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Is a Consulting Job Ever Just a Job?

By Riya Sood, Crimson Opinion Writer
Riya Sood ’20 is a Statistics concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

A shining bastion for Harvard students has been tarnished this past week.

One might think that I am referring to the graduate students being on strike. Or the fire that temporarily closed down Border Cafe. Or the separate fire that burned part of Emerson Hall. But no, I am referring to something near and dear to the hearts of many Harvard students — the revelation that the consulting firm McKinsey & Company advised Immigration and Customs Enforcement on how to best save money in its border detention facilities.

And one cannot underestimate how many Harvard students actually will be working at McKinsey or adjacent firms. Based on The Crimson’s Class of 2019 survey, a plurality of the students who plan on working right after graduation — 18 percent — will be working in consulting. For comparison, this is the same amount of students who will be working in government, politics, public service, nonprofit, academia, or research combined.

Obviously, Harvard is the bastion of do-gooders and citizen-leaders that everyone believes it to be. Maybe all of these people plan on being the next Pete P.M. Buttigieg ’04 — they’ll go work at McKinsey, move to the Midwest, and then run for president!

Thus, this tarnishing of McKinsey, being the “best” of the consulting firms, is one that might force Harvard students to contemplate their entire existence. Because what is one’s self-worth if it isn’t entirely based on one’s post-graduate job?

If McKinsey is not helping ICE save money at the expense of humans’ living conditions, then how will all the consultants afford all of their expensed meals, free flights, and essential Patagonias? At this point, we should wonder what McKinsey will advise its next client of Customs and Border Protection in exchange for a $10 million fee. Maybe it will be faster and cheaper to not inspect cargo from European countries. Does it really matter if a few people might be put in danger in the process?

Clearly, we should be thanking McKinsey for doing us such a service and advising our government on how to best implement its policies!

As much as most people will be willing to admit that what McKinsey did in this situation is wrong, it seems unlikely that many, if any, Harvard students will look into changing their post-graduate plans or career goals due to this exposé. Because at this point, they have perfected the lies that they tell themselves.

Of course this is in no way their fault. For those working at McKinsey, they would never agree to work on such a case. Besides, the students who will end up working at these firms are just trying to gain job experience! They are not responsible for the concerning things that take place in these companies while they are just gaining their skills. And in all honesty, there are probably very few young McKinsey analysts who knew about the ICE engagement at all.

But at some point, we must acknowledge that being a bystander is not a positive thing. Maybe as we seniors go into the workforce, we cannot find a perfect firm, and thus we cannot be scared off by every flaw that an organization has. (Bain & Company also had a controversial engagement with South Africa to the point that they have been accused of facilitating improper political conduct, helping then-President Jacob Zuma avoid taxes, and — possibly the most egregious concern for a Harvard student — giving bad advice.) Does that mean, though, that we should just not bat an eye at even the most egregious of problems?

At some point, maybe students do have to take a step back and wonder: Even if their actions have no effect on their firm’s decisions, they still do not want to remain complicit. If people are willing to forgo working in any government-related agency during the Trump administration, whether or not the agency is affected by Trump policies, then why is this situation so different?

Hopefully one day, Harvard students will look around and realize that they should pursue more careers in government, public service, and academia instead of consulting.

Because, really, could even McKinsey make the case that the most socially beneficial thing for Harvard students to do after graduation is to go into consulting?

Riya Sood ’20 is a Statistics concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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