Blogs drive, set apart forgery fallout

Just a week after Yale’s record-low admissions rate grabbed headlines, the University is once again in the national spotlight. This time, though, it was not for the 20,921 applicants it rejected, but for a single allegedly fraudulent applicant it accepted.

The story of Akash Maharaj, the Morse College junior arrested last September for forging his application to Yale, has rippled across the national media since it emerged earlier this week, appearing in dozens of outlets, including the New Haven Register, the Hartford Courant, The New York Times and local news TV stations as far away as Louisiana.

(Until now, the News chose to withhold Maharaj’s name because of his documented history of mental instability, illustrated most acutely by violent threats. But various news organizations and Web sites have since identified the student by name.)

The media hailstorm the case has triggered mirrors the fallout that greeted several previous brushes Yale had with application forgers — but it also marks the first case of alleged Yale admissions fraud to arise in the age of new media. This time around, in other words, there is a new twist: the blogosphere.

The accelerated news cycle and users’ ability to contribute to news gathering through comment posts have lent Maharaj’s story even more publicity than Lon “L.T.” Grammer — the Davenport senior arrested in April 1995 for forging his transfer application — could stir up for himself.

Hours after an article describing the case appeared in the News, his name had already appearing on online comment forums. While Grammer sought out the publicity, granting interviews to The New York Times and ABC “Prime Time Live,” Maharaj had no choice. The blogosphere was in high gear, as readers and commenters began speculating and gossiping.

Anonymous posts on Gawker.com since the story broke suggest the level of hysteria the case has whipped up on all sides since it broke Tuesday.

One commenter accused Maharaj of stealing friends’ Social Security numbers and of having a wife. Another shot back that Maharaj’s ex-boyfriend — who still attends Yale — stole his belongings and took advantage of him.

Those commenters and Gawker’s editor did not reply to requests for comment. The dynamic between the estranged former couple has also drawn the attention of a slew of gay-interest blogs.

The story’s treatment in the mainstream media, meanwhile, echoes the coverage of Tonica Jenkins, a Yale graduate student arrested in 1997 for faking her application who was later convicted of attempted murder.

The ex-boyfriend, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, was interviewed by the New York Post on Wednesday. He, too, appeared to be caught up in the frenzy the case has provoked.

In an article — the Post’s second on the issue — headlined “Ex Blasts Connivy Leaguer: Calls Yale ‘Impostor’ a Real Kook,” the ex-boyfriend was quoted saying, “I think he is a sociopath and that is how he controls people.”

Maharaj did not return calls Thursday.

Official silence

In the face of the escalating coverage, Yale administrators have kept up their silence on the issue, as they have since the Yale College Dean’s Office began investigating Maharaj’s file last summer. Officials have not commented to the press at all except for a 155-word statement from Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel released through the Office of Public Affairs.

“Cases of suspected fraud in the application process are rare,” the statement reads. “In cases where any significant doubt arises about any aspect of an application, we call school guidance counselors or registrars for verification. Also, every applicant signs a statement on the application to the effect that the information contained is accurate, and the student’s own work.”

But forgeries can sometimes slip by without raising eyebrows — just ask Patrick McDermit, who was accepted to Yale in 1976 under the fictitious alter-ego of a 23-year-old Shumash-Jewish multi-millionaire named Andreas Alrea.

“The sum of what I told them and what I sent them was so fantastic that they couldn’t fail to believe me,” McDermit told the News after he left the University in 1977.

And with the competition in elite college admissions tougher than ever, it is not always enough to trust applicants’ pledge of accuracy, experts said.

It is exceptional for applicants to forge documents outright, but embellishments and exaggerations are increasingly common, Rachel Toor ’84, a former admissions officer at Duke and author of “Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process,” said in a recent interview.

“Didn’t we all exaggerate on our applications to some extent?” one student in Bass café asked Tuesday night.

This tendency to embellish has been noted in many articles about Maharaj, including the Times’.

But Stephanie Wright ’08, a tour guide, said with so many applicants, a rare forgery is “inevitable.”

“This is also happening all over,” she said. “But Yale is a high-profile school, so it gets a lot of media attention.”

Fresh details

As reported first in The New York Times, St. John’s University in New York confirmed Thursday that Maharaj attended that school during the 2002-’03 academic year before transferring to New York University, Columbia University and then Yale. But Dominic Scianna, a spokesman for St. John’s, declined to provide further information, citing privacy rules. He said he did not know whether the university was investigating the matter.

NYU spokesman John Beckman confirmed that Maharaj transferred from St. John’s and attended NYU’s College of Arts and Science in fall 2003 and spring 2004. He said NYU is reviewing its records, but the school cannot disclose other information because of federal law.

Maharaj’s application to Yale did not mention his attendance at either St. John’s or NYU, according to a police affidavit. The transcript he submitted to Yale said he attended Columbia from the fall of 2003 until the spring of 2005, took a medical leave in fall 2005 and spent the spring 2006 semester volunteering in Sri Lanka, according to the affidavit. A Yale College Dean’s Office investigation concluded that his transcript was a forgery.

Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby declined to comment Thursday, citing confidentiality laws.

Maharaj, who has pleaded not guilty, is due for a hearing in New Haven Superior Court on Monday.

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