Trump: The College Years

On campuses in the thick of societal transformation, he viewed his education in a utilitarian light

July 03, 2016

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Donald J. Trump, bachelor’s degree in economics, U. of Pennyslvania’s Wharton School, 1968

By Donald J. Trump’s own account, he saw higher education as a means to an end. Fordham University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where Mr. Trump transferred to complete a bachelor’s degree in economics, were essentially credential factories. To become the real-estate mogul he envisioned, he needed these institutions — but in the same dispassionate way that a mechanic, say, needs a socket wrench.

"In my opinion, that degree doesn’t prove very much, but a lot of people I do business with take it very seriously, and it’s considered very prestigious," Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, wrote in his book The Art of the Deal. "So all things considered, I’m glad I went to Wharton."

It is difficult to say what may have rubbed off on Mr. Trump during his stint in college, from 1964 to 1968. But his rhetoric reveals a dubiousness about the importance of academic credentials — even as he braggadociously touts his own — and an impatience with curricular pursuits that lack an obvious utilitarian applicability. He left little discernible mark on Fordham or Penn, suggesting that he had a limited role within the communal life of the institutions he attended. That creates a notable contrast between Mr. Trump and his chief Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, whose leadership legacy at Wellesley College is well documented.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump has stirred passions and stoked fears around the contentious issues of race, gender, religion, and the appropriate role of the U.S. military in an ever more complicated geopolitical environment. Those same issues loomed large during his college years, when the universities he attended were grappling with the immense societal transformations that undergirded the civil-rights movement, second-wave feminism, and campus protest culture.

Mr. Trump’s arrival, in 1964, at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus, in the Bronx, coincided with the institution’s early efforts to integrate women into the undergraduate student body. The future presidential candidate, who has been dogged by charges of sexism, came of age on a campus that, like much of the nation, was stumbling on the path toward gender equity.

On June 10, 1964, under the headline "Women Take Beachhead on Rose Hill Sanctuary," the university’s student newspaper, The Fordham Ram, trumpeted the arrival of the "blond, attractive Joan Ann Poroski."

She had scored in the 98th percentile on an entrance exam, the Ram reported, and boasted other notable academic qualifications.

"Despite the amazing record of achievement," the Ram assured readers, "Joan manages to preserve a heaping portion of feminine charm including a hint of that sometimes alluring trait of ‘female impracticality.’ "

The Ram, presumably with tongue in cheek, marveled at the new "species" of "women invaders" coming to join them. Campus leaders braced students for the reality that they might, at long last, interact with women for reasons other than dating.

"It will also be a new experience for the fellows," Anne O’Keefe, an admissions official, told the newspaper. "They will get to know the female intellect."

Joseph R. Cammarosano, an emeritus professor of economics who joined Fordham’s faculty in 1955, says the Jesuit-affiliated university’s gender integration went smoothly.

"I didn’t find any cultural divide whatsoever," says Mr. Cammarosano, who does not recall Mr. Trump. "The only thing I remembered was on the first day there were about six women, and they all sat together. They must have felt embattled with all the men around them."

In those years, Fordham was under some pressure from its regional accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, to modernize. That urging, along with the more liberalized thinking of the Second Vatican Council, prompted Fordham to expand its theological curriculum. Mr. Trump, who says concerns over terrorism justify a ban on Muslims entering the United States, "would have studied Islam," says John T. Carey, who graduated from Fordham in 1968 but does not recall Mr. Trump. "And he would have studied it with an attitude that all of these religions have value."

Mr. Trump, who has been known to speak impulsively, would have found in Fordham an institution that valued sober and deliberative thinking. He "certainly would have been exposed to Socrates and Aristotle," says Mr. Carey, now a professor of communication and media management at the university.

"I’ll swallow here," Mr. Carey continues: "He would’ve taken a course in logic."

Fordham’s curriculum may have been classical and a touch formal, but the social scene was easygoing. New York’s drinking age of 18 helped to fuel parties with beer, but Mr. Trump was then and is still a teetotaler. In November 1964, during his freshman year, Peter, Paul and Mary played at Fordham’s gymnasium for a ticket price of $3. The following year, both Salvador Dalí and Dave Brubeck visited the campus.

But looming behind this cultural awakening was the ominous threat of the Vietnam War and growing racial unrest, which would come to a head during Mr. Trump’s years at the University of Pennsylvania.

With his transfer from Fordham to the Ivy League, Mr. Trump envisioned rubbing shoulders with the nation’s future real-estate titans. Wharton, he surmised, produced such men.

"I decided that as long as I had to be in college, I might as well test myself against the best," Mr. Trump wrote in his autobiography. "I applied to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and I got in."

