In 1987, the Penn Board of Trustees voted to appoint a new member to the Wharton Board of Overseers for a three-year term.
That panel — which today includes a slew of business magnates, including the CEO of Johnson & Johnson, a Rent the Runway board member and billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr. — is designed to “inform the ongoing priorities and future direction of the Wharton School overall.” To earn an appointment is a measure of lifelong business success and a reflection of Penn’s hopes that, one day, you’ll give back.
And, three decades ago, President Donald Trump got the nod.
Though Penn’s administration has maintained a meticulous silence towards its first graduate to reach the Oval Office — only responding officially in January to the unveiling of his controversial travel ban — records of Trump’s past at Penn suggest that relations weren’t always so icy.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Trump was one of Wharton’s highest-profile alumni, a celebrity to many students, a symbol of entrepreneurial prowess — and a target for the school’s fundraising efforts.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly stated his affection for Penn and Wharton, claiming his Ivy League credentials had made him “like, a really smart person.” Three of his children graduated from the University, and while his somewhat murky charitable giving pales in comparison to what other billionaire alumni have done, he may have given at least $1.4 million to the school.
In recent years, that affection has gone largely unreciprocated. The administration has largely stayed silent about its notorious graduate, a reticence that sets it apart from other institutions with famous political graduates. Wellesley University has a special page devoted to Hillary Clinton, Occidental College touts its connection to Barack Obama and Yale’s alumni magazine has published a feature about George W. Bush. Penn only added Trump to their list of notable alumni in government close to a week after his inauguration, and only after a reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian asked why he was not included.
That's to say little of the outright bile shown to Trump by his Wharton classmates and fellow alumni. Other members of the Class of 1968 decried him as “proto-fascist” and “shockingly horrible," and over 3,800 Wharton students, graduates and family members signed a petition telling him: “You do not represent us.” Some faculty and alumni even called on Gutmann to publicly denounce Wharton’s most notorious graduate.
Three decades ago, things were rather different.
In a 1984 speech that packed Steinberg-Dietrich Hall to the brim, Trump expounded on the virtues of Wharton as he received the Wharton Entrepreneurial Club’s first-ever “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. “I would say the most important thing I learned in Wharton is confidence,” Trump told the audience. “Confidence is one of the things you learn at Wharton — one of the reasons is because Wharton gets the finest students.”
Later in the evening, a student asked whether Trump planned on donating. The future president responded that he would match the student’s gifts “dollar for dollar.”
Whether or not Trump followed through on his promise is unclear, since it is difficult to distinguish whether individual donations were given or merely pledged. But the student’s request came at a time when Penn itself was effectively courting Trump for donations.
Alvin Shoemaker, a 1960 Wharton graduate who served on the board from 1984 to 2008, explained that board members are appointed because of their leadership in the business world, but also because their business success has given them the means to give back. That meant Trump, whose net worth in 1988 was at least $1 billion, would have been a prime target.
“These overseers boards — they want to get people that are very accomplished and can contribute, but they also want to get people who can give some money,” Shoemaker said. “They, like everyone else, thought: ‘Well, this guy’s making all this noise; he must have some money.’”
(New to The Daily Pennsylvanian? Read our other coverage of Donald Trump, including an investigation of whether he donated any money to Penn and a report on whether he was actually a top-notch student at Wharton, as some other outlets have claimed.)
Penn’s efforts weren’t entirely fruitless — Trump’s most significant donation may have gone toward Wharton’s Campaign for Sustained Leadership, which helped build Huntsman Hall. Trump appeared on a 2003 Report to Investors in the “President’s Circle” list: a group of donors who made gifts of $1,000,000 to $4,999,999. It is unclear whether the future president made the pledged donation, or what the exact amount was.
Attendance-wise, Trump was not a particularly dedicated member of the board. Other board members who served alongside him only remember him attending one or two meetings. But during that meeting, the flamboyant, brash personality that earned him widespread support and free media attention throughout the campaign was on display.
“His ego was so big that he wanted to do all the talking,” Shoemaker said. “Thankfully he didn’t do any homework, he didn't know what was going on.” Shoemaker added that other board members complained about Trump, threatening to leave the board if he stayed. Trump was not reappointed for another term in 1990.
