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Romney and Harvard program put new spin on '60s higher ed

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

September 13, 2012

Higher education of the 1960s usually brings to mind student rebellion and campus unrest. Berkeley and Mario Savio are often invoked to symbolize the era of colleges and the counterculture.  But this is distorted because it is incomplete. Why not have a collective student memory that includes Mitt as well as Mario?

This seems counterintuitive to the counterculture  -- but only because we have overlooked all the innovations that were taking place on American campuses in these tumultuous years. I want to make the case to add seats on the historical stage of higher education – especially with the upcoming November presidential election. 

To truly understand the long-term legacy of the 1960s, we need to include Harvard’s Joint M.B.A. and J.D. program as the institution -- and its famous alumnus, Mitt Romney, as the individual – that also are part of the higher education lyrics when boomers are “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.”

Scott McKenzie attracted a lot of listeners in 1967 when he sang, “If you come to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair....” Mitt Romney, however, was not listening and went in a different direction – politically and geographically. In 1969 he left San Francisco (well, Stanford and Palo Alto) and -- after a detour to France -- headed east to graduate school at Harvard for its brand-new joint M.B.A./ J.D. program, which was founded that year. The rest is history -- and no less than the higher education of perhaps our next president.

Put aside such artifacts as Steven Kelman’s memoir about student protest at Harvard in 1969-70 in his book, Push Comes to Shove. Forget James Simon Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement and its provocative subtitle, “Notes of a College Revolutionary.” Above all, suspend from memory the images of Harvard first-year law students as depicted in Hollywood’s The Paper Chase. It’s time to reconstruct the early years of Harvard’s joint M.B.A./J.D. program and its students, which were a powerful, albeit low-profile counter to the counterculture.

Harvard’s joint program brings to mind the academic equivalent of epoxy cement -- two ingredients (law school and business school) each of which is rigorous in its own right, and when mixed, create an incredibly hard bond -- probably impervious to broad humane or societal considerations. Two articles over the past six months in the New York Times provide some insights into both the joint program and into Romney as a graduate student: Jodi Kantor’s “At Harvard, A Master’s in Problem Solving,” and Peter Lattmann and Richard Perez-Pena's “Romney, at Harvard, Merged Two Worlds.”

As Lattmann and Perez-Pena wrote: “One of the most exclusive clubs in academe is a Harvard University dual-degree program allowing graduate students to attend its law and business schools simultaneously, cramming five years of education into four. On average, about 12 people per year have completed the program — the overachievers of the overachievers — including a striking number of big names in finance, industry, law and government.  ...In addition to Mr. Romney, founder of Bain Capital, the roughly 500 graduates include Bruce Wasserstein, who led the investment bank Lazard until he died in 2009; leaders of multibillion-dollar hedge fund and private equity firms like Canyon Capital Advisors, Silver Lake Partners and Crestview Partners; high-ranking executives at banks like Citigroup and Credit Suisse; C. James Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company; and Theodore V. Wells Jr., one of the nation’s top trial lawyers.”

No doubt these graduate students were smart and worked hard. Beyond that, it’s important to note some characteristics that accompanied this program and its work ethic. First, the formal curriculum pulled inward rather than outward.

Second, Romney as a student in the joint program tended to screen out external events as distractions. According to Kantor, “And unlike Barack Obama, who attended Harvard Law School more than a decade later, Mr. Romney was not someone who fundamentally questioned how the world worked or talked much about social or policy topics. Though the campus pulsed with emotionally charged political issues, none more urgent than the Vietnam War, Mr. Romney somehow managed to avoid them.” Kantor reinforces this depiction by quoting one of Romney’s law school study partners, who recalled, “Mitt’s attitude was to work very hard in mastering the materials and not to be diverted by political or social issues that were not relevant to what we were doing.”

The program pushed toward intensive insularity using the case study pedagogy that relied on no books or contextual sources – all at a time when genuine interdisciplinary, broad perspectives were finding some breathing space in prestigious professional schools elsewhere.  It’s too bad for the education of future business (and political) leaders that the joint program that started in 1969  did not consider the very different perspective offered by Earl Cheit, professor (and later, dean) of the business school at the University of California at Berkeley.  In 1964, with support from the Ford Foundation, Cheit invited five scholars outside the field of business to join him in conducting a workshop that for the first time brought together business school professors with others to explore and preserve “the connection between the intellectual adventure and the business adventure.”

What a contrast to the Harvard Business School’s case study approach! Cheit’s Ford Foundation program at Berkeley featured, first as talks and later as readings, a cornucopia of ideas and issues, led off by the economist Robert L. Heilbroner’s “View From the Top: Reflections on a changing business ideology.” John William Ward, historian and president of Amherst College, spoke about “The Ideal of Individualism and the Reality of Organization.”

Henry Nash Smith of Berkeley’s English Department discussed businessmen in American fiction in the “Search for a Capitalist Hero.” Historian Richard Hofstadter asked, “What happened to the Anti-Trust Movement?” The economists Paul Samuelson and Cheit himself analyzed changing roles of business in how managers cultivate social responsibility – and how American society balanced personal freedoms and economic freedoms in a mixed economy.” Guest speakers from France and Belgium provided American businessmen with perspectives on business in Europe.

Cheit’s knowledgeable involvement in exploring the past and future of higher education did not stop with this Ford Foundation business program. In 1974-75 he sought (and received) permission to teach a graduate course in the School of Education – one  in which he explored how it was that professional schools of business, agriculture, forestry, and engineering came to have a place in the American university. The course content and topic were so novel that it led to publication of a book by the Carnegie Commission, The Useful Arts and the Liberal Tradition

Once again, it showed that an intellectual and administrative leader in the business school could look outward within the multi-versity and reach outward to the larger society and the economy by complicating the questions rather than doggedly seeking to solve business problems. Cheit also was one of the leading economists to sound an alert to the deteriorating financial condition of the nation’s colleges and universities in his 1971 book on higher education’s “new depression.”

In contrast, what were the aims and goals of the Harvard joint program? One observation provided by NYT reporters is revealing: “But former students and professors say it makes sense that a group of overachievers would be drawn to financial markets, a hypercompetitive field with the promise of immense riches.”

Really? Why were these overachievers necessarily confined to these goals?  What if the teaching and discussion had included some consideration of ethics, public good, and social responsibility – along with pursuit of individual prosperity?  It’s important to remember that there were good alternatives.  For example, Cheit’s Berkeley approach with the Ford Foundation project was to create curiosity, exploration and reasonable doubt about our national obsession with business.  

The Harvard joint program, especially its business school component, emphasized the sharpening of decision-making tools, especially in finance.  Each, of course, has their place. But if a concern of a university is to ask, “Knowledge for what?,” it is Cheit’s Berkeley model more than Harvard’s joint program that is sorely needed for the thoughtful leadership, whether in business or politics, required for the early 21st century.  I’ll be thinking about that on my way to the polls on Election Day in November.

Bio

John R. Thelin is a professor at the University of Kentucky.  He was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley from 1969 to 1974. He is author of A History of American Higher Education (2011).

 

 

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