Harvard’s Dexter Gate beseeches Harvard students to “go forth to serve thy country and thy kind.” President Faust seems to echo this plea at every Commencement, encouraging students to engage in public service through programs like her Presidential Public Service Fellowship and the Center for Public Interest Careers. But as more students consider “going forth to serve,” it’s important to think about what, exactly, it means to do public service after graduation.
It’s well known that Harvard students disproportionately go on to work in investment banking and consulting after graduation. This fact has caused consternation to everyone from New York Times blogger Catherine Rampell to Occupy Harvard to Ezra Klein. But in recent years, the Ivy-to-Wall-Street pipeline seems to have slowed: The percentage of Harvard students who reported going into consulting or investment banking after graduation has declined from 47 percent in 2007, to 39 percent in 2008, to only 22 percent in 2011, according to The Crimson’s annual senior survey. There are many possible explanations for this: Perhaps the financial sector seemed less attractive after the financial crisis of 2008; perhaps the encouragement of Harvard administrators and student activists has actually paid off.
At the same time, the percentage of students entering “public service” jobs immediately after graduation seems to have increased. For example, The Crimson reported that 11.4 percent of students who graduated last spring went into education. A survey by the Office of Career Services presents a similar trend, also suggesting that the number of students working in the nonprofit industry immediately after college rose from 4 percent in 2006 to 7 percent in 2011.
But what exactly counts as “public service?” The Phillips Brooks House Association has lauded alums such as Aaron Tanaka ‘04, who went on to work with community organizations doing advocacy work that makes real change in the lives of underserved populations, like unemployed workers in Boston. But when many Harvard students think of doing good in the world, they think of either part-time volunteer work, public policy, or Teach For America. For example, Currier House’s public service tutors tell their students they support students “whether you’re interested in working in government, nonprofit, education, politics, international development, or just want to volunteer.”
By now, most Harvard undergraduates realize that volunteering a few hours a week while working at Goldman Sachs is unlikely to benefit much other than one’s own conscience, so more students have begun searching for postgraduate jobs in “public service.” Public Interested, a Wintersession conference coordinated by Harvard’s new Assistant Dean for Public Service, Gene Corbin, featured speakers on “public interest” careers that ranged from government to socially responsible investment to community organizing.
But for those who actually want to make a difference, it’s important to think beyond simply finding a career labeled “public service” by the Office of Career Services. Jobs in nonprofit consulting, nonprofit management, corporate social responsibility, and responsible investing may feel more moral than their non-responsible counterparts, yet corporate social responsibility often simply excuses corporate excesses to the public instead of actually benefitting society. The nonprofit industrial complex has stifled true efforts to make positive change in people’s lives by taking energy and funding away from activist and advocacy organizations, so working in nonprofit management or consulting might harm more than it helps. CPIC touts summer and postgrad positions at charter schools, which have been roundly decried for corporatizing schools and harming students and teachers. And, as Emma M. Lind ’09, a former TFA teacher and former Crimson editorial chair, urged in her op-ed “Rethink TFA” last week, students who truly want to make positive change in the education system should think critically about engaging with a nominally do-good organization that may actually be hurting schools by replacing effective full-time teachers with inexperienced recruits.
Simply working at a policy think tank or as a politician doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually be able to help people. Indeed, popular postgraduate pursuits like government work, nonprofit consulting, and TFA complicate the idea of “public service” for Harvard alums.
Students who want to really do good for the world might take pause at some of what passes for “public service careers” at Harvard. The Public Service portal’s calendar of events lists an information session for the Defense Intelligence Agency, which describes itself as “a Department of Defense combat support agency.” I would argue that supporting the combat operations of the Department of Defense is far from a public service. In fact, if a Harvard alum truly wanted to serve her country and her kind, she might be better off working for an advocacy organization that lobbied against funding for the Department of Defense.
If students intentionally avoid jobs on Wall Street in order to “do good for the world,” we should think hard about whether the jobs we do take will actually make sustainable, productive, and beneficial change. It would be nice if the OCS, CPIC, and Dean for Public Service put more thought into what careers they laud as “public interest.” Otherwise, well-meaning Harvard students run the risk of simply “going forth to serve” the OCS’s statistics and our own egos.
Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: February 20
Yesterday’s column by Sandra Y. L. Korn incorrectly stated that the interior Dexter Gate inscription reads, “Go forth to serve thy country and thy kind.” The inscription actually reads, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”