But Gwenda Blair, who wrote a book about the Trump family, tells a more textured story. While Mr. Trump has said he started at Fordham to be closer to home, his sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, told Ms. Blair that he enrolled in Fordham because "that’s where he got in."


In her book, The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate, Ms. Blair stops short of saying that Donald Trump owed his Penn admission to family connections. But she reports that, before Mr. Trump’s transfer, he interviewed with a "friendly Wharton admissions officer" who was a high-school classmate of Mr. Trump’s older brother, Freddy.

"He acknowledged he wasn’t much of a student," Ms. Blair, an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, said in a recent interview. "He wasn’t interested in school. Let me be clear: He never said he was a poor student. He never said he was poor at anything."

To the extent that Mr. Trump found inspiration in the classroom, Ms. Blair continues, it was in those courses with the clearest connections to building and real estate. "He said the only thing he was interested in was geometry," Ms. Blair says. "It had something to do with buildings, it had something to do with spaces. That interested him."

Mr. Trump, who did not respond to interview requests, has said he was unfazed by the supposedly elite crowd he found at Penn.

"Perhaps the most important thing I learned at Wharton was not to be overly impressed by academic credentials," Mr. Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. "It didn’t take me long to realize that there was nothing particularly awesome or exceptional about my classmates, and that I could compete with them just fine."

One of those classmates was Louis J. Calomaris, who was among about a half-dozen students, along with Mr. Trump, in the real-estate concentration of Wharton’s business program. Mr. Calomaris remembers well the first time he laid eyes on Mr. Trump, who had a "big blond mop of hair" and an ego to match. On their first day of classes together, when a professor asked the students why they had come to Wharton, Mr. Calomaris recalls Mr. Trump saying, "I’m going to be the next Bill Zeckendorf," referencing a prominent New York City developer, "but I’m going to be better."

The professor peered over his horn-rimmed glasses and asked for the name of this cocksure young man. "And that was our introduction to Donald Trump," Mr. Calomaris says.

From the beginning, it was clear to Mr. Trump’s classmates that Mr. Trump’s relationship with Penn would be a transactional one; he would learn what he thought he needed to learn, and skim the rest.

Wharton’s small group of real-estate majors met regularly for a study group, Mr. Calomaris says, often at the home of Joseph M. Cohen, a future television-sports impresario who lived in Society Hill Towers, a high-rise condominium.

“That degree doesn't prove very much, but ... it's considered very prestigious.”
Mr. Trump "never prepared for study group," says Mr. Calomaris, a restaurant owner and consultant, who says he is considering a vote for Mr. Trump. "He was not an intellectual, and you see that now. He doesn’t prepare for speeches. He doesn’t prepare himself. He doesn’t have a battle plan. But he certainly knows what he wants to do. He wanted to win the nomination and now the presidency."

Another of Mr. Trump’s classmates, Edward M. Sachs Jr., recalls the future candidate for his uncommon knowledge of developers across the nation.

"He was a real-estate expert; he really was," recalls Mr. Sachs, who has worked in finance and consulting. "He would talk about major developers around the country. He knew the history and properties where I was from, which was Chicago. I was very amazed with his command of the subject and his interest in it. He knew the history of high-rise developers like a textbook."

Mr. Sachs was unaware that Mr. Trump’s father was a wealthy real-estate developer. The former classmate remembers Mr. Trump as a low-key guy, who liked to break away on Fridays for fried-oyster sandwiches at Howard Johnson’s.

"Even though he was from New York, you could have sold him in some small town in Indiana," Mr. Sachs says. "He had a common touch at that time."

Whether Mr. Trump took notice or not, he was present at a moment when Penn’s activist movement, fueled by concerns over race and war, was beginning to take shape. It would culminate in 1969, the year after he graduated, with a sit-in at the College Hall administration building. But in 1966, when Mr. Trump arrived, the University of Pennsylvania, and particularly the Wharton School, tended to be more preppy than hippie.

Mr. Trump would have fit right in. Candice Bergen, the actress whose time at Penn overlapped with Mr. Trump’s, recently told a group that she went on a blind date with the budding entrepreneur, who showed up in a burgundy limousine that was color-coordinated with his three-piece suit and matching boots.

In her memoir, Ms. Bergen describes the university as an idyllic enclave, where students wore madras, boaters, and blazers as they picnicked on checkered tablecloths.

"Berkeley led the political pack, as always, but if the answer, my friend, was blowin’ in the wind, it had bypassed Penn," she wrote in Knock Wood. "It was a passive, conservative campus; the students of its famous school of business were more concerned with mastering capitalism than with overthrowing it."

Beyond the walls of Penn, however, tensions were mounting between the university and the largely African-American population of Philadelphia’s nearby Black Bottom neighborhood. The University of Pennsylvania was central to a coalition of institutions, known as the West Philadelphia Corporation, that displaced hundreds of families, many of them poor and black, for the purposes of developing University City, a tract that included housing, retail, and the University City Science Center research park.

