Contradictory Agendas: T-Bird’s Trump Connection

Courtesy of Thunderbird's Flickr

By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief

It started with a name on the side of a building.  If it’s not a name you’ve noticed before, you’re blameless; its appearance could be described as conspicuous only in its inconspicuousness. Like so many other tributes and remembrances scattered around our campus, one must almost be seeking it in order to become aware of it. It’s the antithesis of those gargantuan edifices topped with the branded cognomen of gold-leaf-embossed letters a quarter-mile high that another principal player in our story is universally known for. Yet there the name is: small brass characters set within a narrow stripe of blue trim wrapped around the building’s concave façade like a ribbon: DeVos Auditorium.

Until recently, the name held no meaning for me.  Even being the campus history buff I am, the building didn’t have any stories or myths that drew me to it. The central Erickson Pavilion, in contrast, is named for Berger Erickson – “Mr. Thunderbird,” as he was affectionately called.  Erickson served in virtually every administrative capacity possible over more than three decades of employment, in a daily uniform of button-down shirt, tie, suit coat, Bermuda shorts, porkpie hat, knee-high socks, and a litter of leashed poodles that accompanied him everywhere. The poodles were, reportedly, vicious, had teeth like razors, and had acquired a taste for human flesh, hence the socks.

The DeVos Auditorium carried no such corporeal aura; nothing you could, like an Erickson poodle, sink your teeth into. It was a set of infrequently used lecture halls with the swankest restrooms on campus and a central passageway to walk through on your way to the Executive Inn when you lose your room key. And then Donald Trump became President.

"Mr. Thunderbird" in regalia. Photo from the book Thunderbird: Taking Flight in Global Leadership, by Abe Jacobs, Kellie Kreiser, and Chelsea Olsen
“Mr. Thunderbird” in regalia. Photo from the book Thunderbird: Taking Flight in Global Leadership, by Abe Jacobs, Kellie Kreiser, and Chelsea Olsen

As Trump started releasing the names of his cabinet nominees, the DeVos name took on significance to those outside of Michigan, and the “multi-level marketing” industry.  A couple of given names were attached to it: Betsy, and Dick.  Something about the name – the symmetry of the middle “V,” or the singular “s” aching for a companion to justify its pronunciation – flipped a switch in my brain.  I knew that name. A stroll over to the building confirmed my suspicions. Near the entrance to one of the lecture halls is a small plaque stating the following: “On February 5, 2009 Thunderbird honors global leaders Dick and Betsy DeVos with the unveiling of the DeVos Auditorium.”  For a year and a half, I’d been living a stone’s throw away from a building dedicated to Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. And I didn’t know a thing about it.

This is a good point at which to declare that charter schools and common core are not going to be discussed in what follows. I have no desire to critique Betsy DeVos’s beliefs about education policy or to make an argument for or against her suitability for the position she has been nominated for. What I do want to do is tell two stories that have, through a concordance of events that couldn’t have been foreseen by anybody, intersected. And the point at which they meet is right here: Thunderbird.

The first story is that of Dick and Betsy. Dick was born into success. His father, Richard DeVos, was cofounder with Jay Van Andel of Amway (a portmanteau of “The American Way”), a Michigan-based company that sells an array of consumer goods, from cosmetics to dietary supplements to electronics, through the aforementioned “multi-level marketing” model. This model involves a company selling products to independent salespeople, who in turn resell these products to individual consumers. Think Mary Kay, but with a much broader scope and scale. Somebody less delicate than I might refer to this operational setup as a “pyramid scheme.” One such party is the Federal Trade Commission, which has investigated Amway’s business practices on a number of occasions. Amway is now under the umbrella of a parent company called Alticor, a conglomerate which controls a number of companies operating globally on the Amway model. Alticor is a private company, owned and run by the DeVos and Van Andel families.  Forbes reports that Alticor’s 2015 revenues were $9.5 billion, making it the twenty-ninth largest private company in America.

