Harvard Creates Managers Instead of Elites

Kelly Sikkema/Harvard University

I walked alone into the Sheraton Hotel with fifteen resumes in a folder tucked under my arm and a dim sense of dread, ready to confront the Harvard Business & Technology Career Fair. The resumes were probably unnecessary. I was only a sophomore, but gnawing uncertainty about my career direction compelled me to browse my options for the future.

“Hi!” A recruiter popped up next to me as I pressed my name tag to my chest. “Do you have any questions for us?” She held out a flyer and a free branded water bottle to me, and I stifled the urge to draw back.

The flyer read, “We are a leading global professional services firm providing a broad range of risk, retirement and health solutions.” A description that failed to summon any enthusiasm. I flailed. “Yeah, what intern roles do you have available?”

This is an exchange that I have enacted countless times: mustering polite interest in the same few companies with almost identical—frankly, uninteresting—job descriptions that recur at these fairs. With few serious opportunities to understand or plan my future, I spent too many Friday afternoons as an underclassman drifting past the booths of consulting companies, skimming pamphlets, and watching upperclassmen flawlessly feign interest in vacuum-cleaner design. Was I totally mistaken about my future after attending this school? Is this really what people end up doing, or is everyone here just play-acting?

To attend Harvard is to join a community which provides generational continuity among American elites. It carries an institutional lineage older than the republic and teacher–student ties that continue across generations. Those aspiring to the highest rungs of politics, business, or other pursuits can learn from people who have shaped America and the world. For those born to influential families, it’s something like an entry into public life; for the newly ascendant, it’s a chance to learn how the classes and institutions of America’s elite really function. Some of these rising stars end up disrupting, reforming, and leading those institutions, as with former students like Henry Kissinger and Mark Zuckerberg. At least, that’s the mythos of Harvard.

Based on that mythos, promising kids attend the most prestigious and wealthy university in the world every year. They are told that they can and should make a meaningful social impact afterwards. They spend years reaching for the frontier of knowledge, learning all they can from professors who are acclaimed as some of the leading erudites in America and the world. Yet a full 45% of my class of 2020 is heading into consulting or finance after graduation, consistent with previous years.

The mythos promises a meaningful education for students bestowed with both elite privilege and elite responsibility. The reality is more complicated.

The Role of The Elite

The existence of elites is inevitable. Power naturally concentrates in the hands of a few in any society. Even communist regimes, which had great ambitions to abolish bourgeois and aristocratic privileges, merely succeeded in modest elite circulation—with party leaders becoming the first among the new elite. There will always be some leadership class that possesses disproportionate power. The pressing question becomes: what should the role of elites in society be? What should they do?

After World War II left the public and academics dissatisfied with classic Machiavellian philosophies of power, theories on pluralist functional elites began to proliferate. Rather than the idea of a unified ruling elite, they advance the idea that modern elites are heterogeneous, functional groups. Princeton sociologist Suzanne Keller suggested that what she terms “strategic elites” should be responsible, effective minorities entrusted with efficiently manifesting society’s primary goals and bringing stability to the social order. They are functionally specialized executants.

Keller stated that society depends on “the skills and the vision—and humanity—of the strategic elites.” Of course, more cynical analyses of elites conclude that they are wealthy titans concerned merely with the perpetuation of their own power. Still, there must be a concerted effort to produce the strategic, functional elites of Keller’s vision, or for any other vision of positive eliteness, since the elite will always be with us. Harvard should be a key training-ground for such people.

Today, drastic decreases in upward income mobility—from 90% for those born in 1940 to 50% for those born in the 1980s—put the American Dream in doubt. The various crises of 2020 have wrought significant social, political, and economic uncertainty, compounding long-standing negative trends. American society is in desperate need of thoughtful innovators and guardians who are willing and able to take personal risks.

Harvard would seem an ideal place to train such people. The career insurance that a crimson-lettered degree provides should liberate us privileged students to take the leaps that others can only dream of. The liberal arts educational framework, which only a minority of American college students have the opportunity to experience, should endow us with the intellectual and historical literacy, the critical judgement, and the ethical responsibility required to shape leaders invested in the public good.

