Is Trump good for Wharton? School mum on famous alum

Perhaps you've heard by now: Donald Trump, the current Republican presidential front-runner, went to the Wharton School of Finance.

"A lot of people don't know economics," Trump said the other day in Michigan. "I went to the Wharton School of Finance. I was really good at this stuff."

And so it is that Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania's renowned business school, has been sucked up into the quixotic cyclone of Trump's campaign, which has brought it an unprecedented amount of publicity from a most unusual (and unofficial) representative.

Donald Trump
Brian Snyder | Reuters

Surely, Trump's swaggering style diverges from Penn's historically more stolid way of self-promotion: Its mascot, after all, is a Quaker.

"Obviously, if they had their druthers," said Graham Richmond, an education consultant and former Wharton admissions officer, "would it be better to have [finance professor] Jeremy Siegel or a graduate of Wharton who is less controversial and incredibly eloquent? Sure ... At the end of the day, it does raise brand awareness. But I do think they need to tread carefully about whether they should be closely affiliated, now that he has added a layer to his already complex personality."

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Sure enough, Wharton's administration has been strictly hush-hush about its most famous alum, refusing multiple requests to comment for this story or to make its leadership available for interviews. Though Trump has bragged relentlessly about his ties to the school, Wharton has not endeavored in quite the same way. One rare example was in 2007, when Trump was featured in the alumni magazine's list of 125 most influential graduates; the largely flattering article did note that "Trump's style has produced doubters."

Richmond said that when he was working at Wharton in the early aughts, Trump was often the subject of campus water-cooler convo, "but I don't remember being on the road for Wharton and mentioning him as a prominent alum."

It's not just how often Trump has invoked his alma mater, but that he's done so during the most controversial moments of the campaign. For example, Wharton seemed to be Trump's main argument in his denial that he tried to imply Fox News' Megyn Kelly was menstruating when she asked him a tough debate question two weeks ago.

On the general belief that any publicity is good, I'm going to say that Trump's invocation of his Wharton background is generally a good thing, and I'll hedge my bets by saying 'mostly positive' rather than 'very positive.'
Arnold Rosoff
Emeritus professor of legal studies and business ethics, Wharton

Sure enough, the Trump-Wharton nexus has been treated in mainstream and social media with a nontrivial amount of scorn—directed both at the man and the institution that awarded him a diploma.

"Yes, Donald Trump really went to an Ivy League school," sneered the headline of a July 17 Washington Post story.

Following Trump's widely condemned remarks questioning the heroism of Sen. John McCain, the comedy website Funny or Die released a parody video profiling Trump's experience as a POW, a "Prisoner of Wharton."

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When Trump mentioned Wharton during his controversial immigration speech in Arizona last month, Austan Goolsbee, President Barack Obama's former top economic advisor, who now instructs at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, tweeted: "You better believe we will recruit kids to Booth with this."

(Asked by CNBC.com if he was serious, Goolsbee clarified: "I'm sure it's meaningless in reality.")

An informal survey CNBC.com sent last week to Wharton's faculty produced a fairly even split between respondents who felt that Trump was wounding the school's reputation, positively boosting its exposure, or having no serious effect. (Those who considered him to be an "embarrassment," as one prof put it, were less inclined to speak on the record.)

"On the general belief that any publicity is good," said Arnold Rosoff, an emeritus professor of legal studies and business ethics, "I'm going to say that Trump's invocation of his Wharton background is generally a good thing, and I'll hedge my bets by saying 'mostly positive' rather than 'very positive.'"

Maurice Schweitzer, who teaches negotiations and management at Wharton, tried to analyze the Trump effect by breaking it down according to the various dimensions of reputation—valence, breadth and consensus.

"He's expanding the breadth," said Schweitzer. "He's talking about Wharton, and serious journalists like you are now talking about Wharton. And some people associate Trump with success, and some even like his politics. But, of course, many have negative associations of Trump and he harms our brand when it comes to the work we have done in terms of social impact, diversity and promoting values such as stewardship, leadership and civility."

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Another professor, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said: "(Trump's) egomaniacal antics notwithstanding, at least he characterizes the school as being very selective, and at least he calls it 'The Wharton School of Finance'"—as opposed to the frequently misnomered Wharton Business School.

And you have to give Trump this: He is successfully selling his academic bona fides to a base of tea party supporters, not usually the most receptive audience to the virtues of an Ivy League education.

Trump received his bachelor's degree from Wharton's undergraduate program in 1968, having transferred there from Fordham University (which tends to go unmentioned in his speeches).Three of Trump's children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Tiffany, also attended Wharton as undergrads; Ivanka reportedly graduated with honors.

Some Whartonites are quick to note that for all of Trump's wealth, his familial ties to the school, and his publicly expressed affection for the school, he's done bupkis as a benefactor. It's difficult to say if Trump has donated anything to Wharton at all. When asked, Wharton spokesman Peter Winicov responded by directing CNBC.com to a school webpage profiling some of its donors, none of whom are named Donald J. Trump. (Trump's campaign did not respond to requests to comment for this story.)

Wharton's most significant backer is plastics magnate Jon Huntsman Sr.—father and namesake of the former Utah governor and 2012 Republican presidential candidate—who made a single $40 million gift to Wharton in 1998, and whose name is now on the school's main building.

Someone like Trump might argue that he's brought the school something equal in terms of earned media. After all, Wharton has taken its public lumps in recent years, what with a four-year decline in enrollment for its MBA program and a shakeup of its leadership structure. A much-discussed 2013 Wall Street Journal story asked, "What's Wrong with Wharton?"

Last year, the school got a new dean, Geoffrey Garrett, and now, in Trump, it has the moment's most intriguing presidential candidate name-dropping it every campaign stop.

"In short, he's a mixed bag," Schweitzer said. "But at least we're talking about Wharton."

Even if Wharton is officially not talking about Trump.