The Washington Post

Admissions 101: When president dumps your school

Next month will be America’s first transfer student presidential election. Never before have both major party candidates attended more than one college. President Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia University his junior year. Gov. Mitt Romney transferred from Stanford University to Brigham Young University his sophomore year.

That pleases transfer students like me. Before this year, despite the fact that a third of college graduates are transfers, only two had been elected president, Obama and John F. Kennedy, who started at Princeton but dropped out after six weeks because of illness. He later graduated from Harvard.

If transfer presidents become common, colleges will have an awkward choice. What should their attitude be toward a president who abandoned them for another school?

The only mention of Kennedy’s brief stay at Princeton is a dorm entryway plaque. Stanford might not say much about Romney, even if he wins, because he was at odds with the dominant undergraduate culture then and now.

But Occidental has enthusiastically embraced Obama despite his decision not to stay. This is a good example for other colleges. Occidental officials think they should be kind to all attendees, graduated or not. I know this because I transferred from Oxy, as it is called, after my freshman year in 1964, yet still receive warm invitations to campus events. They are also happy to receive any checks I send them.

Obama gets much more than that from our old school. Diplomacy professor and former ambassador to Finland Derek Shearer and politics professor Caroline Heldman have taught a detailed course on the president. The college published a colorful 16-page booklet titled “Obama at Occidental: A Self-Guided Tour.” It betrays not the slightest resentment of his decision to leave, and takes some credit for his success.

“The two years President Barack Obama spent at Occidental College from 1979 to 1981 played a major role in his decision to pursue a career in public service,” the booklet says. It quotes the president saying Oxy “is a wonderful, small liberal arts college. . . . The professors were diverse and inspiring. I ended up making some lifelong friendships there, and those first two years really helped me grow up.”

The booklet has three photos of Obama as a student and one of him in the Oval Office with a huge grin and his arm around Occidental political philosophy professor Roger Boesche. The president announced to his staff that “Professor Boesche taught me all I know about politics.” He also teased Boesche about giving him only a B on one paper.

The booklet includes photos and a map showing several Obama haunts, when his friends still called him Barry. There is his freshman dorm, Haines Hall; the Cooler coffee shop, where he hung out; Coons Plaza, where he gave his first political speech; Swan Hall, where he took an English course that inspired him to write poetry; and the Frank Rush Gymnasium, where he shot hoops. English professor Eric Newhall, who played in some of those lunchtime games, said Oxy’s greatest contribution to American politics was “persuading Barack Obama that his future did not lie in basketball.”

The booklet offers a clue as to why Obama hasn’t revealed his college grades. Maybe he believes high marks bring envy, not votes. Oxy alum Ken Sulzer lived near Obama in Haines and remembers asking him about a paper as they walked back to the dorm. “I got an A, Barry, what’d you get?” Sulzer recalled saying. “He wouldn’t tell me and tried to change the subject in his low-key, cool way. So I grabbed his paper out of his hand, and he’d gotten an A-plus.”

We will see how Stanford behaves if Romney wins. Not many colleges can say they taught a president. Even wayward students deserve some mention.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.


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