One of the more significant perplexities to the dysfunction in U.S. politics today is how the people who have become the disruptors of the Trump Team got where they are. Knowing Trump’s proclivity to family and other forms of loyalty, it is no surprise that most of those close to Trump have demonstrated fierce dedication to spinning the President’s story and to denying various things that Trump has done in full view of the public. The question that has haunted me as an educator is, “How could so many presumably well educated people have so little conscience, ethical standard, or regard for the common good?”
Although many things contribute to who we are, including everything from family to various forms of socialization, educators often claim that their institutions are significant in shaping intellectual acuity, critical thinking, values, and leadership. The Trump Team, both former and continuing, attended a select few elite private universities that are commonly assumed to produce the highest caliber of employees or public servants:Two other spokespeople from whom we hear a lot (Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee Sanders) or previously served Trump (Sean Spicer) attended less prestigious private institutions. The institutions attended by the first nine of the Trump Team are commonly regarded as representing the gold standard of higher education yet one has to ponder how graduates of these institutions could do what they are now doing – supporting “fake news” claims, denying occurrences that the public has seen with their own eyes, and deconstructing the institutions of democracy on which we count to keep U.S. and other citizens of the world safe, healthy, sheltered/fed, and productive.
· Donald Trump – University of Pennsylvania
· Donald Trump, Jr. – University of Pennsylvania
· Ivanka Trump – University of Pennsylvania
· Eric Trump – Georgetown University
· Steve Bannon (now gone) – Harvard University
· Anthony Scaramucci (now gone) – Harvard University
· Jared Kushner – Harvard University
· Steven Mnuchin – Yale University
· Stephen Miller – Duke University
A defense of these elite institutions of learning could be that 100% quality control and desired impact can never be guaranteed. However, how could five elite institutions collectively graduate nine individuals who are so profoundly aligned with an agenda that undermines the common good? Granted, these great institutions are open to various political perspectives and they do not attempt to inculcate a specific ideology or belief system. However, in the particular case of the Trump Team, not only do we observe a specific niched political ideology, we see a team that regularly contradicts the espoused broad aims of higher education itself; they lack critical thinking, self-understanding, awareness and appreciation of the rights and needs of others, and they denigrate those who oppose or embrace alternative views.
Higher education in general, and especially the elite examples of Penn, Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Georgetown, has failed the Trump Team and the citizens of the U.S. What are we to do as citizens who count on these institutions and perhaps more importantly, what are we to do as educators to learn from these failures?
As a career higher education administrator and someone who sought to contribute to the private benefit and public good by teaching about and writing on leadership, I take the failure that we observe very personally. Scholars such as Jean Lipman-Blumen and Barbara Kellerman cautioned about bad leadership, Kellerman also warned of the failures of the leadership education industry, and Ronald Heifetz offered evidence that the restoration of trust in leadership is the most compelling challenge we face today. Building on their work and reflecting on what we could contribute to education that might make a difference now, four questions come to mind that higher education and leadership educators must explore:
- How are students’ and graduates’ views of leadership and the privileges/responsibilities that it carries being influenced by the educational experiences we offer?
- How could those enabled by privileged education be more deeply confronted and challenged in their learning experiences so that it would be impossible for them to deny truth and implement policies that harm others?
- How could the cumulative and interconnected knowledge of academic disciplines be leveraged to resolve complex world problems that will improve the human condition?
- Have graduates acquired an understanding of their responsibility as critical followers/constituents and are they encouraged to see their own deeper potential in leadership?