Trust-based admissions process leaves elite colleges open to fraud

By Tracy Jan and Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / May 19, 2010

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The former Harvard College senior accused of duping one of the world’s most selective universities seems to have exploited an application system at elite colleges that is largely based on trust and where admissions officers verify credentials only when they suspect that something is awry.

As questions mount about how 23-year-old Adam B. Wheeler could have pulled off such a sophisticated charade — doctoring transcripts and College Board scores and submitting fake letters of recommendation on official-looking letterhead — neither Harvard admissions officials nor a university spokesman would discuss its admissions process.

Nor would they say whether policies will change as a result of the alleged scam by Wheeler, who pleaded not guilty in Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn yesterday to 20 counts of larceny, identity fraud, and other charges and was ordered held on $5,000 cash bail.

Admissions officials at other colleges said the sheer volume of applicants makes it impractical to independently verify every document submitted unless they discover inconsistencies. Still, in the academic world yesterday, some professed surprise that Harvard did not see a red flag in Wheeler’s application.

“At a place like Harvard, it so defies the imagination that something like this could happen, that they never put safeguards against it,’’ said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “That’s obviously an administrative system that wasn’t properly set up to detect fraud.’’

An alert admissions officer at Yale University, where Wheeler sought to transfer after he was kicked out of Harvard last fall, had a hunch something was amiss, officials at the university in New Haven said yesterday.

“We did note that some things in the application didn’t seem entirely to add up, and when we have that instinct, we will call a school to simply check a few facts to make sure the application is accurate,’’ said Jeffrey Brenzel, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions. “It’s at the admission officer’s discretion, and we certainly encourage them to be vigilant for signs of discrepancies.’’

A portrait emerged yesterday of Wheeler as a bright young man with good, though not stellar, grades, who inexplicably felt compelled to fake his way through life after graduating from a public high school in rural Delaware.

Assistant Middlesex District Attorney John Verner said it was Wheeler’s parents who forced their son to come clean with Yale this spring after receiving a call from the admissions officer. Verner said they directed their son to tell the officer that his application was false and that he had been kicked out of Harvard because he was suspected of falsifying his credentials.

“That is the only reason Mr. Wheeler stopped his scheme,’’ Verner said.

A disheveled Wheeler, who has been in custody since he was arrested at his parents’ Delaware home on May 10, stood behind a glass panel as prosecutors accused him of defrauding Harvard of tens of thousands of dollars in grants, prize money, and other financial aid by allegedly forging, plagiarizing, and conning his way into the university.

Authorities say he did such a thorough job of convincing Harvard officials of his perfect record at Phillips Academy in Andover and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, neither of which he attended, that admissions staff apparently did not bother to check his record.

In reality, Verner said, Wheeler’s only previous college education was at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he was a student for two years before he was suspended in 2007 for plagiarizing an essay.

His parents, Richard and Lee Wheeler, sat quietly in the courtroom yesterday and later declined to comment. Wheeler’s lawyer, Steven Sussman, said he has only begun to review the case, but that “they are just allegations.’’

“He’s presumed innocent,’’ Sussman said. “He’s never been in trouble before.’’

At Caesar Rodney High School in Kent County, Del., Wheeler was a good student, a hard worker, and a member of the National Honor Society who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class, said his former principal, Kevin Fitzgerald, who is now superintendent of the school district.

Wheeler was quiet and well-liked, played in the marching band, and was a talented writer, Fitzgerald said. He did not have a disciplinary record and was never accused of plagiarizing, he added.

“His grades got him into Bowdoin,’’ Fitzgerald said. There is no indication that Wheeler had fabricated any material in his Bowdoin application, officials there said.

“He seemed to be focused on wanting to do well,’’ Fitzgerald said. “Like any student, he was going to chase a dream. I guess it led him the wrong way. I don’t know if even he can explain how and why he did the things he did.’’

Wheeler’s father taught shop and technology at the high school, Fitzgerald said. He retired after Wheeler graduated and now runs an interior design company with his wife.

Fitzgerald said that after Wheeler’s graduation, his name did not resurface until late April, when the Yale admissions officer contacted the high school.

The college wanted to check statements on his application that he was valedictorian of the class of 2007, had taken numerous Advanced Placement courses, and had posted near-perfect SAT scores, all false. Wheeler also forged a recommendation letter from a guidance counselor, Fitzgerald said, and professed to have graduated two years later than he did.

Yale officials declined to detail what discrepancies led them to conduct the more thorough background check.

Brenzel said college admissions offices typically receive information from a variety of sources. SAT scores most often come directly from the College Board and transcripts from the institutions themselves, so they are difficult to fake, he said.

MIT’s admissions dean, Stuart Schmill, said no students are admitted to that school without official transcripts, though he admitted that “it’s possible that a student can forge something like that.’’

“I guess one can pretend anything,’’ Schmill said.

A too-good-to-be-true applicant would not necessarily tip off admissions staff, he said, because at elite schools like MIT, a quarter of the applicants are valedictorians and a third have perfect SAT Math scores (though for transfer students, transcripts are more important than SAT scores).

“We operate from an attitude of trust, but there are ways where we actually do get some sort of confidence that the cases we’re looking at are what they appear to be,’’ Schmill said. “If there are inconsistencies, that’s where we might follow up. But it’s impractical to somehow independently check every piece of paper that you’re getting.’’

The New Republic said yesterday on its website that Wheeler recently applied — and was turned down — for an internship in that magazine’s literary section. On his resume, which the magazine posted, Wheeler said he spoke four languages: old English, classical Armenian, old Persian, and French. He also professed to have attended Lincoln College, the University of Oxford, and Georgetown University for independent graduate study.

Wheeler listed himself as a lecturer at the Belmont-based National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, speaking on three occasions on topics such as Zoroastrian cosmology and Armenian heresiology. In fact, those lectures were delivered by Harvard professor James Russell, said Marc Mamigonian, the association’s director of academic affairs.

Investigators say Wheeler’s tangled web began to unravel when, at Harvard, he applied for the prestigious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships last fall using falsified credentials, including a fake transcript and work he had plagiarized from a Harvard professor.

Verner said yesterday in court that when Wheeler was confronted with the plagiarism allegation, he allegedly said, “Ah, I must have made a mistake.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at; Milton Valencia at

Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied that a third of all MIT applicants have perfect SAT scores. In fact, about a third have perfect scores on the math section of the test.

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