT student who’d completed his first undergraduate year with straight A’s—MIT doesn’t grade first-years on the alphanumeric scale—and he submitted four fabricated letters of recommendations from actual professors. The real school Wheeler was transferring from was Bowdoin—a fine school, but one from which Wheeler had already been suspended for a semester during his sophomore year following accusations of, yes, plagiarism. The Harvard alumnus who interviewed the pretend MIT student during the transfer process should have been a wee bit concerned when he went to interview Wheeler on Bowdoin’s campus. Wheeler, however, fed him some lie about enrolling in a course that was available only on Bowdoin’s campus that semester.

Acting out the role of MIT transfer student delighted Wheeler well past his 2007 admission to Harvard. After the scandal broke, the Crimson published excerpts from emails he’d sent to fellow incoming transfer students. They’re written in the cartoonish voice you’d expect of, say, a young con man clutching a pocket thesaurus as he impersonates a pretentious, overachieving MIT-to-Harvard student. “My own, brief, assessment of my character,” he wrote, “is that I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic with a streak of contrarianism, a fascination with any pedagogical approach to Shakespeare, and a decent sense of humor.” Sports, of course, the striver dismissed as “a neighborhood faux-pas of epic proportions.” And let’s not even talk about his days and nights of isolation wandering through the deserts of MIT. “I was, to put it poorly, suckled upon the teat of disdain,” Wheeler wrote, offering his new chums a spot of his “fluency” in Old English. “I was inspired therby [sic] to apply to Harvard, where the humanities, in short, are not, simpliciter, a source of opprobrium.”

By the time Harvard set a date for Wheeler’s disciplinary hearing in the fall of 2009, Wheeler had left campus, returned to Delaware, and asked the school to let him know whenever its disciplinarians reached the expulsion verdict that he knew was coming. He returned to Massachusetts in the spring of 2010 to spend some time in the clink following his indictment on twenty counts of larceny, identity fraud, falsifying an endorsement or approval, and the dazzlingly dystopian charge of “pretending to hold a degree”—all interchangeable criminal-ish terms emitted like a thick fog to conceal the one true bedrock offense, telling Harvard people a bunch of obvious lies that they pretended to believe because they were too lazy or vain to fact-check them for half a second, which made Harvard look incompetent.

Later that year, when the initial judge in the case convicted Wheeler and handed down his ten-year probation sentence, the terms of the punishment included a bonus kick on the way out: Wheeler was not able to profit from his crimes for these ten years, far past the likely expiration of his fifteen minutes of notoriety. Tough state-mandated love for a cocky youngster who’d gone too far? Spin it that way if you must. More important, though, was the no-profit rider’s efficiency in sparing the Harvard brand from the more explosive humiliations, presented in all their naked detail, that could surface in the would-be tell-all, My Story: How I Played Those Harvard Suckers Good And You Can Too, by Adam Wheeler.

Further examples of Wheeler’s fraud, fakery, and amateurish self-parody abound, but the simplest way to put the episode in perspective is to imagine that someone was running across Harvard Yard in an unmissable neon suit screaming “I’M A FRAUD WHO HAS LIED ABOUT EVERYTHING,” around the clock, for two years, until one professor finally suspected that something was most decidedly off about this young man whose Rhodes scholarship application he’d been reviewing and intending to accept.

To be fair, every incoming Ivy League class since the dawn of time has had its share of opportunistic tools who arrive at campus embracing the well-known snob stereotypes that recruiters had sworn were the stuff of mythology. When I arrived for my freshman year at Penn—yes, reader, I, too, once was an ambitious young know-it-all from a mid-Atlantic suburb who’d heeded the siren song of a lesser Ivy to launch me into the stratosphere of the great American meritocracy—there was a first-year student in the Wharton School of Business who lived down my hall. And he’d Scotch-taped above his computer monitor a dollar bill, on which was written “FOCUS.” He would improve.

