President Trump opened a speech he made to business leaders at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey this week with comments about a college economics term paper. Here’s the story — and what the president got wrong:
Trump began his pre-dinner speech commenting on what is — in the business world at least — a famous 1965 term paper written by Fred Smith, then an undergraduate at Yale University and later founder, chairman and chief executive officer of FedEx, the multinational delivery service based in Memphis. Trump said, according to a White House transcript:
TRUMP: I just want to say that I’m meeting tonight with some of the top business leaders in the world. You talk about business; this is the group. And we’re so honored to have you. And we’re going to be discussing, later on, some of the ideas you may have to — as the expression goes — make America great again.
Fred Smith, I know very well — but I also read about you, Fred. (Laughter.) And you’re doing okay. That was a good term paper you wrote for Harvard or wherever the hell you wrote it. But it was very good. It turned out to be right. The teacher didn’t understand it like you did. Right?
SMITH: It was a good grade for me. A “C” was okay. (Laughter.)
TRUMP: It was good. “C” was okay. It was okay. Congratulations. Congratulations, really, to everybody in the room. You’ve done an incredible job.
Trump got the Ivy League college wrong — it was Yale and not Harvard, as explained in this story on LinkedIn:
Fred Smith was an undergraduate at Yale University in 1965. As part of the coursework, he wrote an economics paper exploring the process of transportation of goods in the United States. He found that the shippers relied on transporting large packages across the United States by means of truck or passenger airplanes. Smith thought of a more efficient transportation idea. He wrote a last-minute paper on how a company carrying small, essential items by plane could be a much better business. He, however, did not go into details about how to actually run such a company. His paper was graded “C”. But Smith did not give up on the idea and launched the company in 1971.
As it turns out, Trump seems somewhat taken with Smith’s term paper.
He brought it up July 19 when Smith and other top business leaders attended a “Pledge to America’s Workers” event at the White House. During the event, Smith pledged that FedEx would provide more than a half-million slots to train workers, and, said this, according to a White House transcript:
TRUMP: We’re really especially grateful to be joined today by the top CEOs, union leaders, trade associations and educators from all around the country. These are the biggest. These are the best. These are the most talented.
Among those — and I’m going to be introducing them and going around the table with them as they sign their pledge — but we have a friend of mine for a long time — the, really, founder and creator — and I heard he did a report at his school, and he got low marks because they said it couldn’t work, and he ended up getting very high marks because it’s a company called FedEx. Is that a correct story? Pretty correct, right? That professor didn’t know what happened. Fred Smith. Thank you, Fred. (Applause.) I think we’ll have to give that professor low marks, Fred, because it worked out. Huh?
TRUMP: Yeah. (Laughs.) It worked out well for you.
As it turns out, according to Snopes.com, the professor for whom Smith wrote the paper, Challis A. Hall in Economics 43A class, did not tell Smith the idea couldn’t work. Snopes also raises the issue of the grade: Smith in the past, and again on Tuesday night, seemed to affirm that he received a “C” on the paper. But in 2002, Smith said this in an interview with Fortune’s Brian Dumaine:
Today that paper is kind of famous, and it’s because of a careless comment I once made. I was asked what grade I got on it, and I stupidly said, “I guess I got my usual gentlemanly C.” That stuck, and it’s become a well-known story because everybody likes to flout authority. But to be honest, I don’t really remember what grade I got. I probably didn’t get a very good one, though, because it wasn’t a well-thought-out paper.
Trump likes it, anyway.