Now that the 2017 commencement season is past, I’m emboldened to express my shock that the University of Pennsylvania didn’t honor its most famous — and arguably, most distinguished — graduate, Donald J. Trump (Class of 1968) with an honorary degree. Shock, I would say, but not necessarily surprise: Last year’s election campaign featured more than a few media essays on the despair being felt within the “Penn community” — students, faculty, administrators, and alumni — at the then-unlikely prospect of a Trump presidency.
I can only imagine the sentiment has deepened in West Philadelphia since November.
There is another way of looking at it, of course, for Penn might have pondered the cost-benefit ratio of conferring an honorary degree on the president of the United States. The University of Pennsylvania ranks somewhere in the second tier of the Ivy League, and while its honorees this season could easily have been predicted — Sen. Corey Booker (D., N.J.), Terry Gross (D., NPR), etc. — no Penn alumnus has ever been elected president, or even run for the office on a major party ticket.
Indeed, like the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania itself, Penn’s comparatively low profile in national politics is a mystery of sorts. The last Pennsylvanian of much consequence in the nation’s capital was the Nixon-era Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, who was originally from Virginia and a graduate of Randolph-Macon College (Class of 1919). And the Keystone state’s only president is widely regarded by historians (although not by me) as our worst: James Buchanan, Dickinson College, Class of 1809. In the political-notoriety sweepstakes, at any rate, the University of Pennsylvania must presently content itself with (apart from President Trump) the late Justice William J. Brennan (Class of 1928), the linguist-conspiracy theorist Noam Chomsky (Class of 1951), and the singer-activist “John Legend,” née John R. Stephens (Class of 1999).
In other words, Penn might have demonstrated a speck of bravery, a contrarian impulse, even something like diversity or large-mindedness, by honoring a president who has not only contributed an estimated million dollars to its coffers but sent three of his five children (Donald Jr. ’00, Ivanka ’04, Tiffany ’16) into the ranks of alumni. For it is not as though Penn has never taken such a leap: From 1948 to 1953, for example, it was led by the one-time boy-wonder governor of Minnesota, and future perennial GOP presidential candidate, Harold Stassen.
At this point, I confess, I have a personal interest in the subject. Both of my Philadelphia-born parents were graduates of the University of Pennsylvania — always referred to, in hushed terms, as “the University” among relatives, “Penn” in those days being considered vulgar — and while both are long in their graves, they would probably have shared the consensus view of their fellow alumnus Trump. Or maybe not. Both were ostentatiously left-wing in their politics — they remain the only people I have ever encountered, outside of the old Warsaw Pact, who expressed relief at the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to prevent what they perceived as the dread hand of West Germany behind the reformist “Prague Spring” — and they might have been attracted to Trump’s isolationist impulses.
But I can only speculate. As for Penn, I’m afraid, its no-doubt-resolute refusal ever to welcome its most famous graduate back onto campus is all too characteristic of such institutions.
In 1986, for example, when Harvard celebrated its 350th anniversary, President Ronald Reagan was invited to attend — but not to receive, as had been customary under such circumstances, an honorary degree. Grover Cleveland had been offered one when Harvard observed its 250th birthday as had Franklin D. Roosevelt (Class of 1904) at the school’s 1936 tercentenary. Unfortunately for Reagan, however, there had been a low-key campaign among some Harvard alumni, led notably by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger (Class of 1939), to offer him an honorary doctorate, which inspired an all-too-predictable reaction in Cambridge, and elsewhere. There were the usual public protests, student demonstrations, and impassioned letters of complaint to administrators, including this characteristically snide observation from members of the faculty: “If the … celebration is to be the happy and hopeful pageant that its producers intend, they need to go back to Central Casting for a better actor in the lead role.”
Needless to say, Harvard declined to honor the most consequential postwar American president and, to magnify the insult, did award an honorary doctorate the following year to Reagan’s principal political antagonist in Washington, the now-largely-forgotten Democratic speaker and local Boston political hack, Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. This disgraceful chain of events echoed the process across the Atlantic when Oxford, in a lopsided and deeply politicized vote of its governors in 1985, had denied an honorary doctorate to its most famous alumna, Margaret Thatcher (Class of 1947), the first female prime minister of Great Britain, the longest-serving premier in the 20th century, and like Reagan, her country’s most influential leader since the end of World War II.
One might argue, of course, that political prejudice and historical myopia not only tarnishes the status of distinguished institutions but, in the long run, ill-serves their communities as well. Harvard, by choice, never heard any words addressed to it by Ronald Reagan; but graduates did benefit from the observations of their 2013 commencement speaker, and honorary-degree recipient, Oprah Winfrey: “Oh, my goodness. I’m at Harvard. Wow!” Just as the University of Pennsylvania, nine years before, was inspired by its 2004 commencement honoree, Paul David Hewson: “My name is Bono, and I am a rock star.”
Philip Terzian is literary editor of the Weekly Standard, where this article originally appeared.