Even before Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, coined the phrase “alternative facts” about the size of the crowd at the 2017 inauguration, my inbox was bulging with messages about her role in Trump’s election. Conway, Trump’s campaign manager from August to November 2016, is a 1989 graduate of Trinity Washington University, where I am president. Our alumnae were not shy about voicing their opinions about her. Some expressed pride and demanded that Trinity honor her for being the first woman to lead a successful presidential campaign. But many other messages were negative; some alumnae went so far as to insist that Trinity make a public statement dissociating the institution from her work.
Famous graduates can pose real dilemmas for colleges when fame becomes notoriety. We love to tout our successful alumni as the embodiment of institutional success, but when those same grads become controversial, institutions can be caught in the crossfire, with some of the fiercest criticism coming from the classmates and friends of celebrities. Politicians and public officials in the alumni ranks pose particularly contentious issues for their alma maters.
Recently, Yale Law School alumni protested when the school boasted about the nomination of alumnus Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While the institutions remained generally silent, thousands of Georgetown alumni protested Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s role in separating undocumented children and parents, and Duke alumni protested the role of Stephen Miller, a Trump adviser, in crafting the administration’s immigration policies. Meanwhile the University of Pennsylvania has remained studiously silent on the topic of its famous alumnus Donald J. Trump.
When, if ever is it appropriate for a college to make a public statement about the exploits of a prominent graduate? Public statements can cut both ways. Critics may read a positive statement about a politician as an endorsement, no matter how circumspect. For example, in early 2007 when we hosted a reception for Nancy Pelosi, who graduated from Trinity in 1962, on the occasion of her swearing-in as the first woman ever to become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, critics called and wrote to me with fierce complaints that we were betraying Trinity’s Roman Catholic principles by praising the professional achievement of a pro-choice politician. Meanwhile, her classmates, including some of the critics, turned out in force for the occasion.
In the case of Kellyanne Conway, pressure from alums mounted to have a public reckoning on issues about truth and veracity, with many citing Trinity’s historic Honor Code as the basis for some kind of a statement. Circumstances came to a head in early February 2017 shortly after Trump issued his first travel ban on persons from largely Muslim countries, and when Conway referred to the fictitious “Bowling Green massacre” in several television interviews to justify the ban.
Trinity’s student body is remarkably diverse, with a large number of immigrant students that includes many Dreamers. The travel ban affected them deeply, and I felt it was important to address the issues directly on their behalf. So I wrote a blog about the travel ban and Trump’s general demonization of immigrants as an example of the political use of fear-mongering about “the other,” a method that autocrats use to seize and maintain power. Midway through my blog, I had a paragraph about Conway’s role in shaping the narrative about dangerous immigrants. I wrote that she “has played a large role in facilitating the manipulation of facts and encouraging the grave injustice being perpetrated by the Trump administration’s war on immigrants.”
A newspaper reporter noticed my blog and wrote a story about my public criticism of our alumna. Shortly thereafter, the article went viral and my inbox blew up with hundreds of messages. There were some ugly messages from people who were not alums of Trinity. Some alumnae wrote thoughtful messages criticizing me for calling out Kellyanne’s public statements; I thanked them for letting me know their views. In fact, however, the majority of the messages were supportive. Some correspondents went so far as to send donations to Trinity with words of appreciation.
Most interesting of all were the messages that said that I had no right to speak — that as a college president, I should remain silent, or “stay out of the political circus and not judge other alumnae at all, sticking to celebration of their many and diverse accomplishments.”
While I certainly agree that college presidents should exercise care in making public statements about our graduates, I also believe there are times when a response to the public actions or positions of a graduate is not merely acceptable, but imperative. Such times may be rare, and the challenge should always be prudent. But presidents are not mere spectators; we are both teachers and stewards of the mission and values of our institutions. When issues of truth, integrity, and justice are at stake in the public actions of our graduates — especially when those issues affect our own students, as in the immigration crisis — presidents must not shy away from public responses.
Two circumstances inform my own decisions about when and how to make public statements on our famous graduates:
First, when public officials support policies that pose serious harms to students and faculty — such as the travel ban and rescission of DACA — presidents should be advocates for the rights and welfare of the people in the campus community, even if that means a public dispute with an alum. Our graduates who are public officials have obligations to the people they are supposed to serve. Alumni status is not an invisibility cloak to shield them from the same kind of critical public statement a president might make to any other public official.
Second, when a prominent graduate is untruthful in a way that can harm our students or institutional reputation, or when an alum’s remarks or actions encourage racial and ethnic or other forms of hatred and discrimination, a president can and should respond. Repeatedly using racist stereotypes of immigrants to gain support for a pernicious public policy is not a point for mere political disagreement but an ethical problem worthy of public challenge, even at the risk of angering constituents who would prefer that presidents stick to serving tea.
The corruption of truth for political ends is one of the gravest dangers we face in the current era. History is replete with examples of the manipulation of facts — the use of “alternative facts” — as a first step on the road to the rise of authoritarian states. Higher education is one of the great counterweights to government in a free society, and in times when government tries to compromise fundamental freedoms, we must rise to the occasion to defend the values that ring so gloriously through our mission statements — Justice, Freedom, Truth.
Reminding our graduates of our expectations for the ways in which they carry those values into their work and life choices is an essential duty of presidents. No matter how wealthy or famous or powerful the graduate, our alumnae and alumni are still our students, and we still owe them the best of our teaching.
Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.