Perhaps most importantly, Harvard students cannot and do not avoid being bestowed disproportionate power—regardless of how egalitarian they might feel themselves to be. Harvard has for centuries cultivated those ending up in seats of influence and played a role in their success or failure in fulfilling their duties. The development of the privileged youth occurring within the red-brick buildings of Cambridge, Massachusetts, is thus of unavoidable consequence to everyone.

Fortunately, the admissions office intentionally admits students who want to be strategic, functional elites, saying yes to those with magnificent dreams and the talent to back them up. I, and many others I know, confidently promised my interviewer that I wasn’t sure how exactly, but I wanted to make a difference to the world. And they wanted me for it.

Even if you aren’t wholly convinced of such a calling, the cream-colored acceptance letter will authoritatively inform you that your destiny involves making important contributions. You binge-watch commencement speeches over the summer in anticipation; the solemn voices compel graduates to bend the arc of history with purpose and bear the weight of the world with grace. You’ll struggle, but you’ll ultimately succeed, they say, as the crimson banners flutter. It has been decided.

Harvard looks for aspirational dreamers wanting to contribute, tells them to do so, and plies them with endless opportunity and resources. Their graduates should overwhelmingly be the confident leaders with a strong sense of noblesse oblige that they claim to produce.

Yet the lack of meaningful guidance and substantive vision, the insular bubble students live in, and the nudges towards marginal optimization kill innovative, interesting, and socially beneficial ambition. This molds the supposed rising strategic elite into the mindset of an upper-middle class striver. This acquisitive-striver mindset is worlds apart from the idealized noble sensibility—to the detriment of American culture at large.

Gaslighting As Recruitment Strategy

It’s clear that any noble mission of Harvard’s has been sidelined by employers. Hawkish recruiters are everywhere, and they know the game. There is a reason employers pay through the nose for a table at one of these fairs. Simply by virtue of showing up, implicitly endorsed by Harvard, students will fall over themselves to get that first-round interview and contort themselves into whatever they believe to be the ideal candidate. We’re naive and uncertain about our own futures, so we go for the school-validated options. Companies exploit this psychology to the fullest.

Campus interviews, career fairs, and workshops repeatedly highlight the same companies with deep pockets for recruiting staff. Plenty of these firms aren’t naturally attractive, and that’s why they pay so much money for professional convincers to coax students towards marketing fast-moving consumer goods. Students don’t question what we are missing out on. It’s extremely clear which jobs and companies mean that you’ve made it.

This careful and professional curation of future opportunities telescopes our worldview. Employer tactics amplify student myopia and anxieties to keep the talent funnel going steady. I know peers who have dealt with “exploding” offers that expire after 48 hours, and been pressured to sign offers in ways that carry a whiff of gaslighting. “This is the best you can get,” students are told.

One friend in investment banking recounted that she was forced to send a written promise that she’d accept the firm’s offer before they’d even extend the offer in writing. “I don’t even know what is legal in this industry,” my friend admitted. “I couldn’t back out or even negotiate any terms.” She knew it was unethical, but she also knew that she would accept anyway.

The problem is that Harvard students live in a self-reinforcing bubble. People keep to themselves and recycle the same narratives until rumors are amplified into accepted truth. “Well, I know that consulting will give me optionality,” a freshman told me authoritatively over lunch, even though she wasn’t too clear on what consulting was, or whether that optionality would be useful.

Rather than expand our knowledge network to critical outside sources, students frequently advise each other. Juniors will go to seniors for where to apply for internships and miss out on longer term insight from older alumni. The bubble is self-reinforcing because we think that we’re smart and have top pickings, and so we become complacent with inadequate sources. It leaves us ripe for manipulation by firms that present themselves as the ultimate objects of desire.

