Peter Zeitler remembers the June afternoon when a black Sikorsky helicopter emblazoned with the letters T-R-U-M-P landed on the Lehigh University baseball field to deliver the 1988 commencement speaker. A younger and slimmer Donald Trump emerged from the short hop with his glamorous blond wife, Ivana — and Zeitler, along with 7,000 graduates and their families, trooped into the campus arena to hear what he had to say.
Zeitler was a young earth sciences professor whose passion was scouring Mongolia and the Himalayas for ancient rock. Trump was a Manhattan real estate mogul, fabulously wealthy and topping the bestseller lists with his autobiography, “The Art of the Deal.” The blunt businessman had made a splash earlier that year with an Oprah Winfrey interview, and Lehigh’s bedazzled seniors — who had selected him as commencement speaker by popular vote — sensed more potential: In a student poll on the 1988 presidential elections, they could barely identify the party favorites but named Trump as a potential “dark horse” candidate.
At commencement, Trump added an academic distinction to his own résumé: an honorary doctor of laws degree, the first of five honorary degrees he would receive from colleges and universities here and abroad. A private research university in eastern Pennsylvania, Lehigh has bestowed more than 100 honorary degrees since its 1865 founding. Recipients have included poet Maya Angelou, writer and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Washington Post editor and Lehigh alum Martin Baron, and Trump’s business friends Malcolm Forbes and Lee Iacocca. Iacocca, an alum, had personally called Trump to ask him to accept Lehigh’s invitation.
Trump took the podium to enthusiastic applause, wearing a dark gown but no cap and projecting a billionaire’s confidence. He broke the ice by recalling a visit to Lehigh as a high school wrestler, when he was soundly whipped by a heavyweight competitor. He briefly mentioned his deceased brother Freddy Trump Jr., whose Lehigh graduation he’d attended in 1962. Turning serious, he warned the graduates that they would face many “negatives” out in the world, starting with the AIDS virus. Drugs and alcohol, he said, had decimated half his own University of Pennsylvania graduating class.
Then he veered abruptly into politics, criticizing Washington’s “stupid” leadership for giving the edge in trade to foreign competitors. He described an encounter with a Japanese business tycoon, who he said visited him in New York with his henchmen, pounded on a desk and demanded real estate. Zeitler looked uncomfortably around, “and all these Asian families are there,” he recalls. “I remember thinking it was completely inappropriate.”
After the speech, Trump accepted a university doctorate, as did Murray H. Goodman, a major Lehigh donor (Class of ’48) who Trump said had once competed with him in Palm Beach, Fla., real estate. Goodman gave so much that Lehigh had named part of a campus for him. Trump had never donated to Lehigh, as best anyone could remember.
As the years went by, Zeitler and other professors forgot about Trump’s honorary degree — until he launched his presidential campaign. Suddenly, hearing Trump’s ethnic slurs reminded them of his awkward Lehigh remarks — except these were worse. Branding Mexicans rapists and bragging about his sexual power over women was conduct unbefitting, the professors believed, of someone welcomed into their university community. Under Lehigh guidelines governing discrimination and inappropriate behavior, they themselves could be disciplined or fired if they made insensitive or disparaging comments. It was time to see, Zeitler said, whether Lehigh would uphold its own principles — whether they “were more than a PR effort.”
And so, as the 2016 campaign unfolded, Zeitler and other professors started a running list of Trump’s offensive remarks, with the aim of asking the Lehigh board of trustees to rescind his honorary degree. But by the time their movement took hold, the political stakes had risen. Suddenly, they were asking a university in the middle of a capital fundraising drive and a student recruitment initiative to strip an honor from a man who had been elected president.
Although there have been instances of controversy around the awarding of honorary degrees, there has almost certainly never been a major effort to revoke the degree of a U.S. president. And it’s a measure of the polarized state of the country that even this ancient and largely benign academic tradition has now become politicized.
The practice of offering honorary degrees was conceived in the Middle Ages as a way of recognizing individuals of significant accomplishment or notable public service who didn’t meet a school’s academic requirements. It didn’t take long for the degrees to veer from their original purpose. Oxford University awarded its first honorary degree — a doctor of canon law — in 1478 or 1479 to Lionel Woodville, King Edward IV’s brother-in-law, who would soon become university chancellor. The school website now describes the award as “clearly an attempt to honour and obtain the favour of a man with great influence.” In 1642, when King Charles I asked the school to award 350 honorary degrees to patrons within four months, Oxford administrators gently asked the king to recommend only names of men who qualified and could “pay all usual fees.”
Harvard University awarded the first U.S. honorary degree to Puritan minister Increase Mather in 1692 and has gone on to bestow more than 2,000 upon notables of every stripe. Such honorifics have helped many universities attract publicity and have boosted the egos of countless movie stars, political figures and business titans. Heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, a high school dropout, has said that one of the proudest moments of his life was getting an honorary degree from Central State University in Ohio. Actor Ben Affleck, who never earned a bachelor’s degree, beamed when Brown University awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2013. On the other hand, some prestigious universities, including Stanford and MIT, consider the process so sketchy that they have banned honorary degrees outright.
The record for most honorary degrees is held by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the longtime president of Notre Dame, who collected 150 in his lifetime. Comedian Bill Cosby was well on his way to matching Hesburgh’s record, until 2015, when an unsealed deposition from 2005 revealed that he had admitted to drugging and molesting a woman. Soon, colleges and universities began scrambling to dissociate themselves from him. Cosby eventually lost degrees from Yale, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Maryland, Notre Dame and many others — including Lehigh, which called Cosby’s conduct “inconsistent with the university’s character and high standards.”
