No wonder, then, that the school has so forcefully wrapped its arms around Biden, who is actually a proud graduate of the University of Delaware (which also has a Biden Institute). At Penn, he represents another campus connection to immortality, whose lack of baggage more than made up for his lack of a Penn degree.
“Joe Biden is one of the greatest statesmen of our time,” said then-school president Amy Gutmann when the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement was established in 2018. his understanding of global issues makes him an ideal candidate. (After Biden, who has earned more than $900,000 from his Penn nominations, moved into the White House, he appointed Gutmann as U.S. Ambassador to Germany.)
But perhaps the strangest thing about the mutual affection between the 79-year-old president and the 281-year-old university is that it happens at all.
As with so many Biden-adjacent things, the dance between beloved school and favorite son has gotten a little retro. The Wilmington president’s eagerness to be associated with an elite institution in the nearest metropolis, and his pride in having been able to send his own offspring there, represent an instinct that most other ambitious politicians do not share. For that matter, most colleges don’t share Penn’s tendency to embrace it back either. These days, the most common posture is that past aspiring presidents want nothing to do with their alma maters, or alma maters want anything to do with their past aspiring presidents — or both.
As an example, consider Biden’s predecessor. Trump graduated in economics from Penn’s Wharton School. He too sent children there: Donald Jr., Ivanka and Tiffany all have degrees from Penn. He is, in fact, the only Penn graduate to become president. But although the 45th president enjoyed talking about his Wharton degree so much that the school newspaper once counted the number of times he dropped his name, the university never really reciprocated: Trump has never given a starting address or obtained an honorary degree; Campus tour guides were reportedly discouraged from bringing up his name and instructed to keep it brief in case a potential student asked about the then-president.
At least Trump wanted to be associated with his alma mater. For former Republican President George W. Bush, having an alienating experience in Yale’s Vietnam-era campus environment was part of his coming-of-age political story. Although Bush, with his long Yale strain, did speak up early and send a girl there, the venerable school was never part of his Reborn-in-Texas political brand.
Yet Bush is a true member of the booster club compared to his successor, Barack Obama, whose undergraduate degree is from Colombia, an experience that barely deserves a mention in his autobiography “Dreams from My Father.” The book’s passages about his days at Columbia involve character descriptions of his off-campus neighborhood and moody walks through Manhattan. There are few nostalgic evocations of the good old campus days that could be extracted from the alumni magazine.
Clearly, this is no longer the time when Bill Clinton held meetings in Georgetown at the White House or when JFK stuffed his administration with a Harvard brain trust.
This, given the complicated relationship between college, class, and status in contemporary America, makes it an interesting phenomenon for anyone paying attention to the kinds of elites who typically rise to high office in this country. Although college graduates were once much more Republican than the general population, for much of the 20th century there was general agreement on the value of degrees. Today, college graduates make up a larger share of the electorate and are breaking with the Democrats. But the most salient statistic concerns feelings about college itself: There is a marked partisan divide on whether colleges have a negative effect on the United States.
It was the time when presidents who didn’t showcase their college ties did so primarily because their alma maters weren’t considered prestigious enough by a clever bipartisan Beltway set that still had the power to intimidate even the political titans. Lyndon Johnson (Southwest Texas State Teachers College) and Richard Nixon (Whittier College) both had hard roots that helped define their political biographies and personal styles. But in practical terms, they had left their alma mater in the rearview mirror by the time they arrived in Washington. American politicians may have revered log cabin stories, but apparently not log cabin degrees.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan, whose political background tended to start in California, generally didn’t say much about Eureka College in his native Illinois, and his degree became a source of elite sneers: in an incident that earned Harvard a well-deserved award of derision, Reagan declined the school’s offer to participate in its 350th anniversary celebration in 1986 after announcing it would not be presenting an honorary degree, even though the presidents who attended his 300th (Franklin Roosevelt) and 250th (Grover Cleveland) birthdays were offered such honors.
By the time of the university’s 400th anniversary in 2036, it’s likely that scorn will be a two-way street.
Consider the potential future presidents whose college credentials periodically make the news: Ted Cruz (Princeton), Josh Hawley (Stanford), Ron DeSantis (Yale), and Tom Cotton (Harvard), to name a few. The reason you know about their ties to these august schools is not that they take Biden-style trips to campuses and bask in praise from their former college presidents. Rather, it’s because critics use them as a cudgel to deride pro-Trump conservative politicians as fake plutocratic populists. “Ivy League words,” Joe Scarborough snorted after Cruz, Hawley and Cotton attacked the “elites” at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
The times when they kiss their alma mater can be embarrassing, like when a snapshot of Cruz in a goofy Princeton outfit on a visit from former students made the rounds a few years ago. Better to stay away.
By contrast, for most of their counterparts among ambitious young Democrats — a smaller cohort — college tends not to be a relevant part of political identity for fans or haters. Do you know where Gavin Newsom or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Gretchen Whitmer went to college? Would there be an answer to the question that would change your perception of them? (They went to Santa Clara University, Boston University and Michigan State, respectively.)
In a polarized, tribal country, colleges almost certainly prefer it that way. After leading an effort to throw out the 2020 election results, Cruz found himself turned in by his class of 1992 classmates; he was also the subject of a student petition to preemptively prevent the school from awarding him an honorary degree. It’s not just Cruz, though. Given that about four in 10 Americans are likely to hate any CEO, too much association with even an innocuous POTUS is a problem in a fundraising-dependent industry like higher education.
It’s fair to say that when Josh Hawley’s grandson visits Stanford decades from now, it’s a safe bet Grandpa, whether he’s living in the White House or just hoping to get there one day , will stay at home.