Before you make up your mind about the quality of this column, or how well Voice of San Diego performs as a news outlet, consider this: I got an A-minus in Religions of Asia during my junior year at USC. Really puts things into perspective, right?
I dug out my college transcripts Monday after similar documents from Kevin Faulconer and David Alvarez surfaced in the race for mayor.
To the extent that college transcripts predict the future, mine are pretty straightforward: I graduated cum laude from journalism school, and I have a career in journalism. (Then there’s VOSD CEO Scott Lewis, who I asked to join me in sharing his transcripts. He couldn’t produce them right away. You be the judge of what that means for his supposed commitment to transparency.)
The college transcripts issue reared its head during the 2012 presidential race, even as scholars warned that past presidents’ academic records were a poor indicator of performance (Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t that outstanding academically; Harry Truman never even went to college; Richard Nixon got excellent grades – see, this is what I have to show for all those history classes).
That’s not to say college experiences don’t deserve a place on a candidate’s resume – Faulconer’s tenure as president of SDSU’s student body, for example, could tell us a lot about his leadership style, just as this college essay Carl DeMaio wrote revealed that he developed some of the rhetoric he used in the 2012 mayoral race while he was a student at Georgetown.
But transcripts alone don’t paint a very telling picture so much as give us something to leer at under the guise of transparency.
The U-T reported Monday that Alvarez and Faulconer, who both attended San Diego State, released their college transcripts in the name of transparency. Mike Aguirre has promised to do the same.
Faulconer got a string of B’s in many of the classes that are most relevant to his job now: The Legislative Process, Democracy and Mass Society and Oral Communication (He aced others like Law and the Political System, and Advanced Surfing, which is arguably tangentially related to his job representing beach communities.)
“You can tell that at an early age, way back in his teens and his 20s, this was an interesting area to him and an area that he excelled in,” Tony Manolatos, Faulconer’s campaign spokesman, told me Monday afternoon.
Alvarez aced Oral Communication, but got a troubling B-minus for a semester of Marching Band, which seriously calls into question his capacity to build a City Council consensus with an inspiring rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
But we’ll never know what Nathan Fletcher’s grades in Geology 201 say about his ability to oversee a massive city bureaucracy, because, as the U-T reports:
But fellow candidate Nathan Fletcher, a 1997 graduate of California Baptist University in Riverside, gets a failing grade in transparency — at least as far as the latest test by U-T Watchdog is concerned. … Fletcher says he will not release his at all.
Both Alvarez and Faulconer patted themselves on the back for their openness – Alvarez said in a statement, “I have nothing to hide. My background speaks to who I am and I’m not afraid to be open about it.”
Faulconer’s campaign went even further, saying Fletcher’s refusal to release his transcripts is part of a larger trend toward secrecy.
“Over the last several weeks Fletcher has refused to release his calendar, his college transcript and the sources of thousands of dollars [sic] worth of campaign contributions when requested by various media outlets, including NBC7 San Diego, 10News and U-T San Diego,” said a press release from the Faulconer campaign.
A candidate’s calendar and who’s donating money have direct tie-ins with how the candidate conducts himself or herself on the campaign trail, and who he or she might feel beholden to once in office.
But how did college transcripts get lumped in with them? I asked Manolatos whether the Faulconer campaign believes college transcripts are a good indicator of how a candidate would perform in office.
“I think voters would probably learn about any of us from taking a look at our transcripts, sure,” he said.
When I pressed about whether voters should be parsing transcripts in order to make a decision about a candidate, Manolatos admitted transcripts don’t mean much:
“In a vacuum, no. But this is part of a pattern that we’ve seen from Nathan. It’s the calendar, it’s the donors. If he was disclosing all of his donors like we are, then would we make a big deal out of transcripts? No. This is not about his transcripts, this is about a lack of transparency.”
This makes it pretty clear the candidates hammering the transcripts issue want to have it both ways. Either transcripts do matter – in which case the ones made public suggest Faulconer, who notched middling grades toward a political science degree, would make a competent but wholly unremarkable politician, and Alvarez, who got pretty good grades toward a psychology degree, would make an above-average therapist.
Or, transcripts don’t matter, and the real issue is transparency – in which case, why not insist Fletcher release his dental records and cable bills?
When you lump school transcripts with campaign donors and calendars, you imply that college grades are just as important for gauging candidates as things that will actually impact their decisions.
Regardless, this whole absurd detour has at least re-affirmed my one rock-solid theory of political campaigns: At some point, every race will repeat an old storyline from “The West Wing.”
This gem of an exchange, between a reporter and the White House press secretary, is from an episode called “The U.S. Poet Laureate” (emphasis mine):
PHIL: Were you aware that several news organizations have been trying to obtain Gov. Ritchie’s transcripts from the University of Florida?
C.J.: You mean since yesterday?
C.J.: No, I wasn’t.
PHIL: I guess my question is does the president feel college transcripts are an accurate barometer of a person’s fitness to hold a high public office?
C.J.: I’ve never asked him, but my guess is the president feels that a person’s college transcripts is a reasonable barometer of how a person did in college.