Imagine you were in the Lehigh University class of 1988. You worked four hard years in Bethlehem, Pa., to earn your degree in mechanical engineering, civil engineering, or some other kind of engineering. Your senior year was great—you beat Lafayette 17-10, at home, in the annual rivalry game, the last in the old stadium—and you were ready to move into the future.
And then Donald Trump was your commencement speaker at graduation.
Trump’s 1988 address to students at Lehigh was in the news again recently, as on Thursday the trustees of the school met in a special session to strip him of the honorary diploma he received that day. Lehigh faculty voted overwhelmingly in 2018 for a motion urging the school to strip Trump of his degree. It’s unclear whether Lehigh has a specific sedition clause in its honorary degree bylaws, or whether stripping degrees is done on more of a case-by-case basis. (Five years ago, Lehigh also rescinded Bill Cosby’s honorary degree.)
So how did Trump get this degree in the first place? He received the honorary degree from Lehigh’s president at the time, Peter Likins, who called him a “symbol of our age—all the daring and energy that the word tycoon conjures up. His boldness of vision and the splendor of his buildings… are like a designer label on the skyline of New York.” Likins later became president of the University of Arizona, despite publicly praising Donald Trump’s taste.
About 7,000 people (1,137 graduates) were in attendance at Lehigh’s Stabler Arena for Trump’s speech, per a day-after recap in The Morning Call. The report called Trump’s speech “surprisingly liberal,” and it’s interesting to see just what passed for liberal at the time. It was kind of the same shtick Trump used in 2016 while running for president! But first, since it was the 1980s, he talked about drugs.
“An obstacle in your way, in my way, just came on board,” Trump told graduates. “I left my [graduating] class in great shape, but 50 percent in the class are decimated by drugs or alcohol. Now we have the additional obstacle of AIDS. Be very careful—it’s out there.”
So after four years of undergraduate studies, or however many years of graduate work, the big message Lehigh University chose for its graduates in 1988 was to stay off drugs and watch out for AIDS. This was deemed a “surprisingly liberal” message.
The speech (you can read the full transcript here) is just a Trump stump speech, 30 years before he started doing real stump speeches. “And boy, I’ll tell you what,” he says, “in all fairness to all of us, without the parents you wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here.” He also was upset to learn he maybe wasn’t the “No. 1” honorary degree recipient, even though he gave the commencement speech despite businessman Murray Goodman, who had given millions to Lehigh and would soon have a school’s campus named after him, also receiving an honorary degree that day.
“And now I’m here today and this is just such an honor to hear that I was voted,” he said. “You never really told me. Was I voted No. 1 or not? Because if I wasn’t voted No. 1 what the hell am I doing here? Was I? I was the first one to ask. I don’t know. It’s a great diplomat, this man. What I thought I’d discuss today, we know all about parents, and we love our parents, and we know—and it’s pretty obvious what they’ve done for us and I could stand up here and talk for 20 minutes about how important they are.”
So Trump lost his honorary degree. But did the Lehigh trustees think everything that happened before was fine? He got the degree for his prowess at business, and also because he was a big name who would show up to give a speech. Later that year, he bought Eastern Airlines’ northeast shuttle business. It was never profitable and shut down in 1992. Even though he avoided losing the $135 million he guaranteed for the shuttle, he still personally lost about $25-$35 million.
Or what about the Tour de Trump? That bike race, announced not long after he got his honorary diploma and named by Billy Packer, lasted just two years under the Trump brand as he pulled out when other business deals were going south. In the early ’90s Trump was in the midst of multiple bankruptcies at his Atlantic City casinos, a long, drawn-out process that involved workers and contractors getting screwed while Trump made out fine and continues to brag about it. He did, however, hold a lucrative Mike Tyson/Michael Spinks fight in Atlantic City in 1988, but the chairman of Trump Plaza said they underpriced the tickets.
Honorary diplomas are stupid. They are primarily an excuse to get a famous (or, at some schools, famous-ish) person to come give a speech at graduation. Rescinding them is fine. Maybe we should rescind them all.
I mean, unless a school calls me up and tells me I’m the No. 1 honorary diploma recipient. Then I’m all in.