The psychological effects of the same companies showing up at all the job fairs to coax students creates at-the-margins competition and a limited definition of success. How do Harvard students set themselves apart from other Harvard students reared in the exact same environment? It’ll be the extra few tenths on your GPA, or a slightly more prestigious leadership position.

Instead of truly doing what we’d like, we obsess over ways to edge ahead of peers. The heated debate over Harvard’s decision to remove letter grades for all courses in Spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic revealed how much some students cared about opportunities to bump up their GPA at the cost of peers who have found themselves in difficult situations—without internet, in unstable homes, and so on. We all have tales of caustic political warfare over extracurricular leadership positions between students who have each envisioned themselves as the top dog since pre-frosh days.

The Pavlovian response of racking up points at the margin sets students up perfectly for careers as mid-level managers looking for small wins, laser-focused on keeping the books balanced. Not only does marginal thinking mean that the American elite trained this way don’t have their eye on the bigger picture, but it makes them more risk-averse and conservative. We learn to bias towards leveraging what we have done in the past, instead of creating a new and better future. Risk aversion feeds back into the system—the managers go on to exclusively recruit Ivy League seniors as provably safe hires, coming back to the same job fairs that defined their own fate. Nobody gets fired for hiring from Harvard.

Such painstaking collection of minor advantages and A grades is hardly good character formation for the individual, let alone elite graduates with immense opportunity, leverage, and perhaps the best chance of fulfilling grand visions of any group of students.

Like the rest of the country, Harvard graduates are competing for the chance to take responsibility for increasingly tiny fragments of oversight, which doesn’t help much because fragmentation and division makes coordination around real goals a significant challenge. The emergent logic of the Harvard social structure leads to intensifying competition for a narrowing swath of jobs and companies. While strategic elites are heterogeneous and functionally differentiated, they still bear responsibility for their part in strengthening some communal vision of society, since effective cross-sector coordination is critical for social cohesion and fixing macro-level problems.

Ideally, a liberal arts education should help provide that holistic understanding which students would carry into more specialized careers; yet Harvard is creating elites who are forged by years of cut-throat individualism and myopia, making the kind of larger-scale cooperation necessary to address the widest and most important societal ailments much more difficult. They know how to rhetorically brand themselves as being guided by a passion to transform the world, but not how to act on it—and especially not together.

Harvard students remain some of the smartest and hardest-working people around, but a system with bad incentives ensures these traits will not be directed toward worthy goals. We end up competing for the same few jobs from firms that pay recruiters to sell us their vision of our future. Some employers use gaslighting tactics, others sweeten the deal with nice meals and signing bonuses—either way, students can’t seem to resist joining the steady corporate ranks. Risking regret, or social circle and parental disapproval, is deemed too much to bear.

With the appetite for risk extinguished, the social position and resources many Harvard graduates possess seem fated to stagnate, invested merely in the decreasing returns of another NGO internship or McKinsey job offer (and the leadership positions to get there). Those with the greatest opportunity to take unusual risks and attempt exceptional things are inculcated in a system which trains them to avoid such moves at all costs.

An Institutional Abdication of Responsibility

I only knew of two Harvard students before I attended. Both were from my hometown, and I consulted them on whether I should enroll. “If you’re not aggressively driven, it’s easy to get lost in the cracks here,” one warned. The other student frankly informed me that “there is support, but you really have to look for it.”

“Mother Harvard does not coddle her young” is an old aphorism at this school, which seems to advocate the benefits of self-sufficiency.

Another way of looking at it is that Harvard has abdicated its directive to guide students to achieve great things, instead cutting them loose under the brand of “independence.” This leaves self-interested employers to shape students to be tools in the hands of others, rather than agents in themselves. Since Harvard students tend to end up in positions of influence, the culture built here spills over into the rest of society. It plays a key role in cultivating the insecure striver ethos which diverts students from working towards more interesting goals.

The responsibility to provide accessible, institutionalized guidance on thinking about the future formally lies with the career services office. And yet, the Office of Career Services (OCS) has only one advisor for every 1000 undergraduates, and only about 40% make an advising appointment in a given year. Few students come away with positive reviews. “The one useful thing I ever got from OCS,” one friend reflected, “was a quiet room they offered me for my interview.”

