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.
NTU had discovered its patriotic duty to educate the common man, its commitment to a more democratic style of education, and its interest in bringing its dusty curriculum in line with the commercial and scientific interests of the post-War era. NTU was not there yet, but it was on the way to becoming what Clark Kerr, the chancellor of the University of California, would shortly call “the multiversity.”
A few of the older faculty were unhappy about this. They clung to the idea that the university ought to have a core commitment to a coherent undergraduate curriculum centered on Western civilization and the preparation of students for lives of worthy citizenship. But they were swept aside by the burst of enthusiasm for the quest for scientific knowledge, the building of new laboratories, and the launching of new programs in all manner of subjects. Suddenly faculty members who had been teaching successfully for forty years on the basis of their personal learning, but whose academic credentials seldom reached beyond a master’s degree, were eclipsed by young men with Ph.D.s who had published their recondite research in specialized journals.
NTU was rushing into the future, exactly as it always had, on the trailing edge of the great trends in higher education. NTU thus missed the opening acts of the social and cultural transformations of the 1960s. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the free speech movement happened elsewhere—first. Of course, when NTU students did take up the various defining causes of the sixties, they did their best to make up for lost time. In 1969, NTU’s newly appointed president declared the university would throw off the prejudices of the past and embrace the promise of the future. His first concrete steps to the future were to abolish the language requirement, freshman English, American history, and the rules prohibiting overnight guests in the dormitories. He also announced the creation of an “Afro-American Studies Department,” a Peace Studies Program, and a Center on Futurology.
Some of the changes stuck, others went out with the tide of fashion. But enrollments burgeoned, tuition soared, federal subsidies rolled in, and research grants in the sciences skyrocketed. Faculty, it is true, began to grouse about a decline in the quality of NTU students, who had read very little before college and who didn’t seem to be especially inclined to make up for it during their time at NTU. A few years into the “no freshman English” requirement, faculty demanded a fix. The university responded with a new set of “freshman seminars,” in which faculty members could indulge themselves with any subject they wished provided they made the students write three or four papers, and actually read and corrected them. Soon NTU students who had never heard of Jane Austen were writing papers on Chinua Achebe, and students who were a bit vague on the differences between the American and French Revolution, were expert on the Mau Mau Rebellion.
Few at the time understood that NTU was, at that very moment, at the pinnacle of its intellectual achievement. The days would come when Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, would be over the heads of even graduating seniors, and Achebe would be denounced by junior faculty members for writing in English and borrowing from a dead white male by quoting in the title from Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” The Mau Mau Rebellion would be as lost in the mists of the past as the Battle of Buena Vista.
Let’s cut to the present. NTU is soldiering on. Today it has restored some curricular requirements. Every NTO “first-year” is required to study “Affirmative Consent” as part of First Year Orientation. Every student must take at least three courses approved in the “diversity” cluster, one each in multiculturalism, women’s studies, and sustainability. And every student must take the Volunteering practicum for credit in the social justice graduation requirement.
These rules have been severely criticized by some of the activist NTU students and their faculty allies on the grounds that they still leave room for students to voice opinions that are emotionally traumatizing to survivors of oppression. Recently the president of NTU has met with a delegation from the NTU Social Justice Warrior Committee and agreed to study their list of “demands.” I need not go into detail. True to form, the list was copied from the list of demands at other colleges and universities posted last year.
NTU, to be clear, is not a parody. It is just a consolidation of the facts. No one who looks at contemporary American higher education believes that it is a very serious enterprise. To be sure, students who aim to gain narrow expertise in one of the sciences or to prepare for more advanced training in medicine or some technical field can still accomplish that at an undergraduate American college, but narrow is the key word. Getting a meaningfully full education amidst the verbal and ideological tripwires, the activist assaults on the integrity of learning, and the pervasive atmosphere of cultural nihilism, is impossible outside the handful of renegade colleges that teach against the temper of the times.
I have no brief to make in favor of Donald Trump’s eponymous university that offered his own personal version of a get-rich-quick scheme. But we should keep in mind that the more respectable Non-Trump University these days differs mainly in attitude, not substance.