Why Wharton Should Take Back Trump’s Business Degree

Donald Trump, the most famous alumnus of the Wharton School

Ever since he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Donald Trump has smartly used his education there to claim how smart and sophisticated he is. Over his long and crooked career in business, the Wharton brand has been central to much of his mythmaking. He has consistently claimed that his graduation from Wharton is evidence of his intellect. Trump often asserts that he went to “the hardest school to get into, the best school in the world,” calling it “super genius stuff.”

As he so proudly proclaims, he is a graduate of “the Wharton School of Finance.” Never mind that the school considers itself more than just a place to funnel talent to the financial sector and real estate. And never mind that admission standards back in the 1960s are nothing like they are today.

And after four incompetent years in the most prestigious and powerful position on earth, after Trump incited a mob to invade, occupy and vandalize our seat of government, Wharton should do more than condemn him. It should claw back the diploma he was awarded in 1968. For a moment, American democracy fell to an insurrection fueled and egged on by its most prominent graduate. What an embarrassment and disgrace.


The front page of The New York Times on Jan. 7, 2021

The storming of Washington’s Capitol brought this reflection from Wharton’s most famous professor Adam Grant: “This is a moment to remember that our loyalty belongs to principles over people, truth over tribe, and social institutions over selfish interests.” Grant was among the more than 30 professors from Wharton who had signed an open letter in November urging America’s business leaders to decry Trump, an effort organized by Harvard Business School’s Deepak Malhotra.

Principles over people. That’s an important thought, one that the editors of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania, had in mind when they rightly called on the university to forcefully condemn Trump. “The least the University can do is distance itself from its most famous graduate and set the record straight: Donald Trump may have earned his degree from Penn, but he represents the antithesis of the University’s values and the fact-based pursuit of reason for which this school stands,” the editors wrote.

Only after that editorial was published yesterday did Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Wendell Pritchett write that Penn condemns “threatening incitements and assaults on the political freedom of all citizens.” In a statement, the pair denounced the “dangerous propagation of falsehoods and disproven allegations” of a fraudulent election as claimed by their alumnus and his supporters. But neither university official had the courage, however, to call out Trump by name or even mention the university’s connection to him.


Yet, as made clear by The Daily Pennsylvanian for the past five years, “the Penn community has watched with a mixture of horror and disbelief as the 1968 Wharton graduate ascended to the nation’s highest office. In every Daily Pennsylvanian story, reporters wrote that title in front of his name to ensure that the Penn connection remained clear. And throughout Trump’s presidency, students, alumni, and faculty alike constantly called on the University to take ownership of its connection with the commander-in-chief. The University of Pennsylvania must, for once, unequivocally condemn President Trump’s harmful and divisive rhetoric, and make clear that the University does not share his values.”

The newspaper’s editors, however, stopped short of the one action that would represent the most symbolically meaningfully action they could take: Stripping this con man of the credential it gave him, the resume booster that added credibility to at least some followers to his claims that is a genius. “It would be impractical for Penn to take drastic actions like revoking Trump’s degree on short notice,” the editors wrote.

No, it is not. Trump’s connection to Wharton is a stain on the school and its reputation. Taking back his degree is an action that would not be without precedent. In 2014, Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business confirmed that a 2003 graduate of school no longer has a degree because he was admitted under “false pretenses.” The decision to nullify Mathew Martoma’s MBA followed his conviction of insider trading charges. And business schools have also removed the names of donors from buildings after less consequential behavior. Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business scrubbed former Tyco International Chief Executive Dennis Kozlowski’s name from an academic building in 2005 after he committed a $137 million fraud. Surely, what Trump has done in attempting to overturn an election and inciting a crowd to riot is far more serious than insider trading or cooking the books. Plain and simple, he is guilty of sedition. Besides, Lehigh University already has revoked the honorary degree it awarded to Trump in 1988, and Middlebury College has revoked the honorary degree it gave Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani in 2005.

And by now, there is considerable reason beyond his failed attempt to undermine our country’s democracy to take away his undergraduate business degree from Wharton. Less than five months ago, at least half a dozen professors at Wharton called on the university to investigate an allegation that Donald Trump paid another person to take the SAT exam on his behalf and was therefore fraudulently admitted to Wharton.