Dick and Betsy DeVos. Courtesy Detroit Free Press.
Dick and Betsy DeVos. Courtesy Detroit Free Press.

In 1979, Dick married Betsy Prince. Betsy’s father, Edgar, was the founder of Prince Corporation, another major Michigan business that manufactured automobile parts. In 1996, Prince Corporation was acquired by multinational conglomerate Johnson Controls for $1.35 billion. A brief side-note: Betsy’s brother is Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL who went on to found the private military company Blackwater USA, now called Academi. In 2007, Blackwater drew a great deal of controversy following an incident in which its employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians while escorting an American embassy convoy in Baghdad. In January, journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of the books Blackwater and Dirty Wars, reported that Erik Prince was serving as a shadow advisor to President Trump’s transition team. In Erik’s 2013 autobiography, Civilian Warriors, he states that Edgar Prince made him and his sisters “major shareholders” in the Prince Corporation at early ages (Pg. 13). The marriage of Dick and Betsy, then, brought together two enormously wealthy individuals, and they now have a reported combined net worth of $5.1 billion.

The pair constituted what would commonly be referred to as a “power couple,” and since their marriage they have done exactly what the term connotes: wield and expand said power to promote their interests. Dick and his brother, Doug, have held various executive positions at Amway and, later, Alticor. Dick is credited with expanding the business globally during his six years as vice president of Amway, taking international sales from 5% of revenue in 1986 to 50% at the time of his departure, a fact that will become important to our story. Betsy entered the political realm, playing a highly active role in the Michigan Republican Party since 1982 and making reform of the state’s public education system a personal crusade. They were fervent supporters of Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. Due to her work in education reform, Betsy was, as we know, nominated by President-elect Trump for the position of Secretary of Education in November, 2016.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though; it’s time to start tugging at the tread that leads to our second story. But first, a quick note about me: to keep up the theme of Erickson’s poodles, I’m a dog that, when given a bone, refuses to let go. I’m the reason for the guy’s knee-highs; if I want something, especially information, I bark and bite until I get it. When I caught sight of this one, buried under layers of old newspapers and IRS filings, I dug. Relentlessly. And the one part of this story I haven’t been able to turn up is how it starts.

What I do know is that, in 2004, Dick DeVos joined Thunderbird’s Board of Trustees. The mystery lies in what sparked this involvement. If I were to speculate, I’d say that the connection was made through his efforts to expand Amway globally. Amway has held Executive Education programs at Thunderbird, and has historically been a heavy recruiter of the school’s graduates. Dick remained on the Board through the 2012-2013 academic year. His departure coincided with the school’s financial problems reaching their climax, and its eventual acquisition by Arizona State University.

During this period, donations totaling $1,163,200 were made to the school by the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. As the Foundation’s website states: “In response to the financial blessing we have received, we launched our foundation in 1989 as a vehicle for charitable giving.” Also on the website is the following statement: “Our faith motivates our giving; it is integral to who we are and what we do. Our giving is centered in cultivating leadership, accelerating transformation and leveraging support in five areas.” These five areas are community, education, arts, justice, and leadership. During the time Dick sat on Thunderbird’s Board, 100% of the Foundation’s funding came from personal contributions made by Dick and Betsy, amounting to $100,437,132 between 2004 and 2012. All of this information comes from 990 forms that are required to be filed annually with the IRS by charitable organizations and can be found here.

The Foundation’s largest single contribution, $1 million, was made in 2008, part of a $65 million funding drive initiated by the Trustees in the wake of Sam Garvin’s proposed $60 million donation falling through. According to this press release, no longer available on the school’s website but accessible through archival services, at least $24.5 million was gifted by the Trustees at the time of the drive. It’s here that things get…complicated.

Trump signs travel ban, January 27, 2017. Courtesy CNN.
Trump signs travel ban, January 27, 2017. Courtesy CNN.