But it’s hard to ignore the chilling way in which Wheeler’s shtick—all of it—reflects on Harvard’s administration, admissions office, faculty, students, and others who’d interacted with him for years, sucking up one fakery after another. Did they really believe such a person could exist? Yes, they did; not only did they, but they showered this such person with awards and honors and cash, rewarding the young man for making them feel great about themselves for attracting and forging such a person. They adored him. Grandiosity, even of the bizarre strain that Wheeler had taught himself to practice, sustains itself, multiplies, and warps minds only when no one bothers to roll down a window.

The pathologized version of the Wheeler saga reveals at least as much about the diagnosticians as it does about the patient.

Many of the media analyses that followed Wheeler’s unraveling took the same path to nowhere, and missed the point all over again: From what diagnosable mental affliction must this young man suffer? Psychopathy? Sociopathy? (Is that different from psychopathy?) Depression? Manic depression? Schizophrenic hyper lunatic madness disorder thing? In the usual journalistic procedure, self-appointed experts were contacted, and duly quoted, to offer commonsense observations branded with the seal of science. Narcissistic Personality Disorder was the closest they came to a consensus. This sounded about right to many online commenters. Narcissist, yes. That is the one.

But like many forms of overeager armchair diagnosis, the pathologized version of the Wheeler saga reveals at least as much about the diagnosticians as it does about the patient. While the complexity, thoroughness, and attention to detail evident in Wheeler’s schemes put him in a rare class that may well merit psychiatric forensics, the cultural game that essentially licenses everyone and their mother to pin him with the proper chilling medical acronym comes close to violating the no-profit clause of Wheeler’s probation agreement. It conveniently allows us to ignore the broader, uncomfortable class issues that might arise through the application of critical thought. If we can say that that guy over there did what he did because of Severe Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then, phew—he’s just out of his mind, unlike you and me.

Only afterward, in an article such as the Christian Science Monitor’s “Harvard Hoax: Adam Wheeler Case Points to Rise of Student Fraud,” do we begin to broach the issue of the prevailing trends that could induce normal folk—people like you and me!—to masquerade as overachieving Ivy Leaguers. The Monitor story quotes Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and this piece’s dial-an-expert of choice, finally saying the obvious goddamn thing: “As the economic value of higher education has taken center stage in people’s minds, we are seeing more often people trying to get ahead by whatever means necessary.”

Amid the smoldering ruin of the post-meltdown American scene, the popular mind now sees one last means of ascending the ladder of social mobility: obtaining a four-year college degree. As more and more rush to climb it, scarcity sets in, and tuition spirals. You, the graduate, soon recognize that there aren’t many jobs out there paying enough to allow you to service your six-figure debt load. College may be worth it now only if you can get accepted into what we call top-tier schools. But they’ve got no space for you—the children born into upper-middle-class families have taken those spots, and they’ve kicked down the ladder behind them. They will hoover up your money, present and future, and, eventually, they will lose it all playing financial computer games. The crimes of larceny, fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion, and bad taste will not apply to them. They will blame you for taking out loans that you couldn’t afford, even though they were the ones who approved them and pushed them on you.

So, what else is there to do if you’re a student from a rural Delaware public high school hoping to realize your God-given right to American social mobility as the byproduct of hard work? Student fraud, baby. It’s the last hurrah. You went to Andover, you aced your SATs, you’re transferring from MIT, you speak Old Persian and Old English and you’ve coauthored four books. You’ll go to jail if they catch you, so don’t get caught.

For all the rival diagnoses of Wheeler’s psychiatric maladies now caroming around the courts and the media, maybe his real problem was bad timing. Maybe he saw what he needed, far in the distance, and jumped too soon. Maybe in another generation or two, Harvard admissions officials will have caught up with the vanguard trends and grace a future Adam Wheeler with a full scholarship for the ingenious fabrications he will lay at their feet, instead of dispatching him to the correctional facility.

And by then, future Adam Wheelers will be bedding down in dorms named after Larry Summers, that greatest hustler among the great Harvard meritocrats, who rose to the top of the American elite from a hardscrabble childhood in nowheresville, with nowhere to go, no hope for a better life, only two prominent economists as parents and two of the greatest economists of the twentieth century as uncles. But he dared to dream against all odds.

You, meanwhile, will have to figure something else out.

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