Petition Calls for Penn to Disavow Donald Trump

Donald Trump talks about Wharton a lot. Penn never mentions Trump. Penn grad Nathaniel Popkin wants the school to weigh in against him in some way.

Wharton logo; Donald Trump

Trump photo by Michael Vadon (license)

If you listen to Donald Trump out on the campaign trail long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll hear him mention his time spent in Philadelphia. Though Trump’s college years remain a bit of a mystery, you’ll hear him bring it up often: Trump went to the Wharton School of Finance.

Trump has his undergraduate degree in economics from the University. Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka and Tiffany Trump all graduated from Penn. And since the institution granted him a degree, he’s free to flaunt it however he wants. But some alumni, faculty and staff of the University of Pennsylvania are not happy about it — and they’re hoping to get Penn to do something about it.

Philadelphia’s Nathaniel Popkin, the writer and editor who is also a 1991 Penn graduate, decided to do something about it. He started a petition at that calls for Penn President Amy Gutmann and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania to “disavow the intolerant views of Donald Trump.”

“Whenever he needed to say he was smart, he said, ‘Well, of course, I went to Wharton,’” Popkin told Philadelphia magazine. “It’s part of his family’s culture — they went there. But Penn was intentionally or not giving him some legitimacy that he desperately needs as he’s demonstrated.”

As a non-profit, there are limits to where Penn can involve itself in politics. A spokesperson for Penn told Inside Higher Ed “[t]he university doesn’t involve itself in partisan political races, so we would not have anything to offer on this.”

But Popkin says he believes Trump is so dangerous the university must make a stand against him. “The intolerance of a man who is demagogic and fascistic like Hitler is so great,” Popkin says. “It’s no longer OK to drape ourselves in the law governing nonprofit organizations. And we better do it right now or we’re all going to be fucked.”

The petition reads, in part:

The Republican nominee for President, Donald J. Trump, is a dangerous con-man whose beliefs, words, and actions are inimical to the history and spirit of the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Trump vows to ban new Muslim immigrants and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. He mocks those with physical disabilities. He undermines the legitimacy of President Barack Obama through racist innuendo. He vilely objectifies women, half the nation’s populace. His campaign aligns with renowned white supremacists. His political statements have been shown to be false 91 percent of the time. All this makes him a danger to the political and cultural life of the United States and the world. Yet, when Mr. Trump needs to cloak himself in legitimacy, he reminds the media that he is a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The world is to believe he learned these traits at Penn. […]

Penn’s charitable, tax-exempt status means it is prohibited from making political endorsements. We are not asking President Gutmann or the Trustees to violate that law. Rather, we implore the President and Trustees to make an official statement affirming the University’s values in contrast to those of Mr. Trump. This statement will serve as clarification of Penn’s signature culture of openness, diversity, and the advancement of rights of women and minority groups.

The letter has 287 signatures so far, many from those affiliated with Penn: Harris Sokoloff, director of the Center for School Study Councils and an education professor; Shawn Evans, an award-winning architect who has taught and lectured at Penn; Barry Dornfeld, a filmmaker and Wharton Executive Education professor; and Garrett Reisman, an astronaut and Penn grad. Additionally, a slew of English professors — Karen Rile, Paul Saint-Amour, Jean-Cristophe Cloutier, Suvir Kaul, Julia Bloch and Nancy Bentley — have signed the petition.

“I don’t necessarily expect Amy Gutmann or the board of trustees to come out explicitly to denounce Donald Trump, I think they would have a very hard time doing that,” Popkin says. But he thinks the school should do something to show it does not agree with his viewpoints — something like returning the small amount of money he’s given to Penn over the years, or removing his name from the Class of ’68 plaque in the Van Pelt library, the only spot on campus where Trump’s name is displayed.

“Silence is speaking,” Popkin says. “This is not business as usual. This is not a partisan political race. This is a man who threatens all of the architecture of our society.… all those institutions have disavowed Bill Cosby. And they did so because he did horrible things. I can only imagine the horrible things that Donald Trump would do to this country and to people.” He added that Trump’s frequent Wharton references dilute and hurt the Penn brand.

Penn actually has not revoked Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, saying “it is not our practice to rescind honorary degrees.” The school has revoked degrees in the past, taking away the honorary diplomas of German Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II and German Ambassador to the United States and Mexico Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff at the start of World War I. (Yes, you literally have to declare war on the United States to get Penn to revoke your honorary degree.)

As of late June, no one employed by Wharton or Penn had donated money to Trump. In the summer, a group of those affiliated with Wharton released an open letter to Trump titled “You Do Not Represent Us.”

Popkin says the reaction to his petition has largely been positive. “People who love Penn hate to see Penn, the institution that gave them their start or deepened their intellectual life, maligned by this dangerous ignoramus and con man,” he says.

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