Anti-Wall Street Fervor on College Campuses Reflects a Lack of Vision

In a recent edition of the New York Times I read an article that I found both fascinating and disturbing. In “At Top Colleges, Anti-Wall St. Fervor Complicates Recruiting,” Kevin Roose describes the efforts of students in the Occupy Wall Street movement to keep their fellow students from interviewing for jobs in banking and finance. Here’s how the article begins:

College students seeking jobs on Wall Street have always had hurdles to overcome — grueling applications, endless rounds of interviews and fierce competition for the relatively few available spots at top firms.

This year’s Wall Street hopefuls have had a new force to contend with: the wrath of their peers.

Banks and hedge funds have long wooed undergraduates from elite colleges with lavish dinners, personalized e-mails and free trips to New York for interviews. It’s all part of an annual courtship ritual known as on-campus recruiting.

But this fall, the antibank animus of the Occupy Wall Street movement has seeped onto college campuses. At some schools, anger at big banks has turned the on-campus recruiting process into a crucible of controversy.

“I teach financial markets, and it’s a little like teaching R.O.T.C. during the Vietnam War,” said Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University. “You have this sense that something’s amiss.”

At leading universities, student newspapers are making a passionate case against working in finance. Some students are protesting in an effort to keep their classmates from interviewing with finance firms:

The new recruiting climate was on display at Yale in mid-November, when a group of Yale students turned a Morgan Stanley information session into a protest site. While their fellow students, clad in suits and clutching folders with résumés, filed into The Study at Yale, a local hotel, to learn more about the investment bank, a group of approximately 25 Yale undergraduates protested outside. They held signs and chanted slogans like “Take a stance, don’t go into finance” and “25 percent is too much talent spent” — a nod, protest organizers said, to the quarter of Yale graduates who typically take finance and management consulting jobs after graduation.

The effort by the OWS students seems to me sadly lacking in vision. Let’s assume for a moment that their critique of Wall Street is accurate, that greed has taken over, and that major change in needed in the whole system of banking and finance. So, how will this change take place? Should the “Occupy” crowd seek to actually occupy the positions in the financial firms, so that they might begin to make the changes that are require? How will these companies be transformed if not by people within them who have a different vision?

Harvard Business School from the air. Photo from WikiCommons.

Contrast the OWS effort with the MBA Oath movement that began at Harvard Business School (of all places!) a couple of years ago. According to the MBA Oath website, the movement’s mission is “to facilitate a widespread movement of MBAs who aim to lead in the interests of the greater good and who have committed to living out the principles articulated in the oath. The oath is a voluntary pledge for graduating MBAs and current MBAs to ‘create value responsibly and ethically.'” What began at Harvard in 2009 has now spread to business and finance graduates from over 250 schools throughout the world.

I’m not quite sure how the OWS folk would respond to the MBA Oath movement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are skeptical. For example, a member of the OWS group at Yale noted “that Yale students often go into finance expecting to leave after several years, but end up staying for their entire careers. “People are naïve about how addictive the money is going to be,” she said.

I think this student has a point. And I’m sure that some of those who signed the MBA Oath ended up putting aside their high ethical standards when they became possessed by Mammon. But, there are others who are seeking to bring change within the corporate and finance worlds by working on the inside.

Now, I am not suggesting that all the students who interview for corporate finance positions are doing so out of some commitment to the public good. Surely many have already been smitten by the mighty buck. But I find the vision of the students in the OWS movement to be sadly lacking. Why not use their extraordinary cultural power as students of the most elite universities in the world – the academic 1% – to work to bring transformation to the world of finance?

