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Eight United States presidents, 22 Supreme Court justices, and 29 Massachusetts governors have one thing in common: the transformative experience of a Harvard education.
It is no secret that Harvard is a breeding ground for our nation’s, and the world's, budding political superstars. Our university is routinely one of the top-ranked schools for political science and its neighboring disciplines, and we maintain close ties with power players like the Kennedy and Obama families.
But while Harvard’s proximity to power might benefit the political aspirations of our affiliates, we ought to worry about its negative effects on democratic representation.
In an interview with The Crimson after University President Claudine Gay’s recent inauguration, Massachusetts Governor Maura T. Healey ’92 praised Harvard’s intellectual and social diversity when she was a student as useful preparation for leadership.
However, despite diversity in some aspects, a look at the makeup of our student body reveals a more homogenous reality. Based on current research, 67 percent of enrolled students come from the top 20 percent of the income distribution nationwide and around 30 percent of admits are athletes, legacies, and children of faculty or donors. Such statistics illustrate a glaring and uncomfortable truth about our institution: It provides an education by the elite and for the elite.
Even if an admitted student is not a part of the socioeconomic upper class upon enrolling, they are likely to join it when they leave. For example, in The Crimson’s senior survey of the College Class of 2023, over 50 percent of respondents on full financial aid reported that they would make more than $90,000 annually in their first post-graduation job, or more than $30,000 above the national average for recent college graduates. No matter one’s background entering Harvard, we all tend to leave as elites.
Given the high concentration of socioeconomic power held by Harvard alumni, one must begin to question whether or not our political overrepresentation is just, and whether our University’s affiliates in government are truly representative of the majority of the United States’ constituency.
At present, Harvard is at a crossroads regarding its role in fostering equity in our society, especially given its position as one of the world’s top ranked and richest universities. Between ongoing admissions debates and the commencement of Claudine Gay’s administration at the moment of affirmative action’s demise, Harvard has spent the past year publicly battling a tension between a facade of equity and diversity and an adherence to a status quo that favors the wealthy and otherwise hyper-privileged. Harvard’s allegiance to the powerful is exemplified by its persistent defense of donor and legacy preferences in admissions, as well as its gaudy rewards for individuals who donate to the University, no matter the nature of their individual impact.
Significant questioning of Harvard’s excessive influence in national, state, and municipal government probably won’t be led by its administration. Instead, it must begin with our choices as students and alumni. To engender a political electorate truly representative of the vast class and educational backgrounds of the United States, we must shift away from the traditional structures of power that typically benefit us as Harvard students.
It is time for Harvard affiliates to take the backseat in our pursuit of political leadership. That’s right: Harvard students should seek public office less often. Instead, students and alumni should dedicate more time to uplifting candidates and representatives who don’t have the privilege we share.
To be clear, I am not arguing that Harvard alumni have no place at all in government. Rather, Harvard students should use their positionality to advocate for the advancement of leaders from underrepresented class and educational backgrounds in American political leadership — candidates without bachelor’s degrees, candidates with a community college education, and candidates with working class jobs.
In other words, Harvard and its affiliates do not need to be front and center in political movements all the time.
As Harvard students, we enjoy a crimson-tinted gravitas that we can use to draw attention to a myriad of issues that do not require holding elected office to influence. In fact, many Harvard students enter this institution already having created immense political change within their communities without being elected to public office. Harvard students can and should still strive to continue the legacy of changemakers that came before us. But we do not need to be United States President, Speaker of the House, or Senate Majority Leader in order to do so.
Jasmine N. Wynn ’27 , a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Thayer Hall.
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