Columns, Opinions

Calvelli ’19: #BCG: Ban Consulting Groups

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, September 24, 2018

When fall dawns on campus, you’re sure to see two things: first years with lanyards around their necks and upperclassmen in business-casual-but-don’t-worry-I’m-still-chill outfits flocking in hordes to consulting recruiting events. The lanyards fade away with time and wisdom, but on-campus recruitment is here to stay. Consulting companies have spread through Brown like an invasive species, infiltrating our buildings and emails with an incessant drum of events and exhortations. This relentless recruiting is clearly effective, as the students who don’t want to work in consulting (or finance and technology) are becoming a rarer and rarer breed.

That doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to the limited future that consulting presents. In fact, the ubiquitous presence of consulting companies on campus undermines the spirit of the Open Curriculum. That spirit traces back to 1967, when Ira Magaziner ’69 and Elliot Maxwell ’68 wrote “Draft of a Working Paper for Education at Brown University,” the report that ignited the curricular revolution that Brunonians still benefit from today. The report details the values that should animate the Open Curriculum, but today, with many students seeing their education as a stepping stone to a lucrative consulting career, those values are under attack. To be responsible stewards of the freedoms that our intellectual predecessors fought for, we should ban consulting companies from recruiting on campus.

Brown students love to tout their peers’ independence, creativity and dedication to changing the world. These values harken back to a core tenet of the Magaziner-Maxwell report: that “education should be fundamentally an individually oriented process.” It argued that individualism was laudable, and that students would learn better and grow more as people if empowered to make their own choices.

Today, however, it would be nonsensical to suggest that the mobs of students kissing up to recruiters are doing so to foster a deep sense of individuality. Instead of the breadth of careers you’d expect from a purportedly intellectually diverse student body, the paths actually followed are all too similar. Among 2017 Brown graduates, there are as many students working in consulting and finance as there are in the entire nonprofit sector. Forty-two percent of the class of 2017 went into just three industries: consulting, finance and technology. There are more consultants than there are people working in environment and sustainability, community service and development, government and public policy and the arts combined.

Looking at this data, it seems disingenuous to claim Brown students are exercising independent, creative thought in their career choices. Beyond the data, it manifests in the reasons people proffer for wanting to be consultants. Ask your friends (or yourself) why they’re following this path, and many won’t have a thoughtful answer about their values and goals for the world. And I don’t think these people are being evasive, nor do I mean to insult them. Rather, I think the omnipresence of consulting firms on campus inhibits reflection on why a person genuinely would want to be a consultant, or anything else for that matter. The recruiting process transforms the process of finding a vocation into an exercise in following the crowd, normalizing conformity and discouraging critical thinking about the future. Amid the constant inundation of recruiting pitches, what students can see is that consulting is prestigious — a safe next step along the elite path they’ve been on since taking their first SAT prep classes.

The mad rush to help rich companies get richer obscures a search for employment animated by an independent quest for meaning and social fulfillment. That’s a grave consequence, one that Brown shouldn’t tolerate if it’s committed more to educating students than to building its future donor base by ensuring its graduates land lucrative careers.

This college-to-consulting corridor is another key way recruiting violates the spirit of the Open Curriculum. Magaziner and Maxwell warn of the onset of a “narrow professionalism,” a trend away from a liberal education emphasizing human flourishing and toward a parochial concern with job training. As they wrote, “human relevance is replaced by future practical relevance. For many students this leads to a deadening of the educational process. For many, narrow professionalism removes the possibility that there can be anything valuable in education other than professional training.”

If education is reduced to job training, it’s no surprise students flock to the most profitable careers. The admission office loves to tout how the open curriculum means classes are all populated with people passionate about the course material. In reality though, plenty of your classmates are in ECON 0710: “Financial Accounting” because they want to signal to a consulting firm that they know business.

Spending four years at an institution of higher learning only to use it to catapult yourself into the top decile of income earners as a baby-faced 22-year-old is the acme of narrow professionalism. Predetermining your job after a lucrative summer internship is the opposite of exploration — it’s an explicit rejection of the personal and intellectual openness that the open curriculum was designed to foster, that Brown is supposed to protect.

Whether by disincentivizing individualism or encouraging narrow professionalism, consulting firms’ presence on campus orients the motivations of students away from the high ideals of the open curriculum. Brown needs to end its complicity in the degradation of the educational atmosphere it claims to foster. To do so will require refusing to host consulting recruiting events on campus and ending the relentless publicization of consulting job opportunities.

Brown shouldn’t dictate to its students what they do after graduating. But Brown is not and does not claim to be a value-neutral institution. The University understands itself as having a public and institutional responsibility, and we should demand it live up to this ideal.

Brown’s values are most clear in its mission statement, which is worth reading: “The mission of Brown University is to serve the community, the nation and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”

As accomplished close readers, you’ll notice the statement does not say: “The mission of Brown University is to serve the interests of wealthy companies by encouraging its students to sell out in a spirit of greed and cynicism, and by preparing students to discharge the offices of life with fancy sounding jobs that perpetuate inequality and conformity.”

I, for one, am happy with the mission the way it is. It’s time Brown reaffirms its founding values by proclaiming that making PowerPoints for Fortune 500 companies is neither a “useful” nor a “reputable” way to lead a life.

Aidan Calvelli ’19 once applied to McKinsey in a state of deep sadness and confusion, but then felt like a sellout and turned down the interview. He can be reached at aidan_calvelli@brown.edu.

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