The razing of the area was largely completed in 1968, the year of Mr. Trump’s graduation, forcing out 2,653 people, university officials estimated.

The urban-renewal project roused student protesters, who blasted Penn for racial insensitivity and argued that weapons research at the Science Center made the university complicit in the Vietnam War. The 1969 sit-in is credited with forcing Penn trustees to work more democratically with the surrounding community.

Where Trump's Brain Trust Studied

Paul J. Manafort, campaign manager: B.S. in business administration, and J.D., Georgetown U.

Michael Glassner, deputy campaign manager: B.A. in political science, U. of Kansas.

Hope Hicks, press secretary: B.A. in English, Southern Methodist U.

Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager: B.A. in political science, U. of Massachusetts at Lowell; M.A. in political science, American U.

Dan Scavino Jr., director of social media: B.A. in communications, State U. of New York College at Plattsburgh.

Donald J. Trump Jr., son/adviser: B.S. in economics, U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Eric F. Trump, son/adviser: B.S. in business administration, Georgetown U.

Ivanka M. Trump, daughter/adviser: B.S. in economics, U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

As much as the Black Bottom episode says about racial discrimination, it is also a story of the limits of liberal do-gooding. Margaret O’Mara, a historian of the modern United States, says that Penn saw itself as a powerful intellectual force, enabled by an influx of federal research money, capable of helping to build a more affluent and peaceful nation. Mr. Trump, she says, may have witnessed the folly of such thinking.

"He could have just looked a few blocks away and seen this is what happens when the pointy-headed intellectuals try to make the world better," says Ms. O’Mara, an associate professor of history at the University of Washington, who earned a Ph.D. at Penn. "It didn’t work very well."

For a person of such outsize personality, Mr. Trump appears to have made his way through college without leaving much of an impression.

John L. Puckett, co-author of Becoming Penn: The Pragmatic American University, 1950-2000, says he found nary a mention of the future presidential candidate in the university’s archives.

"Donald Trump simply does not appear in my research, and that itself is interesting," Mr. Puckett says. "He was not in any conservative faction, not in any fraternity, not in anything. I went through decades of Daily Pennsylvanians. I’ve got about 3,000 pages of notes, and you won’t find his name anywhere."

In contrast, Mr. Trump’s likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, left a traceable legacy at Wellesley College, where she was president of the College Government Association. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who was famously a "Goldwater Girl," led Wellesley’s Young Republican chapter. Ms. Clinton’s classmates selected her to give a commencement address, in 1969, which some regard as a key moment in her ascendance as a national figure.

News stories about Mr. Trump have often repeated the assertion that he graduated first in his class at Wharton, a claim that appears to have its origins in a New York Times story, published in 1973. But another Times profile, published years later, noted that Mr. Trump was not listed as an honoree of any sort in Wharton’s 1968 commencement program.

In public speeches and tweets, Mr. Trump often notes that he "went to Wharton," leaving vague the fact that he earned a bachelor’s degree from the school and is not a graduate of Wharton’s highly touted master’s program in business administration.

Nancy Hano, a classmate of Mr. Trump’s at Wharton, told the New York Daily News last summer that Mr. Trump was not a standout academic among his peers or even noticeably present. "He was not known on campus for any reason at all," Ms. Hano said. "I was one of only five or seven girls in the whole school. Only the smart guys would sit next to the girls, because they knew the girls were bright. We never knew about him."

At Fordham, where Mr. Trump was a squash player and arguably more involved in campus activities than at Penn, memories of him are similarly vague.

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

Officials at Fordham and Penn have done little if anything to promote Mr. Trump’s affiliation with their institutions. Both the Rev. Joseph M. McShane, Fordham’s president, and Geoffrey Garrett, Wharton’s dean, declined interviews for this article.

Thus, Mr. Trump’s story is mostly one of his own telling. But Mr. Calomaris, his classmate from Wharton, recalls a revealing detail from their time together. There was much in college that did not seem to interest Mr. Trump, but he did latch on to a favorite lecture of one of Wharton’s professors, who argued that the essence of good business was to understand the desires and even the psychologies of those on the other side of the negotiating table. Are they young and aggressive? Are they conservative and more interested in steady, predictable returns? This, the professor argued, was often more important than statistical analysis or actuarial appraisal.

"Trump certainly took that to heart," Mr. Calomaris says, "because he didn’t care a whit about the technicalities of the real-estate business, just as today he doesn’t care about the technicalities of virtually anything. He’s a big-picture person."

On the campaign trail, Mr. Calomaris continues, "you’re seeing an extension of what was there when he was 19 or 20 years old. It’s a very accurate picture. It’s Trump."

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at