Leadership & Governance

The Alumni Colleges Aren’t Bragging About: Members of Trump’s Inner Circle

February 24, 2017

Joshua Roberts, Reuters
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President Trump and an alumna of Trinity Washington U., described as "a disappointment" the sharp, personal criticism of her and her White House colleagues by the university’s president.
Patricia A. McGuire keeps a digital folder called "Hell." That’s where she puts all the messages from people telling her that she’s bound for eternal damnation.

Lately, Hell is spilling over. Ms. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, made headlines this week by criticizing an alumna of the Roman Catholic women’s institution, Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President Trump. Ms. Conway, President McGuire wrote on a university blog, "has been part of a team that thinks nothing of shaping and spreading a skein of lies as a means to secure power."

Since then Ms. McGuire has received messages from people questioning her judgment and rendering their own. Some, mostly from strangers, have been sent straight to Hell. Others, from alumnae of the university, are not as easy to dismiss. Some Trinity alumnae see Ms. Conway as a pro-life champion. Others see her as a uniquely accomplished professional.

"One group feels, because she was the first female campaign manager to lead a successful presidential campaign, that quite apart from politics we should honor and celebrate her," says Ms. McGuire, who took office in 1989, several months after Ms. Conway graduated.

Ms. Conway called Ms. McGuire’s criticisms "a disappointment," and pointed out to The Washington Post that she has supported her alma mater to the tune of $50,000. Those contributions helped pay for the construction of the university’s athletics center.

Colleges love to brag about their famous alumni. They are less eager to criticize those who have become infamous, especially while those people are still alive. But in these extraordinary times, marked by extraordinary disagreement over who deserves praise or condemnation, several colleges have faced the awkward task of reckoning with their roles in the rearing of Mr. Trump’s most visible spokespeople.

Take Stephen Miller, the senior White House adviser who has championed Mr. Trump’s controversial immigration order, which would halt the resettlement of refugees and temporarily bar immigrants from seven Muslim countries.

Mr. Miller, 31, graduated from Duke University recently enough that people there still remember him. John F. Burness, a longtime Duke spokesman who now teaches in the university’s public-policy school, made a splash this month when he told a reporter that Mr. Miller had been "the most sanctimonious student I think I ever encountered."

Criticizing Policies, Not People

But the case of Mr. Burness and Mr. Miller is distinct in two ways. For one, the two have a history. They squared off in 2006, when Mr. Miller, then a student, became a high-profile critic during the Duke lacrosse scandal. In sharply worded columns for The Duke Chronicle and in appearances on national news shows, Mr. Miller emerged as a leading opponent of the university’s administration, including its president, Richard H. Brodhead. Mr. Burness’s role as public-affairs chief made him a public defender of that administration.

Kevin Lamarque, Reuters
Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser and Duke U. alumnus, is remembered at the university for his caustic criticism of its leadership during the lacrosse scandal, in 2006, when he was an undergraduate.
For another, Mr. Burness retired in 2007, so he is no longer shackled by the politics of speaking for the institution. It’s not uncommon for a university to criticize a policy — Mr. Brodhead joined other college leaders in urging President Trump to rescind the immigration order that Mr. Miller helped write — but making a criticism personal, Mr. Burness said in an interview, is not an effective strategy.

If a university wants to get someone’s attention, said Mr. Burness, there are ways to approach that line without crossing it.

"In the careful parsing of words in the old days that I could use, I might mention the person," he said, "but I would say, ‘I disagree fundamentally with the statement made by Mr. So-and-So.’"

Duke declined to make Mr. Brodhead available for an interview.

Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, is far removed from his days as a dashing young pol who won a race for president of Virginia Tech’s undergraduate-student government in a runaway in 1975. But some current students have found themselves mortified by the affiliation they share with Mr. Bannon, who has quickly achieved Darth Vader status among critics of Mr. Trump’s administration.

“His views are sinister and reckless, and disqualify him to advise the leadership of any modern society.”
"Bannon’s views are antithetical to the foundational values upon which the Virginia Tech community stands," wrote a group of graduate students in a petition that has been signed by more than 5,000 people. "His views are sinister and reckless, and disqualify him to advise the leadership of any modern society."

Virginia Tech officials, however, have declined to weigh in. Mr. Bannon has been closely involved with the university in recent years, serving on a fund-raising committee in 2010, according to The Roanoke Times.

In January, when a reporter for the student newspaper asked if the university planned to disavow Mr. Bannon, Mark Owczarski, a spokesman, reacted with consternation.

“Why would Virginia Tech go out and make a statement disavowing anybody?”
"Why would Virginia Tech go out and make a statement disavowing anybody? It doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t understand the logic and the reasoning of what you’re asking," the Collegiate Times quoted Mr. Owczarski as saying.

"Who are we to determine any of that stuff?" he continued. "He is who he is. We’ll allow his actions and his works to speak for themselves, as we do with all our alums."

‘Very Raw, Very Emotional’

Ms. McGuire, the Trinity Washington president, knew she had the support of many current students and alumnae before she called out Ms. Conway by name. In January, Ms. McGuire surveyed 600 alumnae to gauge how they felt about the impending Trump presidency.

"A Trinity alumna, Kellyanne Conway, Class of 1989, was President-elect Trump’s campaign manager and now will be a top adviser to him in the White House," she wrote in the survey. "What message would you like to share with Kellyanne as she undertakes her important responsibilities in the next week?"

About 80 percent of the responses were negative.

The tone of the feedback surprised the Trinity Washington president. The messages were so intensely partisan that she decided not to even publish a summary.

"I didn’t feel they were unfair," said Ms. McGuire, "but I felt they were extremely divisive, and some of them were very raw, very emotional."

Still, the survey gave her confidence that most of her constituents would back Ms. McGuire’s decision to write, in a February 12 blog post, that Ms. Conway had played a "large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging the grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump administration’s war on immigrants, among many other issues."

The Trinity Washington president said her remark had not been meant to foreclose the possibility of engaging with Ms. Conway on the issues. Ms. McGuire said the university was considering inviting the White House adviser to the campus in the fall, once tempers have calmed, for a conversation about immigration, health care, and education policy.

But Ms. McGuire said her disagreements with how Ms. Conway had represented herself in the early days of the Trump presidency were not merely political. Ms. Conway’s allegiance to "alternative facts" might fit the code of her new boss, said Ms. McGuire, but it defies the honor code of her alma mater.

"This is not about ‘a political operative,’ this is about a Trinity sister who many feel needs to be called to a higher standard of discourse," said the president. "That’s really the issue for the Trinity family."

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.