Aside from his wealth, his “very good genes,” his “vast feeling” for economic issues, his many tall buildings and his golf courses that ring the Earth, one of the most important things about Donald Trump, according to Trump himself, is that he graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the country’s top business schools. Trump got his degree in 1968, and almost 50 years later, he still can’t stop talking about it.
“I went to the Wharton School of Business,” he’ll have you know. “I’m, like, a really smart person.”
He has called Wharton “the best school in the world” and “super genius stuff,” and argues that his Wharton degree qualifies him to be president because “we need business genius in this country.” After Trump mocked a New York Times reporter with a congenital joint condition, he later denied having done it, saying: “I would never ― I’m a smart person. I went to the Wharton School of Finance.”
But while Trump praises Wharton to the skies, Wharton is straining to say nothing at all.
School officials have refused to comment on Trump since he declared his candidacy, even declining to address basic facts about his history there. Penn’s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, has always enjoyed good access to Wharton leaders, but when reporter and Wharton student Corey Stern saw in some old records that Trump had once served on a Wharton board of overseers, the school wouldn’t confirm it one way or the other. “If it was Donald Trump’s name, no, no comment on anything,” Stern says.
Last fall, Wharton’s administrators sent an email to professors asking them not to say anything about Trump to the press. Of the 14 Wharton professors I asked to talk about the candidate, only two agreed. One, J. Scott Armstrong, a professor of marketing, pointed me to an evidence-based election forecast he’d designed. As of Tuesday evening, that site was predicting that Trump would receive 46.9 percent of the two-party popular vote. Beyond that, Armstrong didn’t want to comment.
When it comes to the Trump campaign, “the school thought we should be kind of conservative,” Armstrong told me. “If we’re not really experts, why should we be talking about it?”
The relationship has been awkward since the beginning. Trump came to Wharton in 1966 as a 20-year-old transfer student from Fordham, enrolling as an undergraduate, not an MBA candidate (the MBA program is more exclusive), and flush with $2 million loaned to him by his father.
While obviously ambitious — “I’m going to be the king of New York real estate,” Trump told one professor — he passed through West Philadelphia without leaving a mark. The Boston Globe interviewed a number of his classmates and concluded that Trump “spoke up a lot but rarely shined in class” and “barely participated in campus activities.” He drove a green convertible and used aliases to buy and flip properties in the city.
It’s unclear what Trump took away from his time at Wharton, besides a sense of validation from being included in a group of “the smartest people.” He told the Globe that “one of the things it does is it gives you confidence... When you come out, you feel good about yourself.” (In a speech at last month’s Republican National Convention, his eldest son, Donald Jr., himself a Wharton graduate, said that Trump always “hung out with the guys on construction sites” and “valued their opinions as much, and often more, than the guys from Harvard and Wharton, locked away in offices away from the real work.” The anti-elitist swipe at the school was unexpected, to say the least, since Trump’s constant boasting about his Wharton education is explicitly elitist.)
A Penn professor of education, John L. Puckett, recently co-wrote a history of the university and found no trace of Donald Trump in his research. “He was not in any conservative faction, not in any fraternity, not in anything,” Puckett told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “I went through decades of Daily Pennsylvanians. I’ve got about 3,000 pages of notes, and you won’t find his name anywhere.”
This doesn’t explain the current institutional silence, though. So what does?
It could be that Penn is worried about alienating Trump’s kids. Ivanka Trump, like Donald Jr., is a Wharton alum, and Trump’s daughter Tiffany graduated from Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences. Alternatively, maybe the university doesn’t want to burn bridges with a potential large donor (though Trump has never given any significant amount).
But there’s another possible explanation for Wharton’s discomfort with the Trump campaign: Trump is simply bad for the brand.
For years now, the school has been struggling to shed its reputation as a training ground for Wall Street. “Wharton has an image problem,” Adam Grant, a Wharton professor of management and psychology, wrote at The Huffington Post in 2013. “The outside world still pictures Wharton as churning out Wall Street tycoons like Gordon Gekko.” (Grant didn’t respond to my emails for this story, and his book publicist declined to make him available for an interview.)
After the market crash of 2008, top business schools like Harvard and Stanford “responded to the downturn by restructuring their courses and seeking students from less-traditional business backgrounds,” The Wall Street Journal noted in 2013. “Many schools also strengthened their ties to hot technology companies.” In 2013, Harvard, Stanford and Columbia all saw their numbers of student applications rise. Wharton’s, meanwhile, fell by 5.8 percent that year.
There’s another possible explanation for Wharton’s discomfort with the Trump campaign: Trump is simply bad for the brand.
