How UPenn could revoke Trump’s Wharton degree

The bylaws don’t have a clause for incitement of insurrection, but there’s always the question of cheating on the SAT.

The University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia

The University of Pennsylvania campus in West Philadelphia

Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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People connected to the University of Pennsylvania have long demanded a more serious response to the actions of 1968 Wharton alumnus President Donald Trump. With last week’s riot at the Capitol, the calls have grown more urgent.

Both Lehigh University and Wagner College last week rescinded honorary degrees they had previously given to Trump, and some alumni are calling for the Philly school to do the same. Though his Ivy League diploma was paid for with tuition — earned, not bestowed like the others mentioned — UPenn’s bylaws do allow for those to be revoked in some circumstances, Billy Penn has confirmed.

Throughout Trump’s term, UPenn grads have called for investigations into his admittance, and students have asked the university to condemn his more incendiary statements and policies.

But the school’s administration has maintained a light touch. There’s been no official denunciation of the president, and Wharton faculty have refused to review the credentials that got him into the university.

If UPenn were to take action, how would it work? Here’s what the process looks like.

Can the University of Pennsylvania revoke an earned degree?

Yes. UPenn just refreshed its guidelines on rescinding degrees about a year and a half ago.

The university bylaws state that the university reserves the right to take back a degree if they find it has been obtained fraudulently, like if a student provided false information on their admission application. UPenn can also nullify your diploma if you plagiarized, cheated on a test, tampered with student records or engaged in any misconduct in a research project.

Does that apply to Trump?

The bylaws don’t directly call out post-grad behavior — like, for example, inciting an insurrection against the federal government — as a reason for rescinding a degree.

That said, the earlier point about obtaining the degree fraudulently might be relevant here. The president’s niece, Mary Trump, divulged in her memoir “Too Much and Never Enough” that Donald Trump paid another person to take the SAT on his behalf.

Over the summer, six Wharton professors asked Gutmann to investigate the allegations — but she declined to do so.

If claims that Trump cheated on the SAT turned out to be legit, university bylaws state that might be grounds for revoking his UPenn degree.

Has UPenn revoked a degree before?

Honorary degrees, yes.

First, some more on the process of receiving an honorary degree: Someone can get an honorary degree from the Ivy League school in West Philly if they’re nominated by anyone in the “university community” — aka a student, faculty member, alum, etc.

At that point, the University Council Honorary Degrees Committee will review the nomination to see if it matches up with UPenn’s ideals: Specifically, changing the world through “innovative scholarship, scientific discovery, artistic creativity and/or societal leadership.”

It can take years for a nomination to make its way through committee, but if it does, the recipient is given their honorary degree at that year’s commencement ceremony. At UPenn’s 2020 commencement ceremony, writer and Nigerian native Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received an honorary degree.

These degrees can be taken away, but it’s rare. Bill Cosby’s honorary UPenn degree was revoked in 2018 after he was convicted of sexual assault. Same thing happened to Steve Wynn’s honorary doctorate after the businessman was accused of sexual misconduct (Worth noting, BTW: His earned bachelor’s degree is intact).

Those revocations were the first in a century.

The last German emperor Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II and German ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff both had their degrees rescinded in 1918, after the United States’ diplomatic break with Germany during World War I.

How about an earned degree?

It’s been done — but again, it’s rare. A UPenn spokesperson estimated that in the last few decades, the university has revoked two earned degrees in cases of fraud and misconduct.

So what would it take to revoke Trump’s?

The process to revoke an earned degree begins with the dean of the school. Since Trump graduated from UPenn’s business school, it would be Wharton Dean Erika H. James who would have to lead the charge.

It’s a new gig for James, who was hired as Wharton dean in July 2020. Before that, she was the dean of Emory University’s business school. She’s the first woman and first person of color to serve as dean since Wharton was founded 139 years ago.

If James were to receive credible information that puts Trump’s degree into question — like a tip that suggests it was obtained fraudulently — it would be her responsibility to review that information and open an investigation.

What would the process look like?

James would then have to create an investigative committee, made up of two or more faculty members, to review the situation and make a recommendation to the dean. Trump would be notified in writing of the investigation, and would have a chance to provide information for the committee to consider.

That committee would summarize their findings to the dean. Again, Trump would have another chance to respond. Then James would review everything and decide whether it’s credible enough for a hearing before UPenn’s Graduate Council and overseen by Provost Wendell E. Pritchett.

Then the hearing would go down — with both James and Trump allowed to provide information, documents and witnesses.

After the hearing is over, it would require a two-thirds vote from the Graduate Council, an advisory board made up of faculty appointees from all UPenn schools, to revoke the degree.

Would UPenn actually do all that?

You never know — but for now, probably not, since UPenn won’t even condemn Trump directly for his role in the insurrection. Though Gutmann and Pritchett decried the riot itself, they failed to even name the alum charged with inciting it.

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