Chris Hopson | Harvard University

A couple of weeks ago, I published an article titled “Neoliberalism at Harvard and Beyond”. I concluded that article by proposing that the popularity of the management consulting and finance industries for postgraduate employment among Harvard students shows that there is an “ironic alliance” between supposedly ‘liberal’ schools like Harvard and conservative corporate interests on Wall Street. I couldn’t have known that just days after I published those words, Drew Faust would join the board of directors of Goldman Sachs, just after stepping down from her post as President of Harvard University. The ironic alliance, it seems, is even closer than I thought. The optics of the president of a university stepping down and joining an industry that also attracts a disproportionately large share of that university’s student body are striking. As I outlined in my last article, Harvard attracts a disproportionate number of students from wealthy families. Once here, students are overexposed to the possibility of postgraduate employment in the largest and wealthiest corporations in the United States and the world. Now, the former president of Harvard has joined the board of one of these corporations, whose current CEO (Lloyd Blankfein) also went to Harvard. What does all of this mean? Is the “ironic alliance” between Harvard and large corporations more like a close relationship that isn’t so ironic after all? I believe that the answer is yes, and that this has consequences.

High positions in the public and private sectors are disproportionately occupied by graduates of so-called “Ivy-Plus” universities. The current CEOs of Amazon, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Citigroup, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Google, JPMorgan Chase, and Microsoft all have degrees from an Ivy League university, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. Every single sitting Supreme Court justice graduated from either Harvard Law School or Yale Law School, except for Justice Ginsburg, who started at Harvard Law but finished from Columbia Law School. The five most recent US Presidents, including Donald Trump, all hold degrees from an Ivy League university. In other words, the alumni of about 10 universities, out of the more than 5,000 that exist in the US, hold something of a monopoly on the economic and political establishment of the US.  This is a very close relationship indeed, and one that is regrettable for two main reasons: it perpetuates economic inequality and ideological stagnation.

In my last article, I discussed the Harvard student body’s disproportionate wealth; Harvard enrolls more students from families in the top 10% of the income distribution than students from families in the bottom 90%. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for Ivy-plus schools. Last year, The New York Times reported on a study from the Equality of Opportunity Project which found that five of the eight Ivy League universities enroll more undergrads from families in the top 1% than from families in the bottom 60%. These statistics must be considered in conjunction with those that show that graduates from Ivy League universities earn much more on average than graduates from other universities, regardless of what income background those students come from. Ivy League universities are engines of social mobility, as their graduates tend to climb the income scale. The problem is that most Ivy League students come from families at the top of the income scale to begin with. This is not because lower-income students are unqualified to be admitted to Ivy League universities.  In fact, The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study in 2012 showing that there are many highly qualified low-income students who do not apply to selective universities. If these universities did a better job of finding these students and encouraging them to apply, the potential of greater social mobility could be unleashed. But instead, compared to poor and middle-class families, rich families have easier access to selective schools, where their children have easier access to high-paying public and private sector jobs, and in turn, have an easier time getting their kids into selective schools, and the cycle continues. This cycle concentrates both wealth and power in a small portion of the population, and passes that wealth and power down through generations, essentially forming a hereditary aristocracy.

The second reason why the close relationship between Ivy-plus universities and the ruling establishment is regrettable is that it contributes to ideological stagnation. Since a small group of schools educates such a large portion of the managerial class of the US economic-political system, that managerial class lacks ideological diversity. As a Harvard undergraduate, I’ve personally observed the way that the Harvard environment promotes conformity among students, and I presume that other Ivy-plus campuses are much the same.  Since Ivy-plus universities are feeders for influential positions in the public and private sectors, oftentimes, the people running regulatory agencies are cut from the same cloth as the people running the industries being regulated. The results, unsurprisingly, can be catastrophic. They certainly were during the financial crisis of 2008, when unregulated Wall Street managers, seemingly unconstrained by moral or ethical considerations, manipulated US homeowners and consumers out of trillions of dollars, and faced no consequences. Instead, the US government bailed out Wall Street, leaving millions of lives in tatters, and the bankers just as rich, if not richer. A lot of Ivy-plus alumni were working on Wall Street in 2008, since Harvard alone sent nearly half of its graduating class of 2007 who entered the labor force into the consulting or finance industries. There were also a lot of Ivy-plus alumni in the regulatory agencies that should have prevented the 2008 crisis, or at least prosecuted the people responsible. The close relationship between Ivy-plus universities and the ruling establishment of the US effectively produces a rigged system, where the referees of the game (the public sector) are on the same side as one of the teams (the corporate establishment).  

Despite the downsides, the close relationship between Ivy-plus universities and the ruling establishment has a potentially massive upside. If any collection of people can effectively challenge the corporate establishment of the US and spearhead necessary change, it is graduates of Ivy-plus universities. Since so many Ivy-plus graduates end up in positions of influence, in theory it would be easy for them to unite in their shared educational background and, as the saying goes, ‘change the system from the inside’. And because of the many harmful things that the corporate establishment often does (like exploiting workers and creating homelessness, all while lobbying against needed social programs), there are plenty of things to be changed. But as it stands, it doesn’t seem like the plethora of Ivy-plus graduates who are in influential positions in the public and private sectors are taking advantage of this opportunity. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps Ivy-plus universities do not invest enough into moral and ethical education. Perhaps the entrenched culture of profit-seeking that exists on Wall Street, or the institutionalization of corporate-friendly regulatory policies, are too strong for individuals to resist. But whatever the case, a change needs to be made. When I look at the world around me, I see many innocent people suffering, whether it be from poverty, discrimination, violence, or any other social ill. Ivy-plus universities, and their alumni, have too much power to merely become managers of the economic-political system that produces and tolerates this suffering. The universities themselves should overexpose students to postgraduate employment opportunities in industries that help society and undo some of the harm done by large for-profit corporations. For their part, students should consider what impact they want to have on the world after graduation, and interrogate whether becoming managers within an unjust system will achieve their goal. I believe that this kind of sober reflection and action holds the key to transforming Ivy-plus universities from institutions that reproduce the ruling establishment and all of its ideological flaws, to institutions of reform that make the world a better place.