Trump University: majoring in make-believe
© Getty Images

Real universities must be accredited and their top priority must be to teach their students. Trump University did neither; it was never accredited as a university and its primary purpose was not to teach new material to its students, but to make money for its owners. In short, it was simply a business with no bigger goal than making a buck.

In New York State, universities must be accredited by either the State Board of Regents or by one of the federally recognized accrediting commissions. I have served on both the Regents and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, one of the accreditors recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Trump University never even requested university status from any recognized accreditor.

ADVERTISEMENT

In reality, this unaccredited pretend university did a far better job collecting money from its students — many of them low-income — than providing an education that aids in career success.

Now Trump University is facing three lawsuits. Two are class-action suits in California and third has been filed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE is fighting the lawsuits and has defended the institution that bears his name as being of great benefit to students.

Failure to obtain accreditation and still claim to be a university in New York State is a form of fraud — no different than someone claiming to be a dentist without having trained to be one. That’s why the Board of Regents routinely initiates prosecutions of people falsely holding themselves out as being licensed professionals. For the Board of Regents, lying about being a university is no different.

Entities that have falsely claimed to be universities have been prosecuted, forced to refund tuition and compelled to enter into binding legal agreements with state attorneys general to change their names. Before it closed, Trump University itself was forced to change its name to Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.

New York limits what can be called a college or university to protect consumers. Being called a university tells the public that the entity has met minimum state standards, has authority to confer degrees and that its degrees are accepted by other higher education institutions. Trump University never met any of these criteria; no degrees, no minimum standards and no recognition by other higher education institutions. It was just bogus.

The claims made against Trump University are serious. According to news reports, recruiters – really sales staff – used high-pressure sales tactics to fill the organization’s classes, even encouraging students to max out their credit cards to pay thousands of dollars in tuition.

Such actions are not typical conduct, even for a for-profit college or university. I worked for two for-profit higher education institutions. Any reputable for-profit would instantly have fired a recruiter who encouraged applicants to max out their credit cards.

In truth, the very structure of Trump University made it ineligible for accreditation. The business stated that each instructor was selected by Donald Trump, the curriculum was approved by him, and said he would impart his personal techniques for success in real estate. In a real university, faculty selection and curriculum would have been the collegial responsibility of the faculty, not a single outside individual. 

The case for Trump University was not strengthened when it was revealed that all of the claims about Donald Trump’s personal involvement were false.

There is nothing wrong with profit honestly earned. But the claims against Trump University are disturbing because of the way they speak about Donald Trump’s standards for doing business, disrespecting the norms of higher education, and playing fast and loose with state anti-fraud protections.

Trump’s make-believe university had virtually nothing in common with a real university, but a lot in common with one of his casinos — a place where people come with fantasies of striking it rich, but usually wind up losing money instead.

When collecting as much money as possible becomes more important than educating students as the top priority of a higher education organization, it gives up any claim to being called a “university.” In the case of Trump University, it never had a claim to being called a university in the first place.

Levy is an attorney, former New York City schools chancellor and former member of the New York State Board of Regents. The views expressed here are his own.