By Ulrich Boser:Credit:Think Progress
Newly released documents from Trump University have inspired another round of questions about the company’s dubious business practices. But the documents also shed light on how presumptive GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump views education — and what education policies he might roll out if he wins the election.
Over the past few years, Trump U has been the subject of multiple class action lawsuits, including in California and New York, as dissatisfied former students accuse Trump of fraud. Some wrote checks for as much as $35,000 for classes that turned out to be “worthless.” Last week, District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel demanded that documents from the case be released, including so-called “playbooks,” or guides for Trump U sales staff and employees.
So far, Trump has said little on the campaign trail about how exactly he plans to improve the nation’s school system. (He once railed against the new Common Core standards, calling them a “federal mandate” — however, states developed the academic standards, and it would be nearly impossible for him to roll them back.)
But some clear themes emerge in the playbooks that hint at a very different — and, frankly, very scary — new approach to schooling:
Salespeople can provide instruction.
It’s not always easy to figure out in the documents who is an instructor — and who is a salesperson. Sales consultants helped lead small group sessions, according to at least one playbook. They even gave minor homework assignments.
Students shouldn’t ask too many questions.
Trump U was not a place for Socratic discussion — or any serious discussion, really — and staff were not supposed to engage in a lot of back and forth with students. “Irrelevant questions take too much time,” noted one document. The playbooks also recommend that staff “do not get in conversations where you answer one question after the other.”
Questions from students should ultimately lead to a business deal, not knowledge or skills or even real estate acumen, according to the playbook. “Answer questions while planting seeds for the sale,” the document advised.
Staff should follow detailed scripts.
Trump U clearly believed in scripts. If a student asked about the cost of the program, for instance, the playbook outlined in detail the response that the staff should provide to the student. For example:
Attendee: “Do I really have to fill out this registration card? I’ve been writing all day!”
TU Team Member: “Well, this is really a confirmation card so that we can confirm that all of your information is up-to-date in our system. So you had had a long day at work, huh? I think I just might have something to help you out of that 9-5 of yours! What is it that you do?”
The Trump U documents are just as prescriptive when it comes to other educational issues. The playbooks give instructions about name-tags: “Hand-write name tags for unexpected guests.” The documents even map out the placement of water pitchers (“within reach“) and the state of the tablecloths (ironed) for the orientation.
Bullying is okay.
Trump U endorses strong-arm tactics. Salespeople should constantly be looking to push their produce. “We want to dictate what [the attendees] do,” one playbook advises.
And if students complain too much? The company’s playbook recommends that that staff tell the student: “STOP!! It’s my job to get you to the next level.”
Given these sort of tips, it’s not surprising that Trump U staff are advised to be self-important, too, and the documents tell employees to compare Trump U to “Harvard or Berkeley.”
Students are “needy.”
According to Trump U, speakers should not spend too much time with “needy” students.
Above all, students should buy, buy, buy.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Trump U’s approach to education is that it basically views students as little more than a source of revenue. In other words, staff seem to use people as a type of ATM machine — a source of easy cash.
According to the playbook, team members should constantly be looking for ways to push the company’s product. At the end of the orientation program, for example, staff should be “ready to Sell; Sell, Sell [sic]!”
In fact, people at Trump U should never be standing. As the playbook recommends, attendees “should always sit in chairs” because “people are much more likely to buy from you if they are sitting than standing!”
Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on education, crime, and other social issues. Erica Jordan provided research assistance for this piece.