The Tensions of Occupying the Ivy League

Now that school-specific Occupy camps have popped up on all eight Ivy League campuses, the expected tension between the students who want to protest Wall Street and the students who want to work there is heating up.

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Now that school-specific Occupy camps have popped up on all eight Ivy League campuses, the expected tension between the students who want to protest Wall Street and the students who want to work there is heating up. On Thursday, both The Harvard Crimson and The Yale Daily News published opinion columns -- the Harvard one is a staff editorial, the Yale one penned by a future Wall Street worker -- slamming their respective campus activists for causing trouble. Similar items, both critical and commending, have popped up lately in the papers at Dartmouth, Cornell, Columbia, Penn, Princeton and, of course, Brown. We know we're playing into stereotypes with that last little jab, but even at the Ivy League's most lefty campus, students seem torn. "Occupiers see lack of campus engagement with Occupy," reads a recent headline at the Brown Daily Herald. Well, no duh. Careers in finance happen to be really popular among Ivy League students!

This has to be driving the admissions officers and career advisors crazy. On one side you've got a very vocal group of combative idealists, pitching tents in the quad and speaking out against the One Percent, who they believe represent the economic injustice that's ruining America. New York magazine even compared the protests to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s this week, adding authority to the idea that this unrest, the Occupy movement, could define a generation. On the other side, you've got the future elite, the aspiring One Percent. These kids worked their asses off to get into the nation's best schools, many of them with the hope that they might also secure a spot amongst the best paid workers in the world: the bankers, the hedge funders, the management consultants, the titans of industry. Some of those that have already secured their Wall Street jobs are defending their choices and scolded the angry 99 Percenters publicly. We're not sure if we want to call them brave, insensitive or just plain ill-advised.

Take this Yale senior, Eric Jones. Next year -- and we're quoting from his just published Yale Daily News column -- Eric "will be working at a major Wall Street firm" even though he was "raised by parents with socialist values" and supports "the social goals of national Occupy movement." Eric does not appreciate how the Occupy Yale protesters are attacking Wall Street:

Using rhetoric like "evil" and "crony" is irresponsible and refocuses the debate away from the real issues being supported by the national Occupy movement. It also implies a moral elitism which is disparaging to Yalies. These "cronies" are still people, our suitemates and family members, people who we love and respect. … Dialogue is needed. Abrasively shouting condescending remarks at students as they enter The Study is not. Nor is posing tilted questions at unsuspecting Morgan Stanley employees, or using bombastic rhetoric to gain national media attention.

The editorial board of The Harvard Crimson made a similar point about a group of Occupy Harvard protesters and Goldman Sachs recruiting:

Perhaps it is not ideal that so many of us go on to Wall Street, but targeting individuals looking at career options in this way is hardly the appropriate remedy. Many students who enter these fields are not the scions of banking families but rather hard-working students looking for a challenging job that lets them experience a newfound financial prosperity. 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.

We absolutely cannot disagree with Eric's point about the need for dialogue. Nor can we disagree that Goldman's recruiters dangling six-figure salares in front of 22-year-olds will continue to be a successful strategy. But that shouting and judging is sort of what it's come to, and it's happening all over the country. On a rare occasion when he spoke about the Occupy movement last month, President Obama (a Harvard man) described the sentiment as "broad-based frustration about how our financial system works." He continued, "I think part of people's frustrations, part of my frustration, was a lot of practices that should not have been allowed weren't necessarily against the law, but they had a huge destructive impact."

Here's an in-between solution: Let's encourage the smartest kids in the country to be regulators! Or judges! Both of those are certainly challenging jobs with good salaries. We won't even get into the point about how investment banks and consulting firms have a reputation for corrupting recruits into doing immoral things. (This M.I.T. student who turned down $16,000 to avoid signing a non-disclosure agreement so that he could make that point in his campus newspaper.) But if a student from a working class family is passionate about economics and really wants to be a banker, he should. In the meantime, all those bad words coming from the mouths of the boisterous Occupy protesters might leave an impression, but that's not a bad thing.

If there's something that both sides of the line -- the free market folks as well as socialists like Eric's parents -- it's that there could be better policing of the financial industry, even from the inside. This is the point that Jed Rakoff made in his landmark decision this week to reject a $285 million settlement offered by Citigroup that would've let the bank off the hook for fraud charges. Rakoff took a stand against letting Citigroup off the hook because it also meant that it didn't have to admit what it did wrong, and he scolded the Securities Exchange Commission for not demanding the truth. In his manifesto of a ruling he wrote: "In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers. Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found."

All of the protests in the northeast pitting the idealists against the future financial elite  seem to be succeeded in creating a similar dialogue to drill down into a pressing national issue. The protesters are protesting, and whether they'd accept the term or not, these op-ed columns are simply protests against the protests. Hooray for dialogue! Let's not tell anybody to sit down and shut up but rather continue to challenge the status quo, as Rakoff urges. Yes, that means disagree with each other. If Ivy League students want to go work on Wall Street after they graduate, they should. Maybe they'll remember the time their hippie classmate called them evil on the way to class and do their best to prove him wrong.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.