The career services office dispatch the same conventional narratives we get elsewhere. Financial incentives to cater to moneyed employers are a likely factor—when 3,500 first-round interviews are conducted on campus yearly, the income stream from $250–$300 fees charged for each coffee chat and interview room is hard to ignore. Indeed, they advise employers to “execute a comprehensive advertising campaign.”

A lack of guidance pervades not just career services, but many other facets of this university, including curriculum selection. Many undergraduates pass through four years with merely half an hour of academic advising. Independence, when used as a substitute for direction and guidance, leaves a void of counsel that persuasive employers and inexperienced classmates are all too quick to fill. Without a clear vision and developmental guidance, students continue to be left with a fragmented and myopic picture of the opportunities before them.

Training a Managerial Class

Formal and informal student clubs are supposed to be a respite from the grind, avenues for rest and creativity. In these low-stakes environments, experimentation is finally possible. Or at least, that’s what we seek them out for.

In reality, few simple pastimes exist at Harvard. In sophomore year, I discovered that not even a casual short-story reading group can escape the pull of managerialism and image-consciousness.

Six of us were lounging on couches in Taylor’s living room, slicing little pieces of brie onto our crackers. Printed copies of Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph sat on our laps, but we’d long ago moved on from the purpose of our convention—discussing the short story of the week—to joking around as our glasses of wine gradually emptied themselves.

This was Goya: a short-story club (because no one has time for books in college) ideated over dinner at Café Sushi down the road, composed of a couple of close friends and acquaintances who quickly became close friends. It was one of the first social mini-worlds we’d been able to create for ourselves: nothing formal, imposed, or handed down to us. We devised the structure; we made the rules. We named ourselves after the Urdu word goya, which describes the suspension of disbelief that can occur, often through good storytelling.

“One of my friends is a really good artist and drew us this logo.” Taylor swipes through candidate logos on his phone, each featuring a stylized “G.” “We should get hats!” exclaims someone. “Yeah, and we should have a comp!”

A comp is the usual process that clubs at Harvard put you through when you want to join as a member. They’re usually lengthy, sometimes educational, and often exclusive. One particularly demanding comp experience I had for another group I joined involved scheduling hour-long meals with each of the 30 members, at the end of which I had to receive a unanimous vote to successfully join. On the other end of the effort spectrum, the radio station comp I underwent as a first-year student entailed little more than a few weeks of listening to underground punk, psychedelic, and math rock in a basement surrounded by jumbled piles of records.

The idea of instating a comp for our fledgling reading group was brought up lightly and never came to fruition (although I have to admit that we did order those hats). But briefly, it was not entirely a joke. Our informal short story club—really, a friend group—was sliding towards the structured, club-with-a-logo, club-with-a-hat, club-with-a-brand mode of existence that constitutes the default for social spaces and private passions at Harvard.

All social environments provide scripts for behavior, with varying degrees of explicitness. Some exist for good reason. Often they arise haphazardly as emergent properties, so we need to pay careful attention to these implicit signals embedded in our social environments and ensure that they aren’t leading to unwanted beliefs or behavior.

At Harvard, the implicit signal we receive every day is that everything requires a manager. Our extracurriculars, despite varying club names, mostly revolve around administrative work and sending emails. Emails soliciting donations, emails inviting speakers to a conference, emails publicizing your magazine launch with “FREE DONUTS” dominating the subject line. Granted, execution of mundane tasks is necessary for real work to be done. The skills of subtly bumping an unresponsive teammate, deftly achieving a friendly-but-professional tone, and creating Excel files worthy of a UI/UX designer will serve you well in corporate life.

But management is a means, not an end, and these are not the generative activities worthy of the Harvard price tag. Students flock to career-oriented campus organizations only to learn how to manage structures that already exist, or execute a task that others have done hundreds of times before. Very few clubs create a generative and imaginative vision for your future self at work, or for what you should be working on. Although this is the stated purpose of a Harvard liberal-arts education, campus culture has elevated managerialism above creation.