In explaining its Cosby decision, the board referred back to a set of behavioral guidelines — the Principles of Our Equitable Community — that the university had adopted in 2011 to promote civility “toward every individual.” Lehigh President John D. Simon reiterated these principles at a convocation in June. They “are not just words on paper,” he told students. “They are what we believe in and what we expect of our entire campus community.”
Lehigh professor Ziad Munson watched with interest in the fall of 2016 as Trump’s increasingly inflammatory conduct on the campaign trail began to raise a question on campus: Were his actions “on their face inconsistent with” Lehigh’s community principles? A sociology professor and campus voice on diversity issues since joining Lehigh in 2003, Munson was convinced that the university’s association with Trump would hurt its ability to attract top faculty and students. He believed the faculty needed to take action.
“I wrote a bunch of people on campus and said, ‘Can you believe this person has an honorary degree?’ ” he recalls. He collected about 1,000 signatures on a petition asking that Trump’s degree be rescinded. It was presented to the Lehigh board in January 2017. The board did not respond.
Other efforts proved equally ineffective as Trump spent his first months in the White House. An online petition with more than 30,000 signatures was presented to the university president in August 2017 and sent to the board. The board met two months later, and after what it called “lengthy, full and robust discussions,” it declared that “no action will be taken.”
The issue by then had become larger than Trump’s honorary degree. It was a test of the university’s willingness to engage with faculty and students. (A Lehigh spokesperson declined to answer my questions about the board’s decision-making or allow any interviews with administrators or board members.) Among those wanting more transparency was religious studies professor Michael Raposa. One evening early this year, Raposa started an email chain with a few fellow professors, arguing that perhaps petitions were not enough to get the board’s attention. The group decided to draft a formal motion and present it for a faculty vote. If it passed and the board still declined to act, it would at least become part of the official university record.
Lehigh was not the only campus doing some soul-searching. Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, had awarded Trump an honorary degree in 2010, applauding his entrepreneurship in developing two Scottish luxury golf clubs and a hotel. But the university rescinded the degree in late 2015 after Trump proposed a ban on Muslims entering the United States, saying in a statement that the action was “wholly incompatible with the ethos and values of the university.”
Wagner College on Staten Island, not far from Trump’s boyhood home, honored him in 2004. After he became president, 33 Wagner professors wrote to their Republican congressman denouncing Trump’s policies. A petition to rescind his degree surfaced on Change.org, and the Wagner faculty petitioned the college’s board of trustees to consider revocation. The board said it would take no action.
Meanwhile, Trump continued collecting honors. Liberty University, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., had given Trump an honorary doctor of business degree in 2012. In May 2017, it awarded him a law doctorate in recognition of his “unwavering determination to make America great again.” Trump beamed in a photo with Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr., standing before a sign proclaiming “Training Champions for Christ Since 1971.”
At Lehigh in early 2018, faculty members worked on their motion, including a list of Trump comments “antithetical to the values of the institution,” earth sciences professor Anne Meltzer told me. The scroll of offensive statements included Trump’s slap at Republican candidate Carly Fiorina’s appearance (“Look at that face”); a dig at newscaster Megyn Kelly’s debate questioning style (“blood coming out of her wherever”); his calls to protesters at his rallies (“knock the crap out of them”); his slurs against Haitian immigrants (“all have AIDS”) and Nigerians (“go back to their huts”); and his professed technique in luring beautiful women (“grab ’em by the p—y”). As Meltzer told me, their overarching point was that honorary degree recipients become part of a university’s extended family, and “we expect them to adhere to our core values.”
Recognizing that they had little chance of success, the faculty asked the board to revoke Trump’s degree but offered a fallback. On a campus populated with sharp thinkers, diverse political views deserved a full discussion, so “if the Board of Trustees decides to take no action, we request an explanation of how these statements square with our values,” the petition read.
Raposa presented the motion at a packed Feb. 12 faculty meeting. An electronic vote was held several days later. The final tally, reported on Feb. 27, was 296 for rescinding, 50 against. Similar motions passed in the student and graduate student senates. But the board was unfazed. On March 2, it announced tersely that it would take no action, while reaffirming “our core mission of educating students from around the globe to be future leaders of society.”
The request for an open discussion also fizzled. Organizers wanted to schedule a town hall before semester’s end. Instead, the board’s executive committee consulted with a handful of professors — including Munson — in a closed meeting. “I shared with them, plainly and frankly, that they were going to receive some pushback no matter what they did,” Munson told me. “In the short term, my view is, why not do the right thing? In the longer term, in the larger arc of higher education, it was almost certainly true that we were going to come out looking terrible.”
Among those professors who opposed the attempt to take away Trump’s degree, only one spoke publicly. Anne Anderson, then a Lehigh finance professor (who has since moved to Middle Tennessee State University), couched her concerns in terms of procedure. “If there is a process for giving them, there has to be a process for taking them away,” she told me. “If we are going to review one of them, we need to review them all.”
Her perspective has prevailed for now, but those on the other side are not — despite a series of defeats — ready to give up. As the school year ended a few months ago, Zeitler was elected to a newly formed faculty senate. Though he would be spending the fall on leave, including a stint in Mongolia finding and dating ancient isotopes, he intends, upon his return in January, to refocus on the board’s failure to engage with faculty over Trump’s honorary degree. “A second front has been opened,” he said.
Some professors think that only an effort to impeach Trump or a dramatic development in the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III would force the board to act. Robert Rozehnal, a professor of Islamic studies who was among the early organizers, says the issues are not going away, and the university needs to uphold its standards of conduct. Revoking Trump’s honorary degree “would be a clear and powerful signal that Lehigh values diversity and supports students, staff and faculty of all backgrounds,” he says. This campaign, he told me, will “continue and intensify” in the new academic year — with perhaps some fresh material added to the professors’ list.
Marilyn W. Thompson is a senior editor at ProPublica.