College blasts a graduate: Kellyanne Conway
The University of Pennsylvania’s president has no comment about one of the Ivy League school’s most famous graduates, President Trump. Virginia Tech’s president has no comment about one of its most famous graduates, White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
The president of Trinity Washington University, however, has had plenty to say about one of its graduates. “Presidential Counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trinity Class of 1989, 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 among many other issues,” Patricia McGuire wrote recently.
University presidents used to be part of the national dialogue, decades ago when the demands of the job were less complicated and the need for fundraising less consuming. But it has long been unusual for a college to single out a graduate for criticism, especially as college and university presidents are expected to build community among a diverse group of students, faculty, staff
and graduates, and to raise money and support from people on all sides of the political spectrum.
Because of the importance of graduates to fundraising, said Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education, “presidents tread very carefully. Losing the support of alumni is a very bad idea.”
But McGuire, the longtime president of the small women’s college in Northeast Washington, said she felt a moral imperative to speak out against the Trump administration — in particular for its policies on immigration and its lack of truthfulness — and Conway is not exempt from that.
Conway said by phone Friday she was surprised to find her alma mater’s social-media feed full of partisan retweets and snarky comments.
“It’s a disappointment to have the president of the university lift up other Trinity graduates who have a casual relationship with the truth,” she said, citing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as an example, “attack me, and never have the courtesy of calling or emailing me to ask what I meant on any given occasion.” McGuire had looked at her comments through the most negative lens possible, she said.
McGuire never hesitated to call her to ask for donations to Trinity, Conway added. She and her husband donated $50,000 to a 1999-2002 Trinity fundraising campaign. “My money was good.”
A few college presidents have taken a strong public stand against Trump, and hundreds have signaled their opposition to his immigration policies, but Trinity stands out for the volume and tone of its messages.
Through its institutional and its president’s social-media messages, the university has been sharply and repeatedly critical of Trump, his policies and many of his top advisers.
Trinity has been quick to praise other graduates, many of them Democrats, such as former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius — who is prominently displayed on the school’s home page highlighting female graduates “shattering glass ceilings” — and Pelosi, but also some Republicans, as well as honorary graduates.
For a small Catholic women’s college to have as their former students both the first female House speaker and the first woman to run a winning presidential campaign, Conway said, and to “look at the disparate treatment of the two of us, tells the entire tale.”
She asked why she didn’t see concern expressed about Pelosi’s support for abortion rights, or mention of her own speech at the recent March for Life, which signaled high-level administration support for the cause. “Does she not think there are pro-life alumnae?”
Conway said McGuire clearly sees her position and the role of the university as one “that is peddling a very narrowly subscribed political viewpoint.”
McGuire said it’s not about politics. (She also said the university does not support Pelosi’s position on abortion rights.) “People can agree or disagree around national policy or domestic policy,” she said. “You can have a raging debate about Obamacare . . . . But when you lie so consistently as this administration does, that’s a moral issue. We are teachers. We have an honor system here. We believe deeply in upholding the value of truth.”
McGuire said some graduates have criticized her for not honoring Conway.
But she said she has gotten hundreds of messages from graduates whom she described as appalled by Conway.
“I don’t go around denouncing our alumnae,” she said, but “I want to be on the record: We don’t condone lying. We can’t say someone is exempt from that.”
There was a time, during civil rights battles and the Vietnam War, when university presidents were visible figures in national conversations. Some great public figures spoke out on the dominant issues of their times, said Leon Botstein, president of Bard College. That changed, he said, when fundraising and management became more important for college presidents than ideals and scholarship and public service.
This is a different moment, he said, one that transcends partisan politics. “Truth-telling is a crucial element of democracy, a true and absolutely indispensable component of any true definition of freedom.”
But some, at a time when many college campuses have been criticized as too liberal and out of touch, argue university presidents no longer speak for the nation.
“To me, university leadership has felt enormously partisan,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “. . . That factors into seeing this as cheap partisan thuggery rather than any serious commitment to robust civic debate.”
Of all the university graduates who had been convicted of crimes over the years, he asked rhetorically, how many have been singled out by their school?
He added, “Criticism is appropriate and valid — people have points of view. But I think it’s striking how incredibly uniform higher education is.”
McGuire benefits, Hartle said, from being an established president with strong support from the board, faculty and graduates (and not having to answer to state legislators, as a public university president would), which makes it possible for her to speak out about something she feels strongly about.
“This reflects her strong personal commitment to social justice and educational opportunity and the nature of her student body,” Hartle said.
Trinity, one of the oldest Catholic women’s colleges in the United States, has changed dramatically over the years. It’s still a private school, but the undergraduate program now has a particular emphasis on reaching people facing significant hurdles to higher education, such as single mothers and women from low-income families. More than 95 percent of the students are black, Latina or mixed race, and some of their most academically outstanding students are “Dreamers” working to achieve legal immigration status, who are now feeling personally at risk.
Many people praised her courage, but McGuire acknowledged pushback for her comments; people tell her, “‘I can’t believe you’re saying this,’ or ‘You’re so liberal,’ or ‘You’re the great Satan,’ ” she said, laughing. “I’ve been at this long enough there’s always somebody who’s terribly upset with any statement.”
She pointed to signals Trump has sent that federal funding could be affected if he doesn’t like something a university does.
“That’s a threat that can’t just sit there,” McGuire said. “I don’t mean to provoke him. But I can’t just be silent.”
“I want to be on the record: We don’t condone lying. We can’t say someone is exempt from that.” Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University
Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway complained about the criticism leveled by Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. McGuire never had “the courtesy of calling or emailing me to ask what I meant on any given occasion,” said Conway, who graduated from the school in 1989.