The DeVos Foundation’s $1 million gift was earmarked specifically “to fund scholarships for students from developing countries,” as the press release states. The scholarship fund is now administered by the controllers of Thunderbird’s SHARE Fellowship program, which provides full-tuition scholarships to students meeting certain criteria, in addition to “access to a global network of mentors, who work one-on-one with the fellows to help them obtain internships and full-time employment after graduation.” As explained to me, the DeVos money is held separately from the SHARE fund. An applicant considered suitable for the DeVos scholarship has their information passed along to the DeVos Foundation, which has the ultimate say over whether the student will be granted the money. It’s worth reiterating here that the funding for these scholarships was contributed personally by Dick & Betsy DeVos.

This scholarship fund is, obviously, incredibly generous, and is fully in line with everything that Thunderbird represents: global harmonization through the creation of sustainable worldwide prosperity. On January 27th, however, President Trump signed an Executive Order representing the polar opposite of these values. This order, cumbersomely titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry to the United States,” has placed a 90-day ban on entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven nations: Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. DeVos scholarship money has been awarded to citizens of these nations.

Yazeed Ettaib '16. From his Facebook profile.
Yazeed Ettaib ’16. From his Facebook profile.

Yazeed Ettaib, who graduated from the MGM program in the fall of 2016, is one of these students. Yazeed was born and raised in Benghazi, Libya. As his bio on the SHARE page states, Yazeed “contributed to the Libyan Arab Spring movement by establishing the first non-state radio news channel, and most recently was co-founder and CTO for a telecoms startup. One day he would like to be a key player in rebuilding Libya.” He’s a Thunderbird through-and-through; entrepreneurial, ambitious, highly intelligent, and committed to making the world a better place. The DeVos family’s money brought him to Thunderbird and granted him access to a world-class education. Now his benefactor has been asked to work for a man who, frankly, does not want Yazeed in this country.

When I spoke to Yazeed, he was distressed, or, to use the term he used, “depressed.” The travel ban, specifically, and the atmosphere that President Trump has encouraged, generally, have affected him both personally and professionally. He has been unable to find employment since graduation, and is highly uncertain about the future. His hope, when he made the decision to attend Thunderbird, was to use his education to work globally, like anybody who decides to come here. He’s now stranded; if he exits the United States, he is not able to return. He feels that, as a citizen of a country that has been effectively blacklisted by the U.S. government, it is unlikely that an American company will hire him.

Yazeed made it clear that he understands that a key function of any government is protecting the country’s national interests, but he brings a perspective to this particular situation that all Americans should be exposed to. Yazeed spent 26 years of his life living under the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, who was deposed and killed in 2011. Life in Donald Trump’s America feels frighteningly familiar to him. Antagonism towards the media, demonization of specific races and classes of people, unilateral issuance of orders and commands without prior debate: these are all conditions that Yazeed has experienced before. The promise of America, of democracy, of Thunderbird, is supposed to be that these things don’t happen. It was shocking for me to hear that Yazeed is witnessing these familiar hallmarks of dictatorship in this country. America has reneged on its promise to Yazeed, and that fact breaks my heart.

Now, where does this leave us with Betsy and Dick? I’ve spent hours speaking to Thunderbird faculty and administrators, past and present, who interacted with the family during Dick’s time as a Trustee. Without a single dissenter, they have been described to me as two of the most kind, humble, and amiable individuals you could ever hope to meet. Their generosity is enormous and unquestionable. But Dick and Betsy DeVos are very easy to vilify. They’re incredibly wealthy, they have the power to influence public policy, they subscribe to and support a highly conservative social agenda, and they are now lumped in with Trump cronies like Steve Bannon, a clear-cut and objective villain.

Betsy DeVos with President Trump. Courtesy CNN.
Betsy DeVos with President Trump. Courtesy CNN.

