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January 25, 2017

Penn student newspaper: Trump relationship is an 'institutional dilemma' for university

The editorial board of the University of Pennsylvania's student-run newspaper has called on the school's administration to refrain from making an exclusive decision about how the relationship between the school and President Donald Trump will be portrayed to faculty, students and the public.

An editorial published on the The Daily Pennsylvanian's website Tuesday describes Trump's arrival in the Oval Office as an "institutional dilemma" that will compel the university to take a consistent stance on its relationship to the president, who graduated from the Wharton School in 1968.

By becoming the alma mater of the sitting president, [Penn] has received an honor that perhaps it does not want, and perhaps is not an honor at all. How it will receive this honor or dishonor is a question that it must quickly and transparently address.

The newspaper's concerns stem from the rational interest of a university to play up the accomplishments of its alumni across a range of professional disciplines. Such accolades can be influential in attracting prospective applicants, particularly in promotional and marketing materials for students and parents. 

Even after decades of measurable success in the business world, the newspaper argues that Trump's new presidential status elevates him to a level that the cannot be ignored. While the university's vice president of communications reiterated that Penn has always acknowledged Trump and daughter Tiffany's connection to the university, The Daily Pennsylvanian argues that treating the president the same as any other graduate isn't a good policy.

Inevitably, Penn’s relationship with President Trump is different in practical terms than its relationship with any other person, because there is no other person, let alone Penn alumnus, in a comparable position. Moreover, Trump has been eager, for his part, to highlight his connection to the school, touting his 1968 Wharton bachelor’s degree as an intellectual credential and a defense against accusations of improper conduct.

The question of Penn’s relationship with Trump is too fraught and complex to go publicly unaddressed.

They may be compelled to act before the president does. In the past, he's used his Ivy League education to explain away the controversial video in which he's seen mocking journalist Serge Kovaleski's disability.

“Who would mock a disability?” Trump asked CNN's Jake Tapper. “I would never. I’m a smart person. I went to the Wharton School of Finance.”

It's questionable whether the University of Pennsylvania would be comfortable if this becomes Trump's fallback whenever the public doubts the wisdom or intelligence of his directives.

During the course of the 2016 presidential campaign, several controversies involving opposition or support for Trump's candidacy impacted the atmosphere on Penn's campus.

Most notably, a social media attack in November targeting black undergraduates at Penn was perceived by some as reflective of the intolerant rhetoric and taunts characteristic of Trump's path to the White House.

That same weekend, just after the president's electoral defeat of Hillary Clinton, video from a popular bar nearby campus captured a "Build the Wall!" chant that spurred a successful movement for Penn to establish itself as a sanctuary campus for undocumented immigrant students.

President Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order that will strip federal funding from sanctuary cities like Philadelphia that refuse to comply with federal immigration officials seeking custody of their undocumented residents.

How Penn chooses handle what appear to be conflicts over fundamental values might be found in the open letter written last July by members of the Wharton School community. Uniting to denounce Trump, the letter's authors stated they were "outraged that an affiliation with our school is being used to legitimize prejudice and intolerance," but held back from making a political endorsement of Clinton.

Consistency from the university may simply have to come from a vigilant review of the president's actions, language and statements about his alma mater — infrequent though they may be — and an academic commitment to objectively address the impact of his administration's policies. That's already happening with a faculty-organized philosophy conference addressing Trump, race and the rule of law on Feb. 3. 

The Daily Pennsylvanian wouldn't go as far as to pressure the university into adopting one approach or another, whether it's holding Trump up as an example or rejecting his conduct outright, but instead urged the university to be transparent in order maintain its "integrity and political impartiality."

Some would argue that the university's embrace of former Vice President Joe Biden, who will now set up shop at Penn for a variety of advocacy initiatives, is a fairly clear indication that Penn's political affiliations are not held in reserve.

To date, statements from university officials in response to disturbing campus incidents have unwaveringly condemned racism, xenophobia and sexism in all of their many forms. The best approach for Penn early on might be to focus on combating what's harmful and destructive to society, irrespective of President Trump or his role in validating disreputable attitudes.