Donald Trump, a classic case of affirmative action for the wealthy, wants to take it away from the disadvantaged

President often claims he’s “like, a smart person” — but he didn’t get into Wharton on his academic merits

Of all the issues facing higher education today — skyrocketing student debt, for-profit colleges ripping off its students and government subsidies, declining college enrollment – President Trump has chosen to make it harder for black and Latino students to get into college.

The Trump administration is preparing to sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants, according to a document obtained by The New York Times.

Apparently Trump objects to affirmative action for African-Americans and Latinos, but not to affirmative action for the super-rich and the well-connected. That’s how Trump got into the University of Pennsylvania in 1966.

Over the years, Trump has frequently referred to his Ivy League credentials as evidence of his intelligence. In a 2004 interview with CNN, Trump said, “I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I got very good marks. I was a good student. It’s the best business school in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”

In 2011, Trump told ABC News, “Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country,” referring once again to Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1968.

“I went to the Wharton School of Finance,” he said during a campaign speech in Phoenix in July 2015. “I’m, like, a really smart person.”

In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in August 2015, Trump described Whartonas “probably the hardest [school] there is to get into.” He added, “Some of the great business minds in the world have gone to Wharton.” He also observed: “Look, if I were a liberal Democrat, people would say I’m the super genius of all time. The super genius of all time.”

During a CNN-sponsored Republican town hall in Columbia, South Carolina in February 2016, Trump reminded the audience that he had gone to Wharton and then repeated his boast: “Look, I went to the best school, I was a good student and all of this stuff. I mean, I’m a smart person.”

Last December, in an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, Trump repeated those same words to explain why he didn’t need daily updates from intelligence professionals about national security threats, a tradition that goes back to President Harry Truman. “I’m, like, a smart person,” he told Wallace.

He did it again on Jan. 21 of this year, the day after his inauguration, during a visit to CIA headquarters. Trump’s scripted remarks turned into a rambling rant that included attacks on the media and his insistence that as many as 1.5 million people attended his inauguration. In the middle of his tirade, Trump felt the need to tell the nation’s top spies that he is a bright guy. “Trust me,” Trump said, “I’m, like, a smart person.”

Trump has repeated that claim many times. Each time, it isn’t clear if he’s trying to convince his interviewer or himself. Indeed, anyone who feels compelled to boast about his academic pedigree and how smart he is clearly suffers from profound insecurity about his intelligence and accomplishments. In Trump’s case, he has good reason to have doubts.

Trump surely knows he didn’t get into Wharton on his own merits. He transferred into its undergraduate program after spending two years at Fordham University in New York, where he had no significant achievements.

“No one I know of has said ‘I remember Donald Trump,’” Paul F. Gerken, a 1968 Fordham graduate and president of the Fordham College Alumni Association, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Whatever he did at Fordham, he didn’t leave footprints.”

In her 2001 biography, “The Trumps,” Gwenda Blair reported that Trump’s grades at Fordham were not good enough to qualify him to transfer to Wharton. According to Blair, Trump got into Wharton as a special favor from a “friendly” admissions officer who was a high school classmate of Trump’s older brother, Freddy. The college’s admissions staff was surely aware that Trump’s father was a wealthy real estate developer and a potential donor.

Other than his father’s money and his family’s connections, Trump had no qualifications that would have otherwise gotten him into Wharton. (Most people who mention Wharton refer to its prestigious MBA program, but Trump was an economics major in the undergraduate program.)

In high school at the New York Military Academy, Trump was not an outstanding student. He didn’t organize his fellow students to tutor underprivileged kids or raise money for cancer research. In his senior year, he was removed from his post as captain and transferred to a job on the school staff, with no command responsibilities. According to his fellow students, Trump wasn’t able to control the cadets under his command.

Moreover, for years Trump exaggerated his academic accomplishments at Wharton. On at least two occasions in the 1970s, the New York Times reported that Trump “graduated first in his class” at Wharton in 1968. That’s not true. The dean’s list for his graduation year, published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, the campus newspaper, doesn’t include Trump’s name. He has refused to release his grade transcripts from his college days.

The fabrication that Trump was first in his class has been repeated in many other articles and books about Trump, but he has never bothered to correct it.

Upon graduating from college, Trump didn’t have to apply for jobs or go through interviews with potential employers who would judge him on his merits. Instead, his father Fred Trump handed young Donald the keys to his real estate empire.

Despite this, Trump often tries to portray himself as a self-made entrepreneur. “It has not been easy for me,” Trump said at a town hall meeting on Oct. 26, 2015, acknowledging, “My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”

But an investigation by The Washington Post last year demolished Trump’s claim that he made it on his own. Not only did Trump’s father provide Donald with a huge inheritance and set up big-bucks trust accounts to provide his son with a steady income, Fred was also a silent partner in Trump’s first real estate projects. According to the Post:

Trump’s father — whose name had been besmirched in New York real estate circles after investigations into windfall profits and other abuses in his real estate projects — was an essential silent partner in Trump’s initiative. In effect, the son was the front man, relying on his father’s connections and wealth, while his father stood silently in the background to avoid drawing attention to himself.

Born into privilege, Trump got into Wharton through family connections and then inherited a fortune. Now his administration is preparing to thwart efforts by colleges and universities to recruit students of color who had to overcome obstacles that Trump can’t even imagine. The Justice Department memo uncovered by The New York Times described its plan as challenging “intentional race-based discrimination,” referring to programs designed to bring more minority students to college campuses.

Affirmative action programs were designed to help qualified students who lack the sorts of connections that Trump used to get into Wharton. The purpose is to level the playing field by helping students who have had to cope with considerable economic and social disadvantages, including racism.

No selective university or college simply uses grades and test scores in deciding which students to accept. Colleges accept students whose high-school grades and SAT scores meet a basic threshold, and then give extra points to students with various characteristics, based on such factors as athletic or artistic ability; urban, suburban or rural background; demonstrated commitment to public service; attendance at public, private or religious high schools; and ethnic and racial backgrounds. All of this is done to create a diverse student body.

The Justice Department memo noted that the anti-affirmative action project will be run out of the Civil Rights Division’s front office, comprised of Trump administration political appointees, rather than its Educational Opportunities Section, which is staffed by career civil servants who normally deal with issues involving schools and universities. This suggests that the entire scheme is designed as a political gesture to Trump’s base of conservative white supporters who view affirmative action as a form of reverse discrimination.

Candice Jackson, acting head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (who would certainly play a key role in the administration’s attack on affirmative action), once complained that she was discriminated against for being white while she was a student at Stanford.

But an even more egregious form of discrimination is the kind of class privilege that allowed a second-rate student like Trump to get into Wharton, depriving a more deserving but less well-connected student a spot in that elite institution. Now, as president, he wants to deprive tens of thousands of truly worthy students the opportunity to overcome disadvantages and become our nation’s future leaders.

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame” (Nation Books).
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