Penn rejected a request from six Wharton professors demanding Penn President Amy Gutmann investigate allegations that President Donald Trump fraudulently gained admission to the University.
The correspondence, exclusively obtained by The Daily Pennsylvanian, represents one of the most overt instances of Penn professors speaking out against Trump, a 1968 Wharton graduate. Provost Wendell Pritchett’s rejection of the request, also provided to the DP, reveals Penn’s reluctance to publicly incur the wrath of its most famous graduate, even as the school avoids playing up his ties to Wharton.
Prominent Philadelphia lawyer Stephen Sheller also penned a letter to Gutmann and Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen requesting an investigation into Trump’s admission into Penn. Sheller, a 1960 College graduate and 1963 Penn Law graduate, did not receive a response.
Both requests, written a week apart in July, center around a claim made by the president’s niece Mary Trump in her tell-all book “Too Much and Never Enough.” She wrote that Trump paid another person, named as Joe Shapiro, to take his pre-collegiate exam, the SAT, on his behalf — a score he later used when transferring from Fordham University to the Wharton School in 1966.
The allegations resurfaced Saturday night when Mary Trump provided secretly recorded audio to the Washington Post which featured the president’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, saying Trump cheated on the SAT. Mary Trump sent the audio excerpts, recorded in 2018 and 2019, to the Post in response to a question asking how she knew Trump had someone take his SAT for him.
On July 16, six professors from Wharton’s Legal Studies & Business Ethics Department wrote to Gutmann, demanding she refer the matter to Wharton Dean Erika James and recommend that James investigate the allegations. If the investigation were to find evidence of misconduct, the matter would be presented to the University Board of Trustees, which has the authority to revoke a Penn graduate's degree.
“Concerns about cheating are exacerbated when the alleged perpetrator is a public figure in high office,” the professors wrote. “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 professors cited Penn’s Policy on Revocation of Degrees, which states that the school can revoke a degree that was fraudulently obtained through falsifying an admission application or cheating on an exam.
Legal Studies & Business Ethics Professors Brian Berkey, Julian Jonker, William Laufer, Eric Orts, Amy Sepinwall, and Kevin Werbach signed the letter. The professors made clear the letter solely conveyed their personal opinions and did not reflect the views of the University or their department.
“In my personal opinion, Donald Trump is the worst admissions mistake that the Wharton School has ever made,” Orts told the DP. “Now it turns out that we may not have made a mistake after all: we may well have been just another victim among many who have had their reputations besmirched by his lifelong pattern of deception and fraud.”
“We certainly share your concerns about these allegations and the integrity of our admissions process,” Pritchett wrote in response to the professors, adding he was replying on behalf of Gutmann. “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.”
Vice President for University Communications Stephen MacCarthy and Office of the Provost Executive Director of Communications Leo Charney did not respond to requests for comment.
Pritchett’s response to the professors came before the Maryanne Trump Barry recordings surfaced this weekend.
The professors wrote back on July 21, countering that refusing to investigate would create a perception of favoritism.
“Even if an investigation initiated by Penn and Wharton would, as you predict, ultimately fail to arrive at a definitive finding, the very fact of authorization [sic] an investigation would send a strong message of institutional integrity,” the response to Pritchett read. “An absence of administrative action risks making the most powerful statement to the contrary — that we don’t care about the integrity of our admissions process — a statement wholly inconsistent with the bedrock values of our university community.”
Pritchett did not respond to the professors' follow-up email.
Sheller also requested an investigation into allegations Trump cheated on his SAT, a week before the professors’ initial letter. The effort was uncoordinated with the professors, Sheller said.
“In view of the fact that parents are being sentenced to prison for fraudulent pay-offs to have their children admitted to different colleges at this time, I request that, under the circumstances, a blue ribbon committee should be appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to make a full examination of Donald Trump’s admission to the Wharton School,” wrote Sheller, the grandfather of the DP's current business manager.
While the Wharton professors heard back from Pritchett, Sheller said he has not received a response from the Penn administration.
“They should certainly conduct some type of investigation, a reasonable investigation, and at least make a substantial effort, because it's very embarrassing for the University and to its alumni,” Sheller told the DP. “Probably, we might go down in history as having the worst president in the history of the United States being a Wharton graduate. I certainly don’t relish that.”
The efforts to investigate Trump’s Penn admission are part of a larger issue the school has faced since day one of his presidency — how to deal with a graduate who is at once the most powerful person in the world but also a deeply polarizing political figure.
Orts said although he thinks it is problematic that Wharton leadership has shied away from taking positions on Trump, he pointed out that the school has also not showered the president with praise and awarded him honorary degrees.
This is not the first time Trump has faced opposition from higher education institutions. Scotland's Robert Gordon University revoked Trump's honorary degree in 2015, citing his history "of statements that are wholly incompatible with the ethos and values of the university." In 2018, faculty at Lehigh University voted to revoke Trump's honorary degree, but the school's board of trustees decided not to take action.
Both Orts and Sheller speculated the absence of an investigation stems from Penn’s fear of attracting the anger of the Oval Office’s occupant.
“Maybe Trump can exact retribution in some way. But that is not a reason not to pursue an allegation that is credible about whether he committed fraud against us,” Orts said. “Sometimes you have to stand up for a principle. And the University of Pennsylvania, in my opinion, is certainly big enough to stand up to a bully.”