Bowdoin, Harvard and the student who hoodwinked academia

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This is the story I was hoping to forget. It’s not only just an embarrassment to two of New England’s most esteemed academic institutions, Maine’s own Bowdoin College and Harvard. Nor is it even one with serious implications about the gatekeepers to all colleges and universities in America. It’s also one with a lesson about how much our society tends to forget about, whitewash or otherwise paper over such episodes, much to the detriment of us all.

Revelations that occurred near the outset of the federal trial in Manhattan this month of Mathew Martoma in one of the nation’s largest ever insider trading scandals made me change my mind. It made me realize that the story is one that should not be soon forgotten. This was the disclosure that Martoma had, according to federal prosecutors, landed a job handling the portfolio of hundreds of millions a mere seven years after having been booted out of Harvard Law School for egregiously falsifying his academic transcript there. Soon thereafter – according to the verdict issued by a New York jury earlier this month – he orchestrated an insider-trader scam that reaped $276-million in ill-gotten gains at his investment firm. This news shows how quickly ethical misconduct at leading colleges and universities tends to be overlooked. It shows how easily an academic fraud could land a job at one of the nation’s biggest hedge funds and soon be let loose, mishandling the purse strings of other people’s multi-millions.

It’s a disclosure that led me back to Harvard, Bowdoin and a follow up to the Adam B. Wheeler story. Though the Wheeler saga first won widespread national attention with his indictment and criminal conviction just over three years ago on multiple counts of academic identity fraud and larceny of some $45,000  in academic grants and scholarships — winning media coverage in venues ranging from The New York Post to “The Today Show” — it’s now a largely overlooked episode in the national consciousness.

It shouldn’t be.

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That’s because his case highlights how vulnerable to fraud our academic system has become.

Wheeler’s journey to national notoriety began with his application to Bowdoin in 2005. Wheeler was then an 18-year-old senior with very good but not top-of-his-class grades at Caesar Rodney High School in Kent County, Del. In his application to Bowdoin, Wheeler submitted five plagiarized essays, all lifted from “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays,” a well known guide published by the “The Harvard Crimson.” Not detecting the fraud and with grades that might otherwise have made him an equivocal candidate for the exclusive Maine institution, Bowdoin admitted Wheeler.

This was only the beginning.

The next year, Wheeler tied for the first place prize in Bowdoin’s Llewellyn Poetry contest. Even though the words he set to verse were those of the internationally-known Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon and his winning entry was printed in the school’s literary magazine it was years, long after Wheeler and Bowdoin had parted company, before Bowdoin raised an eyebrow over the plagiarism.

By 2007, in the second semester of his sophomore year, Wheeler was pulled up short, at least for a moment. A philosophy of law class required him to turn in a personal journal. The professor, Scott Sehon, noticed that Wheeler’s words were not his own. They were lifted from such authorities as Michigan Law Review and a bar foundation research journal. In early March 2007 he was summoned before the college’s disciplinary board. Its sanction was “F” for the course and a semester’s suspension. The suspension was not to take effect until the following fall, however.

Despite its assessment of Wheeler’s dishonest conduct, Bowdoin still hadn’t figured out that he had lifted all five essays on his entrance application from a published source and that the campus poetry award was for the work of a widely acclaimed lyricist; that he in effect was a serial plagiarist. It could have done this through a number of easily accessible means. As a widely acclaimed book on Wheeler by Julie Zauzmer, “Conning Harvard,” points out, “If the Internet is exceptionally good at facilitating plagiarism, it is nearly as good at vanquishing it, too.“

Among the tools at Bowdoin’s fingertips that it chose not to use was a Google search and the plagiarism-detection serviceTurnItIn.com. Thus, no public sanction, no outside authorities were alerted. Bowdoin let him roam. The havoc he was about to wreak had still only just begun.

The same week Bowdoin issued its suspension, in March 2007, Wheeler applied to Harvard. This he did by an application in which he used his own name, right down to the same middle initial. Neither he nor Bowdoin disclosed to Harvard his questionable academic ethics. It’s thus a simple — though brazen — procedure for Wheeler’s hegira to the Ivy League. He substituted a made up transcript from MIT for that of Bowdoin’s. This he did even though he used the names of four Bowdoin professors – labeling them as MIT faculty members – in forged letters of recommendations. A supposed-MIT dean, for example, was actually the name of a Bowdoin professor on Buddhism whose course Wheeler had taken. Harvard itself was caught asleep at the switch as a quick internet search would have shown that the four professors had taught at Bowdoin rather than MIT.

Impressed with the near-perfect grades and laudatory recommendations with which he had decorated his transfer application, Harvard sought to interview Wheeler in Cambridge. After all, MIT at which he claimed to be enrolled, was just a few blocks down Mass. Avenue. Wheeler instead invited Harvard to visit him at Bowdoin, a place he told Harvard’s admission’s staff he was temporarily staying in order to help a professor with a research project. Harvard then sent an alumni interviewer from the Brunswick area to meet Wheeler; this he did inside a Bowdoin library and at a point several weeks after the college had already issued its disciplinary verdict against him.

Harvard’s Brunswick-based representative was bowled over by Wheeler’s demeanor. Even though only 1 percent of transfer applications were granted by Harvard that year, the secretly-tainted Wheeler won a place in the sophomore class of one of the world’s most selective institutions. (On his bogus transfer application he had demoted himself to a second semester MIT freshman.)

Though Wheeler, unlike Mathew Martoma, has not — at least yet — wound up being put in charge of hundreds of millions in others people’s money, his odyssey once he left Bowdoin is still staggering. That story in my next column.

 

Sources for the column include communications by Paul Mills with former Harvard Crimson managing editor(now Washington Post reporter) Julie Zauzmer and Zauzmer’s book “Conning Harvard,” which in turn was based in part upon the response to the Crimson’s Freedom of Information Act Request made by Zauzmer from Massachusetts authorities who were investigating Wheeler’s academic background.

 

 Paul H. Mills, a Harvard alumnus whose family also includes several Bowdoin alumni, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

 

 

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