​The Tragedy of Selling Out

Trading civic aspirations for six figures

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UPDATED: November 11, 2017 at 1:57 a.m.

Three of my close friends walked into the Public Service Recruiting Day event last week, hosted by the Office of Career Services, Center for Public Interest Careers, Institute of Politics, and Philip Brooks House Association. They expected to be met with eager staffers excited to talk with them about their resumes. Finally, they thought, Harvard is connecting us to jobs that can make the world a better place. Instead, the event was mostly informational, as many groups did not have concrete positions open or hadn’t started taking applications yet.

After minimal substantive interaction with recruiters, my friends listened to awkward speeches from Assistant Dean of Harvard College for Public Service Gene Corbin, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, and William D. Delahunt, a former U.S. Representative for Massachusetts, that parroted the insecurities that have turned many a Social Studies concentrator into a McKinsey recruit: There is no money, few jobs, and little glamour working for the government or a non-profit. Casting a pallor over the entire event was the paranoid reassurance from speakers that those who do public service can always return to the private sector and make boatloads of money if (or when) they want. My friends left feeling dejected; apparently, doing a public service job after college required them to become as saintly as Franciscan friars, preaching good while simultaneously begging for food.

At Harvard, 51 percent of the Class of 2017 who joined the workforce after graduation took jobs in the consulting, finance, and technology industries. Yet, when the Class of 2017 was surveyed as incoming freshmen, only 20.1 percent said they planned to work in consulting, finance, or technology immediately after graduation. What happened in those four years that turned so many students towards these fields? The obvious answer is recruiting, but Harvard’s “sell-out” culture prods even the most civic-minded towards corporate America.

From the insufficient number of summer fellowships and meager funding for internships, to the lack of a centralized resource for public service career services, and finally to the unstructured, unpredictable, and late-term process of applying for jobs, pursuing a public service career requires grit, tenacity, and boundless confidence in your chosen career path. Contrast this with the highly streamlined recruiting and exorbitant benefit packages dangled in front of kids who still belt along to rap at dorm parties. For seniors being coaxed by a silver platter of options from proactive private sector firms, the anxiety to get a job as quickly and painlessly as possible often leads to corporate capitulation. And combined with the reassuring structure of recruitment, the job security represented by a Bain office in a Manhattan skyscraper usually trumps the unsexy idealism of an unkempt nonprofit office in Lansing.

Such a desolate job landscape in public service is exacerbated by a belittling and dismissive attitude from Harvard administrators. At a reception after the Public Service Recruiting Day, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana cracked a joke to a room full of humanities and social science students about his daughter’s interest in humanities, confiding that he hopes that she gets a high-paying job so that she doesn’t end up living in his basement after graduation. On Tuesday, the Institute of Politics hosted an event on “leveraging private sector experience for success in the public sector,” but two out of the three panelists had followed the opposite path, switching from public sector employment to the Boston Consulting Group and Harvard Business School. Harvard does not only neglect to provide public service opportunities for its students; its employees are also often caught making a mockery of Harvard’s service-oriented mission to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.”

Beyond the administration—or possibly because of it—the student body also sniffs its nose at public servants, especially those not in the Capitol or White House. Telling friends that I worked in a state senator’s office last summer elicits an unenthusiastic response at best, and a sympathetic one at worse. My friends interning at hedge funds and finance firms joshed with me about having to take the Greyhound bus to visit them in New York, instead of a more comfortable Acela express train. Teasing—both from Dean Khurana and students—would be perfectly fine if it did not represent such a sore spot for so many insecure students. While sacrificing money might be a given in public service, there is no reason why prestige or recognition must also be given up. According to its mission, Harvard and its students should hold public service in high esteem, yet its institutions and culture continue to make it the butt of jokes.

Most appalling of all is seeing the students who most wanted to dedicate themselves to service after graduation trade their activist aspirations for Wall Street. As a Social Studies concentrator, I have several friends in Government and Social Studies who I have heard have taken a consulting or finance offer. While some of these friends come from a lower-income background and justify their change of heart in terms of financial subsistence, most others simply found taking the job to be more expedient than undergoing the demoralizing process of casting out resumes to dozens of nonprofits while their roommates rest secure in the job offers they received months ago.

Each year, around 1,600 starry-eyed freshmen enter Harvard’s gates, expecting to be given the tools and resources to change the world for the better. If Harvard is to keep its promise to “educate the... citizen-leaders” of the world, a paradigm shift is needed. Paraphrasing Barack Obama, we, as students, need to “make government and public service cool again.”

But such a culture change will require investment from the Harvard administration to ensure that students aren’t left to fend for themselves in the vicious tug-of-war for Harvard talent between the Googles and Morgan Stanleys of the world. For those who do it, “selling out” should be a carefully considered and whole-hearted choice, not a tragic surrender.

Reed T. Shafer-Ray 18 is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House. Their column appears on alternate Thursdays.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: November 11, 2017

A previous version of this article misstated the percentage of the Class of 2017 entering consulting, finance, or technology after graduation. Fifty-one percent of those members of the Class of 2017 who are entering the workforce are entering one of those industries, not 51 percent of the entire class.

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