Trump University has been much in the news. A for-profit enterprise that went through several name changes and is still the target of a $40 million civil suit accusing Donald Trump of fraud, Trump U has become a centerpiece of attacks on Trump by his political opponents.
The lawsuit and the attacks focus on the bait-and-switch tactics of Trump U. The folks who enrolled and paid substantial tuition thought they would get one thing and got another. They thought they would be learning some of Trump’s secrets to cashing in on the real estate market. They received instead some bromides that they might have just as easily picked up for free online or in a used book. Or so they now say. If the enrollees were victims, they were victims mostly of their uncritical admiration of Trump’s skills as an entrepreneur.
Now let me acknowledge my own bait-and-switch. This essay is not a critique of Trump’s business success or the value of his training for those who want to emulate him. It is a reflection on all the other colleges and universities untouched by the nation’s leading vulgarian. That’s a lot of separate institutions, so I thought it would be helpful to consolidate them.
Non-Trump University (NTU) was chartered as a university in the post-Civil War era, though its boosters trace its origins back further in an effort to give it a deeper history. In 1822, an itinerant writing instructor, Lysander Nave, advertised that he would take students who themselves aspired to the trade of teaching penmanship to paying students. Nave’s Academy of Fine Writing had a fugitive existence, but by 1830 it had combined forces with Arnold’s School of Elocution. In the religious revivals of the 1830s, it garnered an affiliation with a small sectarian church, and on the death of a wealthy parishioner in 1839, it reestablished itself as Wheelwright College—not to be confused with the British college of the same name. The college moved several times in the ensuing decades, one step ahead of its creditors, until its remaining assets were assumed by the newly chartered Non-Trump University in 1873. NTU’s name puzzled many contemporaries, but it was explained as a whimsy of the card-playing founder who said he wanted to build a university that would always follow suit, no matter the consequences. The University’s motto: “Follow me!”
NTU spent the next 70 years as a slowly growing and entirely undistinguished residential college, with a scattering of master’s degree programs in education, civil engineering, and theology. When the fashion for elective courses came along, NTU followed suit. When college football became the rage, NTU followed suit. When co-education became popular, NTU admitted women. Whenever a major development swept through higher education, NTU was reliably there on the trailing edge.
The passage of the GI Bill in 1944—the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act—was the great moment in NTU’s history. At first, the NTU board and administration, to say nothing of the faculty, was alarmed by the prospect of ill-prepared, uncultivated, rough-speaking Army veterans sauntering into NTU’s classrooms, and bringing with them none of the deference to their elders that NTU’s usual undergraduates evinced. But within two years, NTU found itself awash not just with serious students but also with serious federal money.