It is possible to teach people to do visionary, generative, and purpose-defining work. And as Harvard students, admitted for talent and ambition and placed in a position of elite privilege, we are the exact people one would expect to be taught this. But the Harvard social environment never teaches students what this generative part of reality looks like. This creates a managerial, not a transformative and strategic, elite.

What’s more, the hierarchical structures and comp processes ubiquitous here create an elite that prioritizes external validation above internally derived motivation. Arbitrary hierarchies abound at this school. The visibility of exclusive final clubs creates popularity tiers. Even administrators perpetuate needless hierarchies; they don’t just elect eligible students all at once to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society as other schools do. Rather, they stratify the election process to elect the extra-bright students in their junior spring, the second-best in senior fall, and the “merely bright” at graduation.

Of course, students despise the hoop-jumping and the sting of rejection. But that doesn’t mean they won’t comp or apply again, and, once their moral outrage is soothed by an acceptance letter, tend to perpetuate the same power dynamics they once condemned.

The result is a class that excels at being judged and excels at managing and executing defined tasks. But an elite bestowed with outsized power and responsibility must also pass judgment, and to define the ends for which means are managed. Strategic elites exist in a unique position; they have training, hard and soft forms of knowledge, and social support networks that let them operate at a scale and with an impact that is not possible for many people.

A vision for making the world better is admirable, but it’s only when you can work toward achieving it that this vision begins to bear fruit. And yet, we receive no training in doing so. Whatever this class that Harvard produces is, it is not a proper elite.

In Plato’s vocabulary, Harvard trains auxiliaries, not guardians.

Who Is Harvard Making?

Any Harvard student will tell you that coming here is humbling. In my first week here, I was paid to clean bathrooms—a humbling task in itself—during which I found out that my toilet-scrubbing buddy had already published two works of fiction. I’ve shared meals with 19-year-old professional race car drivers and ballet dancers who have started NGOs on the side. Campus is saturated with Intel science fair finalists and billionaires’ children.

Every overachieving kid needs a healthy dose of humility, which Harvard gladly provides. Even so, the detrimental side effect of such a chastening environment is that it’s easy to lose sight of real ambition. I began thinking that maybe it’s not my role to change the world. That’s the role of him, her, or them—all those who are smarter and more hard-working than I am. I constantly hear my classmates express their own feelings of inadequacy. These unproductive narratives, bolstered by the competitive atmosphere, creep in quietly and hide in your psyche.

Am I good enough for magnificent dreams? I wondered. Exclusivity, especially for its own sake, dampens ambition and adventure. I wasn’t sure whether my disheartened state was an illusion brought on by the jaded campus culture, or if my pie-in-the-sky ambitions were the illusions.

I also ran up against the difficulty of translating my naive good intentions into actionable logistics. I dabbled in teaching civics education to fourth graders, organizing social entrepreneurship initiatives, fossil-fuel divestment campaigns, and pro-bono coding projects. But face it—I was at Harvard, steeped in the perennial campus bubble, and not many of these things seemed to measurably affect “the real world.”

Part of the problem was that I was no longer connected to a community that I knew and was committed to. As students become uprooted from their homes, we lose significant agency to dedicate time to a community that we are responsible to and belong in. I felt increasingly disconnected from my home in New Zealand—more than twenty time zones away. I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of the place anymore.

Recently, I dug up an essay I wrote when I was trying to decide which university to attend. At the time, I was deeply immersed in the question of who I wanted to be in four years, which I felt was an important factor in deciding which institution to go to.

Why did I end up at Harvard? Who did I want it to help me become? At 18, my answer was: someone with character, who makes her presence felt in the world, who was independent but communal, and not self-absorbed. I wanted to find freedom from concerns of money and prestige in college, and didn’t doubt that this was possible at Harvard. It’s the ultimate symbol of validation; what more would I need? But considering the social, professional, and academic environment that I’ve been immersed in, I seem to have become more entangled in those trappings than I was before all this.

