On May 13, an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian discussed my intention to create a conversation over alumni weekend about President Trump’s association with the University, by wearing and offering pins that said “UPenn: Denounce Trump.” The online commentary mostly deplored my action, calling button bearers “snowflakes” and “adult children." One said, “Most universities would be PROUD.” They deserve a response.
As a 50-year student of administrative science, I felt that Penn needed a “system power move." (Definition: a high leverage, small action that makes a difference; exemplar: Pussy Riot.) I wanted to reiterate the demand made by many others that the University to take a stand on Trump. The need to do this is as clear as the glasses on Ben Franklin’s nose.
Why denounce Trump? He uses his association with the University of Pennsylvania to buttress his claim of legitimacy. By not standing up to its most notorious graduate, the University seems to lack the courage necessary to confront an egregious bully and cad. The fabrications about his record at the University are an important element of his “alternative facts” universe. Officially depriving him of this fabrication would be a step toward undermining his falsehoods. For the sake of its soul and its competitive position, Penn should formally distance itself from this member of the class of ’68.
When I received my Class of 1967 Reunion Yearbook, I contacted 100 classmates to see if they wanted a button. Thirty responses ranged from “Keep politics out of it!” to “Yes! The man is a horror!”
Two classmates — Lawrence Walsh, an award-winning journalist, and Deborah Pellow, an anthropology professor — responded with wholehearted, action-oriented support. They were alarmed. As Lawrence noted, “Wharton attends to branding. This dreadful creature has done the business school serious, bodily harm.” A third classmate, Jane Friedman, is also a veteran journalist. Jane wasn't sure about wearing a button, but she knew it was a story, and she directed the DP to it. The four of us became a project team.
Three days before the reunion, I received messages from one of the organizers of my reunion asking me to refrain from a “divisive … political agenda.” Another classmate told me to read The Pennsylvania Gazette to see how many alums are proud we have a graduate as President.
So, I had a bit of trepidation at the start of the reunion on May 12. However, the day unfolded uneventfully.
Day 2 began with President Amy Gutmann’s alumni convocation. I asked Dr. Gutmann the following:
“I am a proud graduate of the Wharton School. What do you say to me, someone who deeply resents the lies that Donald Trump tells about his record at Penn and who believes Trump’s association with Penn is a profound embarrassment?”
Her response: Penn is legally and ethically bound to refrain from political stances or endorsing or criticizing political candidates, but it does take positions on policies that affect the school. [paraphrase]
To my surprise, my question was greeted with quite a bit of applause; equally important, nobody booed.
Immediately afterwards, people asked me for buttons and thanked me for pointing out the negative consequences of Trump’s association with Penn. At a University photo exhibit I attended later, a young woman exclaimed, “I was just reading about the buttons in the DP. I’ve got to have one! Everyone on staff probably wants one too!”
The next day I had brunch with several fraternity brothers. In the main, I don’t think of these friends as political activists. Most-telling: one “brother," who is about as middle-of-the-road as they come, said, “I am ashamed that Donald Trump went to my university.”
Monday, walking onto the Commencement parade ground, graduating seniors and alums in the crowd reached out and called to me, “I want one!”
I could have cleared my entire inventory.
Most distressing to me was that my small statement turned out to have been one of the only, if not the only, instance of political activism on campus over Commencement weekend. Today, the United States confronts a multidimensional crisis, as a result of the election of the most autocratic president in its history. But on campus, the very little open discourse on this topic took the form of a debate about a 2½ inch button. This is pathetic.
Penn can and should do better. Denounce this immoral alum. Remember: “Laws are Useless Without Morals." This is an opportunity to prove we really mean it.
MICHAEL SALES is a Wharton class of 1967 graduate.
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