The shroud over President Barack Obama’s college records — recently spotlighted by Donald Trump’s $5 million challenge — is prompting Americans to share what they’ve got, and The Daily Caller is getting its share of leads, including one story that the president scored a GPA of only 2.6 at Columbia University.
The 2.6 grade can’t be confirmed, is contradicted by some evidence, and it doesn’t say anything about the courses, professors and associations Obama was immersed in during his two-year stay in Columbia.
But the source is credible, and he’s contributing to the collective effort by Americans to find out more about their president — who is a champion of a greater role for himself and other government officials in Americans’ personal lives, social norms and career opportunities.
The source for the 2.6 number is a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a Columbia alumnus who maintains good ties with the university.
In 2004, after Obama’s successful speech at that year’s Democratic convention, a Columbia University official told him Barack Obama’s GPA, he explained to TheDC.
“This person told me that he [Obama] was a pre-law, poli-sci major, had a lot of incompletes, and as best could be determined after sorting through the incompletes, had a GPA of 2.6,” said the businessman, a former Marine Corps combat veteran.
The source asked not to be named, but TheDC has verified at least one $2,500 contribution he made to Columbia.
The claim matches some of the other reports about Columbia’s arrivals in 1981, and some of Obama’s comments about his college career, including his 1981 transfer from Occidental College to Columbia.
Obama told author David Maraniss that he earned a B+ GPA in two years at Occidental.
But it also clashes with other evidence, including Obama’s observable smarts, and his claim to Maraniss that he earned a GPA of 3.7 at the Ivy League school.
Public and media interest in presidents’ college records isn’t new.
The New Yorker published Bush’s transcripts a year before he was elected president, amid approval from many Washington, D.C. political reporters and partisan advocates.
On Oct. 24, real estate mogul Donald Trump highlighted the widespread interest in the president’s exotic and obscured past by offering to donate $5 million to a charity of Obama’s choice if he releases his academic transcripts and passport records.
Americans “will know something about their president [and] their president will become transparent, like other presidents,” Trump said, prompting derision from many in the media establishment.
Other groups and individuals are digging for the same materials, which they hope will help shape the public’s understanding of the president’s priorities.
On Sept. 19 a group of federalists used their website, The Trenches, to offer a $35,000 reward for Obama’s transcripts from Occidental College, Columbia or Harvard.
But some conservatives say the search for grades is a distraction.
It would be better to find and highlight the topics that Obama chose to study, and to identify the teachers he choose to learn from, said one conservative researcher-author who has spent time pursuing information about the president’s academic history. Grades are a poor guide to character or ideology, he said, partly because they were so routinely inflated in the early 1980s.
Federal law bars universities from releasing former students’ college records without their permission, so Obama’s will likely remain secret until he approves their release.
Obama has faced little pressure from the established media to release his records, however, even though he has repeatedly pressed Gov. Mitt Romney to release 20 years of his tax records.
Some liberals have also argued that voters have a right to know about Obama’s college years.
Presidents should release “any information that a segment of voters would feel would be helpful to them about coming to a conclusion on who to vote for,” said Brian Levin, director for the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.
“For anyone going for a job or position, generally transcripts are required,” he said. “College transcripts show [politicians’] knowledge base — and tells students ‘Your performance will matter down the line,'” he said.
There’s some conflicting circumstantial evidence about Obama’s grades during his two-year stint at Columbia.
In his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama described his Occidental College academic record as “indifferent.”
But that poor record didn’t prohibit him from transferring to Columbia in 1981, during a time when acceptance standards were being relaxed.
A May 2012 article at Breitbart.com cited statements from Robert Boatti, who was Columbia’s assistant dean of admissions in 1981.
The students transferring into Columbia had an “average combined math and verbal score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test [of] 1,100 and their grade-point average at their former schools is about 3.0, Boatti said,” according to a 1981 issue of Columbia’s college paper, the Columbia Spectator.
The author of the Columbia Spectator article later disputed the Breitbart website’s account, but he did not disavow the statements attributed to Boatti.
Obama said he had a B+ GPA in Occidental, or roughly 3.3.
Obama’s teachers have offered incomplete reports.
Lennard Davis taught a course called “The Novel and Ideology” during Obama’s senior year. Davis, who now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, remains a strong supporter of the president. Asked via email what Obama’s grades were, Lennard replied to TheDC, “[I] don’t remember his grade.”
