Since January, the "Letters" section of the Pennsylvania Gazette— the alumni magazine of my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania— has sizzled with angry missives from old grads outraged by the Gazette’s refusal to put Donald Trump (Class of ’68) on its cover or, indeed, Penn’s refusal to celebrate Trump’s presidential election in any way, “in spite of him being the only Penn graduate ever to be elected president,” as one syntactically challenged alumnus put it.
Most of these letters assume that, as one writer said, “the Penn administration and faculty is overwhelmingly liberal” and, what’s more, that “Penn, like most colleges and universities in America, subscribes to what is usually called ‘political correctness.'”
The Gazette's sole explanation for this neglect of the university’s famous son has consisted of an editor's note remarking that, given all the media coverage of Trump, "There's not much more we can say about the 2016 election." (Click here.) Penn itself hasn't responded at all. So let me take a crack at it.
Long before he became president — long before he even dreamed of running for president — Donald Trump was a poster boy for the failure of modern U.S. university education. This is a man who boasts that he never reads books, newspapers, or magazines. This is a man who, if his ghostwriter is to be believed, never even read his own book, The Art of the Deal. This is a man whose preferred information source is cable TV and whose preferred communication mode is a tweet of 140 characters or less.
This is a man whom most conscientious parents — liberal or conservative — would keep away from their daughters; a man many people — again, regardless of political philosophy — would not want in their homes; a man few of us — again, Republican or Democrat — could fathom engaging in a conversation about almost any subject: politics, history, philosophy, religion, science, literature, art, music, drama, movies, sports, even the weather. Any subject, that is, other than Trump himself.
Trump’s election to the presidency did not terminate Penn’s embarrassment at having produced such a self-centered yahoo. On the contrary, it exacerbated it.
Ask Penn administrators and professors about the university’s failure to mold this particular student into a well-rounded, public-spirited citizen — the Jeffersonian ideal of education — and they will make excuses. “He only attended Penn for two years,” they may say (Trump transferred to Penn from Fordham). Or they will point out that Trump attended Wharton, Penn’s undergraduate business school, rather than its liberal-arts college. The fact remains: A great American university somehow allowed this particular student to slip through its pedagogical cracks. Penn accepted Trump for admission and conferred a bachelor’s degree upon him, thereby enabling him to claim, years later, that he must be smart because he graduated from Wharton. But a Wharton degree per se is neither an honor nor a disgrace. I personally know at least six or seven Wharton grads who’ve developed an interest in something other than wealth accumulation and self-aggrandizement.
The Nixon example
Those angry old Penn grads implicitly presume that election to the presidency is an awesome achievement, somewhat like finding a cure for cancer, or inventing the internet, or writing War and Peace. According to this theory, winning high office is an honor that automatically confers dignity upon the recipient, no matter how undignified he or she may actually be. This, of course, is the theory advanced by President Trump’s chief White House apologist, Kellyanne Conway.
It’s also the theory that was widely applied to Richard Nixon upon his election to the White House in 1968. In retrospect, we know how that turned out. We also know in retrospect that, next to Donald Trump, the flawed Richard Nixon now seems a model of intelligence, industriousness, maturity, modesty, and public-spirited self-sacrifice.
Why isn’t Penn celebrating Donald Trump? Wrong question. We should be asking: What fully accredited U.S. university produced and certified such a dangerously loose cannon?