It’s not just the outside world that sees Wharton as a dinosaur out of step with the times. The Penn community tends to share this view as well. “At Penn there’s often been a tension between Wharton and the rest of the college,” a professor told me. “Medicine, and Wharton, they’re the 500-pound gorillas on the block” — the schools with the most money and influence.
One day in July, I called the journalist and author Buzz Bissinger, who teaches advanced nonfiction writing at Penn and earned his bachelor’s there. “Look,” Bissinger said, “I went to Penn. I saw Wharton undergrads who are really, really smart kids cheat their way to the top and later get caught when they were out in the world when they were brokers. To me, Donald Trump is the perfect Wharton grad. I’m going to get fired.”
Bissinger said his students tell him they often feel like second-class citizens; they worry that the liberal arts get the short end of the stick at Penn because Wharton hoovers up so much money and prestige. After a few minutes on the phone, Bissinger softened a bit and showed some sympathy for Wharton. “Why are they uncomfortable with Trump?” he said. “Because he’s a blithering asshole.”
Wharton “is a great school,” he added. “But I still think that the basic prevailing sentiment of Wharton is to teach kids to make money, and they do a damn good job of it. And that is what Donald Trump represents.”
To the degree that Trump has been financially successful, “sure, that’s admirable,” says Michael Platt, a neuroscientist with multiple Penn appointments, including one at Wharton. “Growing the economy’s a good thing for everyone. But there are other parts to that as well, like participation in the economy. Equity. Things like that. If the social compact doesn’t work, then you can grow the economy all you want, but eventually you’re going to have some kind of social upheaval and that’s not good for anyone.”
Platt drew a distinction between Old Wharton ― the Wharton of Trump, the place that used to be called the “Wharton School of Finance” ― and New Wharton, where the word “Finance,” with its connotations of Wall Street, has been lopped off the name, and where the curriculum is shifting toward team-building, entrepreneurship and innovation. New Wharton: The current dean, Geoffrey Garrett, an Australian political economist, keeps a signed photo of Jimi Hendrix in his office, and writes on his LinkedIn page that he’s “really worried by the anti-immigrant sentiment in contemporary American politics,” because immigration is the “secret sauce” that drives U.S. innovation. Twenty-two percent of Wharton undergraduates, and 32 percent of its MBA candidates, come from other countries. Thirty percent of the current crop of U.S. MBAs are students of color.
Wharton students still tend to be “generally more convinced of capitalism working as a market than our peers at Williams or something,” says Kaustubh Deo, who graduated with dual degrees in May and is moving to Boston to work in the finance industry. “But we still clearly see that the system has not worked fairly for everyone. And that clearly needs to be corrected.”
About as many of the school’s MBAs end up working for tech companies as they do investment banks, following the lead of alumni like Elon Musk of SpaceX and Sundar Pichai of Google ― immigrants who studied business at Wharton and went on to lead billion-dollar empires in Silicon Valley. Compared to those guys, Trump is an atavist, a man of real estate and the plastic ecstasies of cable news: “the Gordon Gekko of the attention economy,” to use Laurie Penny’s phrase. “Wharton already gets a kind of bad image with our generation,” says Deo. “And the last thing we wanted was for Trump to be touting our school.”
“We have a duty to speak out against it. We can’t be silent with that form of discrimination.”
Without commenting on Trump directly, various Penn leaders have found ways to signal their displeasure with the candidate. At the beginning of each semester, the Daily Pennsylvanian staff meets with university President Amy Gutmann. This January, a student asked her about Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants. While Gutmann made it clear she wouldn’t “stoop to the level” of commenting on specific political statements, she did say that discrimination against Muslims is “invidious,” adding, “Not only is it not called for and disgraceful, but it’s also unconstitutional.” According to a Wharton source, Garrett, the school’s dean, has made it clear at internal meetings that Trump is not speaking for Wharton. And Deo remembers a moment from one of his Wharton classes this spring, when his professor led a discussion on the economics of immigration policy. Toward the end of class, as students were closing their laptops, the professor mentioned Trump, saying that with a presidential candidate sowing xenophobia and racism, “we have a duty to speak out against it. We can’t be silent with that form of discrimination.”
In July, on Medium, Wharton students posted an open letter to Trump, rejecting his bigotry and arguing that a Trump presidency would hurt the country. Since then, more than 3,800 members of the Wharton community have signed the letter, including students, alumni and at least five current professors. (None of the five returned my emails.) “Your insistence on exclusion and scapegoating would be bad for business and bad for the American economy,” the letter reads. “An intolerant America is a less productive, less innovative, and less competitive America.”
The letter is brief, sharp and clear — the most public rebuke of Trump that has emerged from Wharton. Still, it carries a prominent disclaimer, a mark of Wharton’s enduring discomfort with the man who has wrapped himself in the school’s name: “This letter reflects the personal views of its signatories only and is not affiliated with the Wharton School.”