The professors—all of whom teach ethics at Wharton—believed the university should revoke Trump’s 1968 undergraduate business degree if a probe can confirm the claim originally made by his niece in her best-selling, tell-all memoir published last month. “When a student gains admission by fraudulent means, it undermines the integrity of our academic standards and fairness of our admissions process,” the professors wrote in a letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann. “Concerns about cheating are exacerbated when the alleged perpetrator is a public figure in high office. Failing to investigate an allegation of fraud at such a level broadcasts to prospective students and the world at large that the playing field is not equal, that our degrees can be bought, and that subsequent fame, wealth, and political status will excuse past misconduct.”

The university’s response to their request was a failure of leadership. “We certainly share your concerns about these allegations and the integrity of our admissions process,” Pritchett wrote. “However, as you suggest in your message, we have determined that this situation occurred too far in the past to make a useful or probative factual inquiry possible. If new evidence surfaces to substantiate the claim in the future, we will continue to be open to investigating it.”

There’s more, of course. Trump also got an important assist from a close friend of his family, according to a former University of Pennsylvania admissions official. In an interview with The Washington Post, James Nolan acknowledged that in 1966 he had a phone call from Fred Trump Jr., Mary Trump’s father, asking him to help his younger brother Donald gain admission to Wharton.


“He called me and said, ‘You remember my brother Donald?’ Which I didn’t,” Nolan told the Post.“He said: ‘He’s at Fordham and he would like to transfer to Wharton. Will you interview him?’ I was happy to do that.”

Not long after the phone call, according to the Post, Donald Trump arrived at Penn for the interview, accompanied by his father, Fred Trump Sr., who attempted to “ingratiate” himself, Nolan said.

And once admitted as a transfer student from Fordham University, the record shows that Trump was a less-than-stellar student who lied about being at the top of his class. In fact, not only was he not “first in his class,” he didn’t even make the dean’s list of the top 56 students in a class of 366 graduates.

Many of Trump’s peers in the Wharton Class of 1968 agree that he did not stand out academically, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, (see Trump Failed To Excel At Wharton). The newspaper quoted 1968 Wharton graduate Louis Calomaris who recalled that “Don … was loath to really study much.”

Calomaris said Trump would come to study groups unprepared and did not “seem to care about being prepared.” He added that Trump’s academic passivity likely stemmed from his passion for engaging directly in the real estate business.


“He spent all his weekends in New York because residential real estate is a weekend business,” Calomaris told the Pennsylvanian which noted that five of Trump’s other classmates confirmed the alum’s claims. “He was not an intellectual man, but that wasn’t what his goal was,” Calomaris added. “He’s not an intellectual now, [and] that’s pretty obvious … [w]hat I saw early on was an unbounded ambition that did come to fruition, because it matched his firm’s needs, and that’s how these things work.”

One of Trump’s marketing professors at Wharton, the late William Kelley, apparently thought little of his student. A close friend of the professor, Frank DiPrima, said that Kelley told him 100 times over three decades that “Donald Trump was the dumbest goddam student I ever had.” “I remember his emphasis and inflection — it went like this — ‘Donald Trump was the dumbest goddamn student I ever had,’” DiPrima wrote. “Dr. Kelley told me this after Trump had become a celebrity but long before he was considered a political figure. Dr. Kelley often referred to Trump’s arrogance when he told of this — that Trump came to Wharton thinking he already knew everything.”

It was hardly surprising when former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified that at Trump’s direction he had threatened the Wharton School with civil and criminal actions if Trump’s grades or SAT scores were ever disclosed.

It’s time to do more than condemn Trump’s actions without even naming him. It’s time to deprive him of the credential he was given. It’s not only highly likely that he cheated his way into the school, through fraud and privilege and then took little to no interest in his studies there; his actions to overturn a lawful election in a democracy shows clearly that he does not share the university’s values nor has any interest in our nation’s welfare. Wharton needs to erase this awful stain on the school.


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