AU trustee’s meeting with Trump sparks calls for resignation
Gary Cohn’s meeting with the president-elect prompted Wednesday protest
A Tuesday meeting between President-elect Donald Trump and AU trustee Gary Cohn has led some students to call for Cohn’s resignation from the Board of Trustees, resulting in a small protest on Wednesday.
Cohn, the president and chief operating officer of the investment firm Goldman Sachs, is reportedly being considered for a senior administration position, possibly the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The meeting does not necessarily mean that Cohn will be appointed to a position in Trump’s administration, said Anita McBride, who was the chief of staff for first lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009 and is executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in the School of Public Affairs.
“I think the inference from Mr. Cohn’s visit can be two things: he is being seriously considered for a position, and is also being tapped for information and advice on a variety of policies in which he may have an expertise,” McBride said. “Bringing people into Trump Tower and having the kinds of conversations that the president-elect is having is nothing unusual at all and is part...of a smooth transfer of power.”
Following reports of Cohn’s meeting with the president-elect, student members of the Community Action and Social Justice Coalition quickly began to organize a demonstration demanding Cohn’s removal from AU’s Board of Trustees.
“We, the students of AU, will not let a man who endorses Donald Trump's hateful agenda remain in a position of leadership at our University,” the event page’s description read.
As word spread about the protest, several students expressed dissenting views from those of the protesters. Junior Kenna Sloan wrote on the event page that Cohn’s support for a presidential candidate “does not merit, and should never merit, his resignation from this school.”
In an interview with The Eagle, Sloan said students should base their opinions of Cohn on his job performance, not his political views.
“They’re making it about the things that Trump has done, not what Cohn has done against people,” Sloan said. “If they have an issue with things bigger than him at this university, like if they find that there are staff members...treating minorities poorly because they are Trump supporters, then that would be an issue [to protest]. But if this guy isn’t directly harming them and he supports something they do not, I think this is the completely wrong way to go about it.”
About 25 students gathered outside the Mary Graydon Center on Wednesday, holding signs reading “Dump Trump” and “Fire Cohn.” After a speech from senior Moira Nolan and a brief confrontation with a Trump supporter, students walked to President Neil Kerwin’s office to deliver a letter expressing their concerns about Cohn’s association with Trump.
“Cohn’s meeting with Trump is in complete conflict of interest with the University’s mission to promote a more inclusive campus,” Nolan said in an interview.
Students were greeted outside of Kerwin’s office by Chief of Staff and Board Secretary David Taylor, who accepted the letter on behalf of the University. Taylor spoke with students for about 10 minutes and heard their comments about Cohn as well concerns about racist incidents on campus and the potential for a tuition increase.
Taylor told the crowd that a trustee position is not a job and that board members cannot be hired or fired. Potential trustees are asked to consider taking on the role, and once on the board, trustees’ contributions are assessed by the University’s Trusteeship Committee when they are considered for re-nomination to the board, according to the its Statement of Commitment and Responsibility.
Taylor said he would deliver the letter to Kerwin and Board Chair Jack Cassell, prompting thanks from Nolan and other students in the group, with one telling Taylor they would “see him soon.” Teresa Flannery, Vice President for Communications, said the President’s Office had received the letter and would consider the view expressed.
As a trustee, Cohn sits on the presidential search committee that will select a candidate to replace the retiring Kerwin. Cohn has faced student criticism in the past for his work as the chair of the Board’s Finance and Investment Committee. An op-ed published in The Eagle in 2015 called Cohn “the most institutionally responsible face of student debt and fossil fuel addiction at AU.”
Cohn graduated from the Kogod School of Business in 1982 and has been a trustee since 2001. Since then, he has given millions to the University, including a large donation to the new Don Myers Technology and Innovation Center on East Campus and the endowment of a Kogod professorship. His current term as trustee will last through 2019.
While some students see Cohn’s meeting with Trump as harmful to the University’s inclusive environment, Executive-in-Residence McBride said she views his potential position in the Trump administration as positive for AU’s reputation.
“If he’s selected, it would certainly be good for American University, to highlight that so many people who have been trained by this university in public policy reach the highest levels of our government and can really have an impact on people’s lives,” McBride said. “That’s what our university is there for.”