The reality of the situation, however, is far more complex. Dick DeVos’s nine years on Thunderbird’s Board of Trustees, as well as the family’s financial contributions to the school during that time, show incontrovertibly that they value a world connected by global trade and cultural understanding. The fact that you or I may not hold the same political beliefs that they do does not detract from the fact that, by all accounts, they are incredibly decent people. It’s dangerous to conflate a person’s politics with their personality and the ways in which they interact with the world, but doing so irons out the wrinkles of complexity. It’s easy, and it helps one make sense of a chaotic and disordered world. This is why it’s so important to dig, to nip at heels until you get what you want. This is doubly important when what you want is the truth.

There’s one loose end to tie up: why would somebody as reportedly decent as Betsy DeVos want to work for a man as indecent as Donald Trump? Why would she join an administration consisting of individuals who possess beliefs about the world that are wholly inconsistent with the values that she and her husband have supported through significant contributions of time and money? There are a few narratives that we could follow to answer these questions. One involves the trend we’ve witnessed of Republican politicians like Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and John McCain denigrating Trump during the primary season, and then choosing to toe the party line now that he’s taken office. This is an additional characteristic of the type of despotism described to me by Yazeed; the suppression of personal values in the service of yielding to the will of the person in charge. Another narrative is that Betsy DeVos is a staunch and longtime supporter of the Republican party, and sees in her nomination a singular opportunity to influence education policy at the federal level, regardless of the values and statements of the party’s current leader. The most optimistic narrative is that she may moderate the administration’s extremism in certain respects. It’s highly unlikely that she could have much influence over foreign policy or global trade, but she may be able to fight in support of things like F-1/M-1 student visas and the importance of global cooperation in education.

The truth likely lies in a combination of these scenarios. The world and the forces that govern it are messy and complicated; odds are against there being a tangible answer to these questions. I did try to get one, though. I spoke to some remarkably pleasant and helpful people at the DeVos Foundation, but was unable to reach Betsy for comment. That’s understandable. She’s very busy at the moment. Her nomination is being aggressively contested, most recently in a vote by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee that was split directly down party lines, with the advancement of her nomination saved only by the existence of the committee’s Republican majority.  The New York Times reported Thursday morning that the only possibility of her confirmation on the Senate floor lies in a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, a situation that I’m sure the writers of House of Cards are salivating over.

It’s looking increasingly likely that the hours I’ve spent poring over old documents will have been for naught, but that’s only one part of this story. The other, and in my opinion, more significant part is the story of Yazeed Ettaib and the other Thunderbird students and alumni affected by Trump’s travel ban. After Trump’s victory in November’s election, Das Tor published a piece speculating on what that victory might mean for global trade and relations on a broad scale, and for Thunderbird students and alumni on a more personal scale. We’re now beginning to see the actual policy actions of the Trump presidency, and, as it turns out, they’re striking at the very heart of what Thunderbird is and means. This is a dialogue that needs to be carried out in the open. To that end, if you’ve been affected by the travel ban, or have anything you’d like to say about Trump’s America in general, tell us. Das Tor exists to serve the Thunderbird community, and has historically fought hell-for-leather against anything and anyone that poses a threat to this school’s foundational mission and values. That hasn’t changed since 1969. Now is the time to speak up. Don’t hesitate to do so.

 

3 Comments

  1. You lost me completely with your comment: “But Dick and Betsy DeVos are very easy to vilify. They’re incredibly wealthy, they have the power to influence public policy, they subscribe to and support a highly conservative social agenda, and they are now lumped in with Trump cronies like Steve Bannon, a clear-cut and objective villain.”
    So when is it ok to vilify anyone who is wealthy? Don’t T-birds applaud success and philanthropy? What is their “highly conservative social agenda”? Let me guess, school choice? That is far more mainstream than you suggest. Steve Bannon, a clear cut and objective villain? Really? Calling people names without context is something I expect more from the Das Tor.

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