It must be tough being a Wall Street executive these days—private jets and holiday bonuses notwithstanding. The public can’t stand you, leading presidential figures on both the left and the right have sworn to take you down, and millions of Americans crowded in to see "The Big Short," a movie that showed Main Street how Wall Street defrauded the world through reckless negligence and greed. It seems to me that the only thing that small town America hates more than the names Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan are ISIS and Vladimir Putin.
Wall Street has an enormous impact on this campus as well. But our campus culture views it in a different light than the majority of Americans. Just last year, over a third of Harvard’s graduating seniors went on to jobs in finance or consulting. Students grind themselves into the dirt to make sure their resumes are in tip-top condition for select firms, some of which have hiring rates of as low as three percent. And it is a well-known fact that one of the perks of going here is that top companies send recruiters exclusively to Harvard and other peer institutions, skipping out on schools with less name recognition. Our house and club lists are constantly flooded with emails from recruiters, inviting us to recruitment fairs and letting us know about job opportunities. These emails don’t just go to seniors either: Just the other day, I saw an email from Morgan Stanley on the Pforzheimer House list written explicitly for sophomores, and It's common knowledge here that the recruitment grind is a key part of junior year for many Harvard students. I’ve seen classmates compare job offers from big firms like folks used to compare baseball cards. And why not? With starting salaries between $85,000 and $110,000 right out of college (i.e. over twice the salary of my mother, a public school teacher of 25 years), what’s not to love?
Excuse my sarcasm. I get carried away sometimes. But to be perfectly honest, I’m tired, and more than a bit disillusioned. Growing up, going to Harvard was a pipe-dream. I never knew anyone growing up who went to school here, and no one from my high school had been an undergrad here in almost four decades. In my mind, Harvard could do no wrong. It was the place where future world changers, innovators, and philosophers worked together to learn from the greats, and where the greats went to accumulate enough knowledge and information and resources to revolutionize the world. Since I was five years old I wanted to come here — even then recognizing the reverence in any voice speaking of Harvard — so that I too could add to the conversation in any way possible. Some kids dream of the NFL, the NBA, or being president of the United States. My dream was to attend Harvard University.
I still love Harvard. But I believe the University and its leadership are failing to maintain the academic and civic focus long associated with our name. In my mind, and in the mind of millions throughout the world, it is Harvard’s and similar institutions’ responsibility to educate and instill a strong moral code into future world leaders — a goal espoused by Harvard itself with its mission statement. Idealism should still guide the course of every undergraduate, confident that here world-changers are created, polished, and then sent out into the world with a sense of purpose.
By allowing Wall Street to have unparalleled influence and to shape our campus culture without any sort of pushback, Harvard ties itself and its students up to an institution that perpetuates the gross disparities of wealth in America and throughout the world. The soul-crushing free for all to receive a job offer from these institutions diminishes the academic culture of our campus, and heightens feelings of uncertainty when passions and interests that got students admitted in the first place no longer seem marketable. Because of this, our school fails to live up to its name and its reputation as an academic institution tasked with training the world’s most gifted minds to be the sort of leaders that our world and our country so desperately need.
Ultimately, though, our students are the ones who make the decisions of what to do after graduation. It’s not my or anyone’s place to judge someone for going into finance because he or she comes from a background without much means, and it’s also true that some students are legitimately passionate about finance and consulting and view it as a career. For too many—and I would argue the majority of students— these industries represent a temporary stopgap, a place where passions and interests are sacrificed for paychecks and security. Simply put, many of us feel an overwhelming amount of pressure to “succeed,” to do something that validates all the time, effort, and money spent on our education here.
Understanding where students are coming from, I believe that Harvard could do much more to prevent finance and consulting from having a near monopoly over pre-graduation uncertainty, with options that include potentially creating new University post-graduate programs that foster participants’ passions and interests or subsidizing the salary of students from low income backgrounds who choose to go into the public sector. Because with all of the diverse interests and talent that comes into our school, and with all of the under serviced places in the world that need leadership, passion, and resources, Harvard must stand up to Wall Street’s attempts to drain our talents into one bloated sector with highly questionable social impact.
Harvard must realize that our nation’s citizens—from economists, to politicians, all the way to the average American—are increasingly pushing back against Wall Street’s influence on society. Recognizing this, shouldn’t our administration push back against Wall Street’s influence over its own student body? Shouldn’t this be part of Harvard’s commitment to “creating and sustaining the conditions that enable all Harvard College students to experience an unparalleled educational journey?”
Maybe I’m too idealistic. It is certainly possible that a more cynical view is correct, that Harvard’s administration recognizes the hold that Wall Street has on our student body and, always mindful of maintaining its hefty endowment, views lucrative finance and consulting jobs as a guaranteed way to get the greatest amount of money in donations from alumni. But I choose to believe Harvard when it says that it wants to be the single defining force that turns great minds into great citizens, with an influence on our lives more powerful than any other institution. And I believe that if our administrators take an active role in curbing the influence that Wall Street has on this campus, we will be that much closer to regaining our focus as a world class institution where world class leaders are made.
William F. Morris IV ’17-’18 is taking a year off to intern in a public defender's office and advocate for mental health awareness.