Catherine Austin Fitts, a 1974 College of Women graduate and 1978 Wharton graduate who served on Wharton Graduate Advisory Board at the same time Trump was on the Board of Overseers, doesn’t remember Trump attending any of the joint-board meetings. But, she said, Trump’s appointment coincided with a larger shift in Wharton towards global business and entrepreneurship — two areas in which Trump was beginning to distinguish himself.
“There was a real push to broaden Wharton to be very international. They were trying to build up their global attachments,” she said. “And so Trump would have been someone who could absolutely have helped them, both with contributing and raising money, and then, of course, with building the brand.”
“If you look at all the reasons why you would recruit someone, Trump checks all the boxes,” she added, noting that Trump’s rising wealth, along with his entrepreneurial profile and foreign business dealings, would have made him an appealing choice for the board.
Ronald Rosenfeld, a 1961 Wharton graduate who served on the board from 1990 to 2005, agreed that Trump's appointment made sense given Wharton’s broader long-term goals.
“He was certainly a high-profile kind of guy doing big things, as were some of the other people on the board,” he said. “It was by no means inconsistent with the direction that Wharton was going.”
Peter Winicov, a spokesperson for Wharton, deferred comment for this article to Penn spokesperson Ron Ozio, who declined to comment in an email. “I'm sure you will understand that the University does not typically offer public comment on any of its alumni. We respect their privacy,” Ozio said of the president.
In the Wharton psyche, Trump continued to loom large, even after he left the board. In 1996, he was invited to “share his personal success story” with Wharton undergraduates, sponsored by the Musser-Schoemaker Leadership Lecture Series. His visit to campus included an open question-and-answer session as well as a private dinner, for which places were awarded by lottery.
Wharton even used Trump as a marketing tactic for potential students. In 1988, he was featured in a promotional video for prospective Wharton students. The future president was interviewed about various aspects of the Wharton experience, ultimately reaching 635 admitted high school seniors.
And in 1999, his business dealings were used as examples in professor Richard Shell’s Bargaining and Advantage class. Shell would not confirm whether Trump companies appeared in his or any other negotiations class, but a 1999 article in the DP reports that cases involving Trump, along with Larry King, Andrew Carnegie and Benjamin Franklin, helped teach students to “distinguish cooperative and competitive negotiating styles.”
“A good negotiations course is where people learn to acquaint themselves with their personal tool kit,” Shell said at the time. “The goal is personal effectiveness and so the book doesn’t treat everyone the same.”
Craig Coopersmith, a 1987 College graduate who covered Trump’s 1984 visit for the DP, said Wharton students at them viewed Trump as a celebrity ideal.
“When you’re in Wharton, generally your goal is to be an entrepreneur and to make a lot of money. He owned Trump Tower in New York City, he owned a casino in Atlantic City,” Coopersmith said. “For the people in Wharton, he was everything you could aspire to be.”
But for 1985 Wharton MBA graduate Charles Bayless, a former member of the Wharton Entrepreneurship Club, Trump didn’t compare to other business legends, and was generally only revered in certain circles.
“He was much further down the pyramid in terms of celebrity, if you will, and the people that knew him would be people who were concentrating in real estate or people who were from the northeast, because at that time, he was still really just a property guy.”
Whether or not Wharton students genuinely admired Trump, he certainly attracted attention, as evidenced by the repeated theft of his picture from the Wharton Wall of Fame.
The Wall of Fame, which no longer exists, featured famous Wharton alumni chosen by a student ballot. The stolen photograph went unreplaced for some time because, as a spokesperson for The Trump Organization said at the time, it can take some time to take a photo Trump finds satisfactory.
“He was famous and he was in the news a lot and he was a celebrity … and all the other people were just businessmen, they weren’t attractive in the same way,” said Lisa Smith, who graduated from the College in 1988 and covered entrepreneurship at Wharton for the DP. “There was something about Donald Trump that clearly captures people’s imaginations.”
Trump, perhaps aware of the reputation he held at his alma mater, even chose Penn as his venue in 1999 to publicly toy with seeking the Republican nomination for president. Before a crowd of 1,200 in Irvine Auditorium, he told Hardball’s Chris Matthews that “I only want the nomination if I can win.”
“I could be married in 24 hours if need be,” Trump responded when Matthews asked if Trump would bring a First Lady to the White House. “That’s what happens when you go to Wharton.”
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