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Elites Occupying Elites
The sabotage of investment bank recruiting sessions by Ivy League students marks a shift in the protest movement, but it's not one without precedent.
Most students involved in the Occupy movement can’t just pick up and leave for Wall Street. So some at elite colleges have been letting Wall Street come to them. Taking advantage of their special access to investment banking firms such as JP Morgan-Chase and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which have long sought employees from those campuses (and been eagerly received), Ivy League students crashed a handful of December recruiting sessions, leading the firms to cancel other scheduled visits, and making for some seriously awkward first impressions.
Unsurprisingly, the incidents got a lot of attention on campuses – even when the job market isn’t dismal, finance recruitment sessions are major networking opportunities for elite students. The tactic also marked a shift, however small, for the college Occupy movement, which up to this point had primarily targeted either their institutions or Wall Street as a whole. And while some non-occupiers may have found those rallies annoying, they didn’t disrupt valuable job-seeking time.
But the strategy of going after job recruiters is rooted in history – during the Vietnam War, for instance, students protested the Dow Chemical Company and others who produced supplies. And scholars say that yet again, it has raised questions about the moral responsibilities of universities and those they enroll, while spotlighting the unique role elite students can play in social movements.
“I don’t get the sense that they’re trying to build a consensus on campus about these firms so much as raise awareness of their own criticisms,” said Angus Johnston, a student activism historian and adjunct assistant history professor at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College. “I think that it’s a reflection of an awareness as students at these elite universities, that there’s an intimacy to their relationships with these powerful institutions. And they’re trying to figure out what to do with that access, what to do with the influence they have and how to deploy what power they have.”
Goldman Sachs canceled (or turned into webinars) sessions at Harvard and Brown Universities after a group of Harvard students, who had been barred from a previous recruitment meeting because of their clothes and lack of résumés, hovered outside the meeting room, chanting.
It served as a valuable lesson to 18 Princeton students, who, dressed in suits with résumés in hand, got into a Dec. 7 JP Morgan-Chase session unnoticed. But in a “mic check” – in which the entire group repeats one person’s speech, shouting line by line, to reach more people without a microphone – they put the recruiters on the spot.
“Princeton’s motto is: in the nation’s service, and in the service of all nations,” the students recited, to the clear surprise and discomfort of a handful of recruiters. “JP Morgan, your actions violate our motto. Your predatory lending practices helped crash our economy. We bailed out your executives’ bonuses. You evict struggling homeowners while taking their tax money. You support mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, which destroys our ecological future. In light of these actions, we protest the campus culture that whitewashes the crooked dealings of Wall Street as a prestigious career path. We are here today as a voice for the 99 percent, shut out by a system that punishes them just for being born without privilege. What we need is not a university for the 1 percent, but a university in the nation’s service, and in the service of all nations.”
The students then promptly picked up and walked out, leaving about half the classroom desks empty.
Their second attempt, the following night at a Goldman Sachs session in a Princeton lecture hall, was met with slightly more resistance – at least one student who was there for the session yelled at the protesters to “shut up already.” (That night, in fact, the protesters included a special message for those students: telling them they could do better for themselves and society, and their “talents will be wasted” if all the best and brightest go to Wall Street. The Dec. 8 mic check clocked in at close to four minutes, about double that of the previous evening.)
The protesters faced some pushback from peers who weren't directly affected by their actions, too. The Harvard Crimson editorialized in defense of students seeking employment at Goldman Sachs, as well as (somewhat ambivalently) the firm itself. "It would be convenient if we could easily paint Goldman Sachs as the evil enemy of the 99 percent, but it's more complicated than that," the editorial board wrote. "To exhort students to consider their contribution to society when choosing a career is one thing, but to target those who want to work for Goldman Sachs misses the point; whatever negative impact the company has on our economy is due to structural issues rather than questions of individual morality. Deterring a couple dozen Harvard students from working at Goldman will not change income inequality nor will it create a more equitable society. Goldman will just hire the next people in line."
Many commenters on The Daily Princetonian, meanwhile, called the protesters childish and rude, and called them out for targeting a demographic that includes many of Princeton's donors. "Drop out of Princeton and enroll in a publicly funded university. Otherwise, you are complaining about the ultra-rich at the same time as you are suckling from their teat," one person wrote. Another said, "Fellow students -- nobody stands in your way. Go build something.... You are only limited by your capabilities, not the system, sorry."
Princeton isn’t aware of any changes to future recruiting events or of any waning interest from students considering jobs at such firms, said a university spokesman, Martin A. Mbugua. Dozens of employers representing more than 40 companies host information sessions every semester, he said, and university regulations dictate that “students are free to express themselves as long as they do not disrupt events to the extent that the event could not proceed, or prevent others from participating.”
Rakesh Khurana, a professor of leadership development at Harvard who just wrapped up a case study on Occupy Wall Street, lives in one of the university residence halls and has spoken with students at length about the movement. (There, interest in finance careers has been on the downturn since the recession began in 2007, according to a Harvard Crimson survey; 20.7 percent of graduating seniors last year planned to enter finance and consulting, marking the first year the sector was not the top choice among students.)
“There’s a sense among students who easily could feel entitled that they have a responsibility to society, as leaders, to improve that society, and that right now for many people that society doesn’t seem to be working,” Khurana said, adding that the number of students interested in solving the world’s problems – environmental, economic, social – is “amazing.” “I think what we have to do as an institution is to make it easier for students to see the path by which they can do that. We haven’t created, in many ways, the clarity of the career paths in which you get to go do those things.”
Khurana explored these themes in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession, asserting that, having strayed from their original intent to create management as a profession in which an individual used knowledge to advance societal interests, business schools have lost their direction. But top business schools that attract applicants who will get good jobs still have motivation to change, Khurana said in a 2007 interview with Inside Higher Ed – precisely because of the grievances aired at the recruiting sessions. “There seems to be a growing sense among students, faculty and administrators that business education needs to change and that business itself may be at an inflection point with respect to its societal responsibilities,” Khurana said at the time.
So which businesses are deserving of the students’ ire? Khurana says they can tell the difference between a Steve Jobs and a JP Morgan. “In the minds of a lot of the protesters, there was a very clear distinction between the kind of business that he was doing and what banks did and what the financial service industry is doing.”
In their second mic check, the Princeton students mentioned how Occupiers and non-Occupiers alike laugh about going "to the dark side," and making fun of investment firms' rich executives. But if people keep confronting the firms in this way, students might start taking those jokes more seriously, Johnston said.
"If taking these jobs comes to be seen as sort of ethically disreputable, that's a shift that's going to affect the choices that students make," he said. "If you are embarrassed to admit that you're going to go to work for one of these firms, that's an argument against picking that kind of a job. I think that that was a cultural shift you saw in the 1960s, where in 1957 if you said you were going to go work for Dow, that was a very exciting thing. But if in 1969 you said you were going to work for Dow, that made you a persona non grata in a lot of circles."
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