Conning Harvard Author Speaks to Poly Ethics Class

Julie Zauzmer, author of Conning Harvard—the story of Adam Wheeler who falsified his entire application to Harvard, was accepted, and then plagiarized other people’s work while there—recently spoke to Greg Feldmeth’s senior Contemporary Ethical Issues class. Zauzmer, who was a freshman at Harvard and a staff writer at The Harvard Crimson when the news first broke, covered the story first for The Crimson, and then for the book, two processes that she explained were quite different.

The course examines issues of current ethical interest. Zauzmer discussed with students the challenge of accurately representing conversations that she knew had taken place but during which she was not present. Zauzmer explained that many authors employ a method of including “reconstructed dialogue,” which she quipped, in her opinion, is “not a real thing.” She was not able to interview Wheeler, who refused her requests; however, she did speak with a number of his professors, friends, roommates, and even his parents. Zauzmer shared with the Ethics students that her feelings about Wheeler and the case changed while she was writing the book, as she came to realize that this was not a victimless crime (Wheeler pled guilty to 20 counts of fraud and larceny and was later sentenced to one year in jail for violating probation). “People got hurt,” she said. “Someone who deserved a spot at Harvard or a scholarship didn’t get it because of him.”

Wheeler, who has been compared to Frank Abagnale, author and subject of Catch Me If You Can (also who provided a quote for the book cover), applied to Harvard while attending Bowdoin College. The information he fabricated included his high school (he never attended Andover), his current college (he claimed he was currently enrolled at MIT), SAT scores and transcripts, letters of recommendation, and more.

The students asked Zauzmer insightful questions and were quite interested in the process of authoring a book such as this, as well as details about the case. One student asked if Zauzmer had received any backlash from Harvard, to which she replied that some Harvard administrators who had refused to talk to her for her book later wrote her later to say she handled the story well. Another student asked if she had received any threats of lawsuits; she did not, but she did explain that she had to get libel insurance. “As long as we told the truth, we were okay,” she said. She and contributor Xi Yu had to repeatedly ask themselves, “Is this something that could be libel?” Zauzmer revealed how she had to be careful not to attribute feelings to Wheeler: “It’s easy to attribute these things without thinking about it; we had to edit repeatedly.”

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