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When the story of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’s alleged fraud broke, I wasn’t surprised. Having dozens of classmates from college and business school who embrace the “hustle” of start-up life, I’ve seen my peers do questionable things for their chance to make it big. Holmes’s trial began last month. She faces up to 20 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. Yet, while the former Silicon Valley star may finally face accountability, the “fake it ‘til you make it” ecosystem that embraced her remains fully intact across spheres of ambition, whether political, social, or entrepreneurial.
Following developments in the Theranos case as a student in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Master’s of Public Policy program, I’ve begun to see similar threads between Holmes’s company, which she built to a $9 billion valuation, and Harvard’s school of government — a country club shrouded in academia.
Elizabeth Holmes promised her board, her investors, and her employees that they would change the world. It’s the underlying premise of the Kennedy School’s mission to do just that. However, the lack of rigor at HKS, at least for its flagship MPP program, is an open secret. While Theranos is accused of criminal conduct, the Kennedy School remains a well-regarded institution. The scale of deceit may be meaningfully different, but these houses of cards share alarmingly similar tactics. Just as Theranos churned out fake blood tests, HKS churns out lofty credentials without merit.
First, Holmes stacked her board with political heavyweights like former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense General James Mattis. This lent her credibility as a young college dropout trying to build a blood empire. At the Kennedy School, we have another former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. The legitimizing effect is similar for a relatively nascent graduate school, when compared to other types of graduate programs founded in the 1800s. Despite this high-profile veneer, many Kennedy School professors are not remotely comparable to the established academic field-leaders affiliated with Harvard’s esteemed, centuries-old Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Second, Holmes refused to release data that would have exposed her early on, saying that the “Edison” machine, Theranos’s main blood-testing innovation, could not be judged by or held to industry standards. It was in a class of its own. The Kennedy School seems to make the same argument, refusing to allow anyone to peg their MPP program to other similar or substitute graduate programs. HKS does not publish, for example, the average GRE/GMAT scores or the GPA break-downs of admitted students. Most top law schools and business schools provide this information in great detail. While test scores and GPA are certainly only part of a larger picture, it’s concerning that the Kennedy School chooses not to be transparent about these metrics. After all, if these metrics reflected well on the HKS MPP class, it’s hard to believe they would not be publicized. Ultimately, it was data that showed the Edison to be a scam that helped contribute to Theranos’s downfall.
Third, when Holmes realized the Edison simply couldn’t perform, she began running blood tests on her competitor’s machines and using that output to provide clients with their results. After a year in the MPP program — a surface-level exposure to topics like economics, statistics, ethics, and more — we finally spent the last few weeks in a policy analysis class advertised to us as intensive. The entire policy analysis framework taught in the course was written and designed by Eugene Bardach, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. This is no small thing for those who understand the, at times even petty, lengths schools like Harvard go to emphasize their dominance over an academic field.
Customers used Theranos’s blood tests to make critically important decisions about their healthcare. The inaccuracy of the tests led some to make life-altering, harmful, decisions. Employers, voters, and prospective students take signals from Harvard credentials to make decisions about policy and leadership. Local governments hire HKS alumni expecting that the MPP credential holds a certain merit. In reality, from my experience, most students come from dissimilar academic backgrounds compared to adjacent graduate programs, complete AP-level coursework, and get rubber-stamped as policy leaders for completing a program where anything below a B- is failing — and, to my knowledge, almost nobody fails. As we experience a global leadership crisis, it’s important the public not rely on Harvard’s MPP program until the school commits to higher standards of vetting and rigor.
Kaivan K. Shroff is a fourth-year joint-degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School.
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