Adam Wheeler Goes to Harvard

“It is not in our inherent nature in our industry to be suspicious,” said Edward de Villafranca, a former admissions worker at Manhattanville College and the University of Richmond. He said this in reference to Adam Wheeler, the media’s newest con artist darling who fooled Harvard University for four years through falsified transcripts, bogus letters of recommendation, fabricated scholarship applications and fake resumes. The Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn, Massachusetts charged him with 20 counts of larceny for fraudulently receiving over $50,000 in scholarships and awards from Harvard.

“This is not C.S.I. Harvard,” added Mr. de Villafranca.

How hilarious would it be if it was? Just picture it: The crime scene is a Harvard admissions building, littered with tottering, flustered, Ivy League scholastic types, some students, some faculty. School blazers, parted haircuts, and the stench of their own smugness all around. A nerdier, prep school version of David Caruso slowly slips on his Ray-Ban Wayfarers. He and the others are all thinking the same thing: How could this have happened? How could this tawdry little pissant have duped us, Harvard, an Ivy League school, the elite, the emperor of all American colleges and universities? This is a travesty!

Personally, I can’t decide if I want to pity Mr. Wheeler or take him out and buy him a beer. In his disgusting desperation, all the more pronounced in already desperate times, he has shown us all one very important and glaring problem. The mindless drive to succeed and the pretense, prestige and alleged superiority of brand-named universities that have usurped the place of rightful importance held by the inherent value of an education in the modern collective American consciousness. The schools we attend and the titles that decorate our resumes matter to us more than the personal educational fulfillment we get out of them.

How many of the UCI students reading this can truthfully say that your parents would have been just as proud of you had you attended a community college, a CSU or even UC Merced instead of UCI? Not many.

As a community college transfer student, I can’t help but laugh at Mr. Wheeler, not because he managed to fool Harvard for so long, but because he wasted years and effort for what? A piece of paper with his name next to “Harvard University.” While many at UCI spent thousands of dollars on SAT classes and slaved for hours over high school grades, the SATs, the SAT II’s and the PSAT, I merely had to sign a guaranteed transfer agreement and saved my family about $40,000 in the process. The agreement basically stipulated that if I managed to maintain a certain GPA throughout my two years at community college (2.7 for Literary Journalism majors), I was guaranteed a spot at UCI, regardless of the content of my personal essays. I maintained a 3.9, but better safe than sorry, right?

The obvious question might be why I didn’t transfer to a better school. The UCs are still cheaper than private universities, and UCI is the only UC with an undergraduate journalism program. And while it is true that “University of California” looks better on a resume than “California State University,” I still sometimes wonder if I might have been better off in San Francisco State’s journalism program.

But back to Mr. Wheeler.

On one hand, Adam Wheeler is a brilliant con artist. On the other, he is a pathetic worm of a man not because of who he is, but because he’s fallen prey to a mindset far more pervasive than he can imagine. If this recession has taught us anything, it’s that the most successful and well-educated people often suffer the most devastating demises. Nothing is certain anymore; the old formulas for success don’t work.

Perhaps it is time we stop losing our minds over where we go and where we learn, and instead start asking ourselves why we’re learning what we’re learning.

Sandeep Abraham is a fouth-year literary journalism major.  He can be reached at sandeepa@uci.edu.