People back home are often much more ambitious about changing their part of the world than people at Harvard. At the end of sophomore year, I was awestruck at how many Auckland University kids I knew back in New Zealand were starting companies and social enterprises, creating maker spaces, pursuing art, running for council. Nonchalantly inventing their own rules—something Harvard kids don’t do.

We think we’ve achieved something greater, but talented students at lower-ranked schools are often freer and more fulfilled than we are by a long shot.

Overcoming Elite Stagnation

Harvard tells us that we should go forth and shape the world. But how are we being shaped for such a calling? The Dean of the College, Rakesh Khurana, reiterates to us that “Harvard is a transformative experience” so frequently that it’s a meme among undergraduates. Yet no one has gotten the message on what exactly we’re being transformed into. I doubt Rakesh himself knows.

No doubt, Harvard students become more independent, serious, self-focused, hard-working, and professional. But do we become more visionary, optimistic, generous, or fulfilled? In reality, an ambitious graduate is conditioned to become more narrow-minded, risk-averse, and manipulated by the prestige ladder of the institutional status quo. It’s one thing if the Harvard experience doesn’t significantly enhance student ambitions; it’s quite another if many graduates leave with newfound prestige and power, but feel deterred from previously magnificent dreams. It’s not because those dreams were wrong—many times, they received praise and acclaim, and maybe even tipped the balance for admission in the first place. But in the end, the structure grinds those dreams down. A Harvard graduate who changes the world has learned to buck the pressures around them, instead of being positively guided by their environment. The student body is reduced from a potential elite worthy of power or responsibility to mere seekers of status and comfort.

In effect, the system has stopped creating American elites altogether. If so, Harvard has failed in its institutional mission to educate “citizen-leaders.” In place of elite formation is a production line of professional strivers—albeit ones with relative wealth and a valuable social network. But this is no elite at all.

As Harvard is a microcosm for America’s upper classes, this has important implications. The fragmentation and myopia of Harvard graduates seem well-reflected in American legacy institutions more generally. Despite social conflict and material stagnation, both public and private institutions seem largely paralyzed. If shareholder demands are met and election cycles are won, America’s strategic elites seem largely unperturbed by the structural failures that surround them. While more recent institutions—like U.S. tech giants—seem to benefit from their founders’ visions and buck the trend for now, it’s hard to see how that will continue. What happens when Facebook or Amazon is run by a Harvard graduate who merely won the metrics game, instead of disrupting it?

All people rely on trusted guidance to shape personal decisions. Schools have been bestowed with that responsibility toward students. More than anything else, it’s what happens in these formative college years, and the attendant environmental, social, and psychological influences that really matter. It’s doubtful that even if the composition of the incoming class were drastically altered, the typical Harvard graduate would change.

Harvard has for centuries developed the privileged, highly educated youth of society who end up in seats of influence. Despite what the brochures claim, their current environment in itself cannot produce a generation of strategic elites able to lead effectively, define positive social goals, and fix decay.

Our institutions cannot continue forever to vaguely gesture at greatness without providing a more cohesive, convincing vision to aim towards, and the guidance to get there.

Perceptive students should recognize and actively confront the jarring discordance between the grand speeches we hear that cajole us to dream big and to use our privilege for a purpose greater than ourselves, and the fact that, every day, the campus environment teaches us to do the opposite. It is not enough to believe you will someday do great things because those are the praise-words you have received, or because you have a vague sense of your social responsibilities. Elite stagnation eventually corrupts the institutions built by earlier generations who were able to act on their goals and implement them. Without the training in how to build or improve the necessary institutions, those hopeful visions will never come to fruition.

Saffron Huang is a graduating senior at Harvard in Applied Mathematics and Government. She is currently working on various projects related to Chinese institutions, philosophy of technology, and AI. She can be found on Twitter at @saffronhuang.