In the wake of President and 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump's incitement of the Jan. 6 breaching of the United States Capitol, Penn alumni are renewing already fervent calls for the University to revoke Trump's degree, with some citing Penn's unique silence regarding his actions as reason to cut their donations.
After the Executive Committee of the Lehigh University Board of Trustees voted on Jan 8. to revoke Trump’s honorary degree, just days after the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election, Penn graduates are turning to their alma mater for similar action.
Although Lehigh opted to revoke Trump's honorary degree, Lehigh President John Simon's statement, like Penn's, did not explicitly condemn Trump’s role in the event. Penn's Jan. 7 statement failed to explicitly condemn Trump for encouraging the insurrection and disappointed faculty and students in doing so.
Lehigh awarded Trump the honorary degree in 1988 after he delivered a commencement speech for the graduating class, and the University faced growing pressure from students and faculty to annul his degree after he was elected president, specifically after he likened neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville to anti-racism protesters in 2017. The University's Board of Trustees had previously decided not to revoke Trump's honorary degree in 2017, despite a petition started by a Lehigh graduate gaining over 30,000 signatures at the time. More than 80% of voting-eligible Lehigh faculty had also voted in favor of the motion to revoke the degree.
Out of five received honorary degrees, Trump has now been stripped of two, the first from Scotland's Robert Gordon University in 2015.
“I am just a bit mortified that Lehigh University, which until today I’ve never heard of, was somehow ahead of the curve on this issue,” 2008 College graduate Lyric Enav said. “That’s not the university that Trump touts when he wants people to think he’s smart — it’s [Penn], it’s Wharton, it’s our reputation that he throws out there as a shield.”
Like Enav, other graduates believe Wednesday's mob storming of the Capitol should be the final straw in pushing Penn to markedly disassociate from the president.
"There comes a time when we need to make it clear that we as a university and as a community did not endorse anything associated with this president, and the actions that he’s taken,” 2013 College graduate Sante Mastriana said, referring to Wednesday's events, as well as the lack of accountability and openness he believes the Trump administration has displayed throughout the past four years.
While Mastriana believes Penn should not rescind a degree due to "political disagreements," he said now is the time for the University to set a precedent of taking severe action against the president.
“I think we’re all calling [the Capitol storming] an insurrection and the fomenting of violence and hatred, so [Penn] needs to be brave enough to take a stand against that,” Enav said.
2014 College graduate Dylan Hewitt, who also received his master's in 2015 from Penn's Fels Institute of Government, believes Trump's actions hurt Penn's integrity as an institution, citing the rioters as a "treasonous mob to overthrow our democracy."
“As a university which was founded by a founding father, Penn has the responsibility to take action against someone who has deliberately gone to undo and to overthrow those core principles that this university was founded on,” Hewitt said. “What I would love to see from Penn is a strong statement that tells an alumnus of its university, the sitting president of the United States of America, that his actions are unacceptable. They are un-American, and this university does not stand by it, or him, any longer."
The University has long avoided openly expressing its opinion on Trump. Penn President Amy Gutmann broke her silence on the Wharton graduate only in 2017, criticizing Trump's executive order, which temporarily banned immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, as “injurious to our work and inimical to our values.”
In late 2020, Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett rejected a request from six Wharton professors to investigate Trump’s fraudulent admission to the University, responding that the “situation occurred too far in the past to make a useful or probative factual inquiry possible.”
Now, some Penn alumni are considering cutting their donations to Penn if the University does not take stronger action against the president.
“When Penn comes to us and asks us to open our wallets, we’re always so happy to do it because we, or at least I, ascribe to Penn a lot of my success,” Enav said, adding that she will not give further donations to the University due to its refusal to condemn Trump after the Capitol storming.
"If Penn won't do the right thing on its own, then the alumni have to force it in the right direction," she said. “That’s our reputations on the line as well."
Hewitt stated that he stopped donating to Penn after the University refused to take action about Penn Law School professor Amy Wax and her "white supremacist and racist views," and that Penn's silence on Trump only strengthened his decision to do so. Wax faced great criticism from students after she argued in 2019 for an immigration policy favoring immigrants from Western countries over non-Western countries, with thousands since calling for her removal from faculty.
1991 College graduate Hannah Six urged Penn to consider the effect that its current hesitance to denounce Trump has on its perception within the Penn community and beyond.
"I think this is an opportunity for the University to show that it's not only interested in securing corporate funding and cranking out business leaders, but that it really and truly is the forward-thinking institution that it's trying to position itself to be," Six said. "I see that [Penn] is concerned with improving quality of life for underprivileged populations, and then to turn around and show this hesitancy to hold Trump accountable is a bit disappointing."
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