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  • William Lee Goff

         I do not share your view that Wall Street can be changed from the inside.  Large corporations and financial institutions have become so rich and corrupt that even the most ethical individuals who go to work for them are highly likely to participate in the corruption.  Those institutions have had an extremely corrosive impact on our economy.  They have advocated free market capitalism when they were doing well and bail-out socialism when their wildly excessive greed got them in trouble.  Since corporations are now persons as defined by the Supreme Court, there is no limit on how much they can influence (buy) elected government officials of whatever party.  I have no faith that the Federal Government or Wall Street insiders can change the system.  That’s why I am thankful for the OWS protesters who have dramatized the problem.  I am disappointed that these protesters have not always articulated a clear vision of how to change the system.  However, as I read history, major social changes rarely come from inside, but from those outside the system who take action to produce change.  For instance, Jesus did not become a part of the Temple system in Jerusalem in order to try to change policies which had turned worship of God into a business.  Instead he turned over the tables of the money changers.  That dramatic action, more than any other, lead the Temple establishment to join with the Roman government to execute Jesus.  Another example from history is how slavery was abolished in America.  Freedom for slaves did not happen because kind Christian plantation owners decided to liberate those they held in bondage.  It came from the actions of abolitionists (most of whom were Christians) and a devastating civil war.    
         I do not have a complete vision for how our American culture can become more just; but I do have one suggestion: all high school graduates should be required to give two years of service.  The service could be in the military, Peace Corps, or domestic non-profit organizations that serve the needs of people.  I think that someone who helped feed starving orphans in Africa or worked combating gang violence in American slums would be less likely later to worship Mammon in his or her career.
         Final thought: if the Mafia or a drug cartel or a high end brothel showed up on the campus of Harvard to recruit the best and brightest students, I think few would approve or suggest that these evil enterprises could be changed from the inside.

  • Anonymous

    Bill: Thanks for your comment. As always, you are a thoughtful person. I’m afraid you and I disagree on the potential for change to happen from within organizations. I wonder if you once believed that South Africa could only be changed be revolution, rather than reformation.

  • William Lee Goff

         Thanks for your kind words and perceptive response.  I think you know me well enough to know that I am not advocating civil war or violence.  My mention of the American Civil War was descriptive not prescriptive.  I am a proponent of non-violent social action.  Due to pervasiveness of sin, it usually takes some kind of outside force to bring positive social change.  I think it would be hard to find an historian who believes that civil rights for minorities would have come to America without the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the people who were willing to suffer to bring social justice to longsuffering minorities.  Evil social systems and the institutions which support and profit from them rarely change from within.  They change because of the impact of outside forces.
         South Africa is no exception.  I worked there in the summer of 1965 as a volunteer with an evangelistic organization called African Enterprise which was modeled after Billy Graham crusades.  So I experienced firsthand the degradation of apartheid.  I admit that I left that beautiful country with a feeling of dread that the evil of apartheid would not end without some kind of a bloody revolution.  So I was surprised and relieved when apartheid ended peacefully.
         However this doesn’t mean that the leaders of the South African government just decided out of the goodness of their hearts that it would be a good thing to abandon apartheid.  There were many influences inside and outside of the country and its government that led to that change. These influences included individuals such as Alan Paton (whom I met briefly in Pietermaritzburg), Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Robert Kennedy.  Groups which pushed to abolish apartheid include the African National Congress (Mandela’s group) as well as many church groups including African Enterprise.  The leadership of African Enterprise insisted that its evangelistic meetings were non-segregated.  (For my part I was happy to discover that all South Africans – black, white, and Indian – loved Americans and especially enjoyed our exotic accents.  In fact South Africa is the only place where I have been told that people liked my sermons because they enjoyed listening to my accent.  So in sermons, Bible studies and conversations I was able to advocate for an end to apartheid.)  In my view it was the vigorous work of many individuals and groups outside the South African government that finally brought an end to apartheid without a violent revolution or civil war.        
    I am not opposed to graduates of prestigious universities like UCLA going to work for Wall Street, but I think the end of the evil practices of many large financial institutions are more likely to come from citizens on the streets than employees in offices.

  • Anonymous

    Bill: You’re welcome. Yes, indeed. But my point is that if Desmond Tutu had not decided to work within the system, South Africa wouldn’t have become what it has become. People on the streets matter, but so do those who work within the “halls of power,” who can make substantial changes. People in the elite universities have an unusual opportunity to lead cultural change, but they need to leverage their opportunities.

  • C. Ehrlich

    A cost-benefit analysis would probably vindicate these protests as a great first step–and a step quite conducive to larger strategies and visions.    

  • Anonymous

    A first step in what direction?