But another professor, Michael L. Baron, told The New York Times that Obama was “clearly one of the top one or two students in the class.” Baron said he gave Obama an A, and helped him get into Harvard. Baron now lives in Florida.
Columbia GPAs reports show incompletes, as the TheDC’s source described.
Since 1983, Obama has kept his distance from Columbia.
In March 2012, he volunteered to speak at Columbia’s so-called “sister school,” Barnard College, after spurning three petitions from Columbia students.
“Obama’s decision to speak at Barnard has caused some heated reactions among Columbia students,” the Columbia Spectator reported in March.
“Emilio Fajardo … said that the decision ‘seems like a slap in the face’ to Columbia,” the paper wrote, quoting a Columbia sophomore. “Sean Udell, CC ’11 and president of the class of 2011, spearheaded the POTUS Project, a campaign to convince Obama to speak at Columbia’s commencement ceremony last year.”
“‘I’m shocked and happy that Barnard will get to have Obama speak at their commencement,’ Udell said. ‘I’m quite disappointed, of course, that President Obama spoke to our sister school, instead of his alma mater.'”
Trump’s call for Obama to release his college records has prompted scorn from various media figures who would otherwise tend to support transparency in government.
MSNBC anchor Ed Schultz announced via Twitter “NOT BREAKING: Donald Trump releases video of himself shouting nonsense at a camera.”
David Frum, a writer who straddles D.C.’s two political factions, dismissed Trump’s “genius plan” as a scheme to make Obama release his transcripts and “[t]hen blast him as an ‘elitist’ when he is shown to have earned straight As.”
A Democratic activist, Zerlina Maxwell, tweeted out the charge that “What Donald Trump is doing is racist … that is all.”
During an Oct. 24 taping of “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, Obama was able to simply dismiss Trump’s request by saying their conflict “dates back to when he and Trump were growing up in Kenya.”
In contrast, the release of Bush’s records was treated with equanimity by the established media.
In 1999, The New Yorker published a leaked copy of the GOP front-runner Bush’s transcripts — including his SAT scores — earned prior to his 1968 graduation from Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
The leak confirmed Bush’s public statements that he was a “C” student. His combined math and verbal SAT scores were 1206.
“All the fuss in New Haven may be an overreaction, to judge from a copy of the academic file that not long ago found its way here,” wrote The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.
Her article was titled “Dept. of Aptitude,” and hedged its bets on whether Bush’s college years were a guide to performance in the White House.
“There is no correlation between academic achievement and success in the Oval Office … two of the century’s most influential presidents were also among the least academically distinguished — Ronald Reagan did just well enough at Eureka College to keep his football scholarship, and Franklin Roosevelt coasted through Harvard with gentleman’s C’s,” Mayer wrote.
Progressive columnist Frank Bruni accepted the leak without demur, telling his New York Times readers that “Mr. Bush comes across as a work in progress. … Perhaps it anticipates the ambivalence of American voters and their appetite for candidates who stake some vague middle ground between uncommon erudition and common knowledge.”
“Precisely where on that spectrum Mr. Bush falls — a determination with potentially important consequences for his candidacy — was the subject of considerable attention this week. For starters, The New Yorker magazine published Mr. Bush’s academic transcript. … The report card showed him to be a solid C student.”
Sen. John Kerry’s college record was released in 2005 when he OK’d the release of his Navy records. An academic transcript was included in those military records, and showed that he earned lower grades than Bush at Yale, generating mild disapproval from established media outlets.
“Kerry grades near Bush’s while at Yale,” read one New York Times headline.
Gov. Mitt Romney has not released his college records, and has not faced media pressure to release those records. The available evidence suggests he earned high grades in college.
But in May, Romney’s high school record was the subject of a 5,600-word article in the Washington Post.
“It was at Cranbrook [Schools] where he first lived on his own, found his future wife and made his own decisions,” the Post reported.
“One can see the institution’s influence on his demeanor and actions during those years, but also how it helped form the clubbiness and earnestness, the sense of leadership and enthusiasm, apparent in his careers as a businessman and a politician.”
In contrast, on Oct. 24 Post political reporter Chris Cillizza dismissed Trump’s pursuit of information about Obama’s adult years at Columbia and other universities.
“Me to Donald Trump: Go away. Please,” he wrote in a tweet.
Many Americans, including Cal State San Bernardino’s Cal Levin, think they have a right to know about any man who wants to be the nation’s president — in this case, again.
“I think we should have as much access as possible,” he said.
Charles C. Johnson contributed reporting for this story.