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Business as Usual

How the elite university promotes McKinsey’s reputation as essentially benign

On-Campus Recruiting, or “OCR,” happened twice a year at the college I attended. During those several-week spans, my classmates began appearing on the brick-walked campus in suits instead of yoga pants, trading in their economics or philosophy or contemporary art textbooks for management consulting or finance case notes. I overheard panicked chats in cafes about which watch brands one should wear to an info session, what color ties or shoes or shirts were acceptable. While the famous business school rose like the Death Star from the center of campus, these recruits weren’t just business students or even econ majors, and though I spent those OCR periods griping about the influence of corporate culture on campus with my humanities and social science classmates, I inevitably discovered a few of my own had joined them.

A lot of people joked about selling out, going into consulting or finance instead of the other taken-for-granted postgrad choices, like tech start-ups or public relations. In the end, though, no one was really treated like a turncoat. As for McKinsey and Accenture and BCG, well, at least they weren’t Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase. No one seemed to understand what consulting was. When I asked classmates drafted into the industry, they’d tell me it was just about problem solving. They may have harbored dreams of being poets or teachers or politicians, but consultants were just there to smooth over technical hiccups, I was assured—and they’d make up to six figures to eventually pour into that graduate degree. Consulting was substanceless, form over content; a method, not an ideology. For high-achieving students with few metrics but success, it was a gold star.

The depoliticization of consulting works well for elite universities. High postgrad salaries feed both the prestige machine and their roster of donors. Humanities majors become unwitting conduits for corporate PR, reassuring each other—as career services reassures them—that the “critical thinking skills” they’re learning are as easily put to use on Wall Street as in a history paper. To frame consulting as nothing more than applied critical thinking is to take for granted the free-market logic that dictates its method. But my college administration was mostly vacant of significant political commitment, aside from platitudes that we’d all certainly change the world. They didn’t mention, of course, that changing the world could mean consulting corporations on how to more effectively detain immigrants or execute mass layoffs. Inside an institution where the humanities were accepted as inherently moral, consultancies’ hiring of humanities majors had to mean that the firms themselves were enlightened.

Consulting was substanceless, form over content; a method, not an ideology. For high-achieving students with few metrics but success, it was a gold star.

Right now, Pete Buttigieg can’t let us forget that he was one of those bright-eyed consultants, though he may eventually like us to. When he’s received flak for his work at McKinsey, he’s attempted to distance himself, reminding us that it was his first job out of college; it was also his only job, aside from his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and service in the Navy Reserve. Buttigeig’s former employer most recently came into the spotlight for its work with ICE: as ProPublica and the New York Times reported, McKinsey consultants recommended dramatic cost-saving measures that even ICE staff members worried were unjustified, given the “potential human cost.” Over the last two years, the Times has also reported on McKinsey’s work with the Saudi government. McKinsey has likely enabled some of the regime’s human rights violations: hundreds of McKinsey consultants work at various levels of the Saudi government, and they’ve produced reports that may have been used to target dissidents.

Domestically, Buttigieg himself worked on a McKinsey project for Blue Cross Blue Shield that preceded premium hikes and mass layoffs. He also worked on a project for a major Canadian supermarket chain at the same time as the chain participated in a later-revealed price-fixing scandal. Buttigieg denies his direct involvement in either of those incidents. But whether or not he doled out the advice that fueled those specific scandals, he knew who he was working with. Mass layoffs are a known fixture of McKinsey’s basic toolbox, as is increasing executive compensation.

What’s often lost in the rage over these individual incidents is the fact that the immiseration is built into the economic system that McKinsey propagates. McKinsey, like other management consultancies, and like elite education, helps to reproduce the neoliberal world order. Consultants frequently dispense the same advice for shaping corporations and governments alike: deregulate, downsize, outsource, maximize efficiency. That this is standard operating procedure is at the crux of Mayor Pete’s defense. It was just charts and spreadsheets; he didn’t make the rules. He justifies his work for, among other clients, insurance companies and the Department of Defense, by saying it was pure technocracy. That defense, though, elides the fact that the technocracy itself is sinister.

Buttigieg paints management consulting as an essentially benign methodology capable of being mismanaged. Yet management consultancies have been instrumental in the spread of austerity and neoliberalism worldwide. (This is, literally, textbook: Marc G. Baaji’s An Introduction to Management Consultancy notes that, nicknamed “agents of capitalism,” management consultancies “helped to spread the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, shareholder value management in Anglo-Saxon economies, and later in non Anglo-Saxon economies.”) McKinsey has offices in sixty-five countries on six continents. In the past, its recommendations for Latin America have included deregulating and strengthening the extractive industries; they suggest the “dismantling of regulations that reduce potential returns to productivity improvements.” The last forty years show the clear human toll of those measures: environmental destruction, rising inequality, forced displacement. The violence of McKinsey’s work with ICE or the Saudi government may be more apparent, but it’s not necessarily more harmful than, say, its market-driven recommendations for post-hurricane Puerto Rico. Management consultancies contribute to economic and structural dispossession internationally, harm that is less visible than the assistance they provide to the deportation machine. But it’s the world they’ve built that allows those violations to take place.

The public outrage over McKinsey’s contracts with ICE should reveal not that McKinsey is imprudent about its clientele, but the consequences of a global restructuring regime.

Outgoing presidents the world over can count on an emeritus role at an Ivy League university, so long as they touted free-market reforms in their tenure, regardless of their track record of serious human rights abuses. Higher education is invested in the neoliberal project. It’s built into the structure of the university, with its increased reliance on adjuncts, its treatment of students as consumers, its relationships with international governing bodies, its research for the military industrial complex—what academic and critical pedagogy theorist Henry Giroux calls the “corporatization” of the university, writing that market-driven values shape the university, from “confusing education with training” to “promoting a neoliberal logic that views schools as malls, students as consumers, and faculty as entrepreneurs.” Those who govern the elite university are often also governing the world: they take on roles as presidential advisors; they groom those who end up on Wall Street, at institutions like the IMF, or in consulting firms. Buttigieg himself is a candidate born of the neoliberal university. (Not only does his resume read like a fantasy concocted in an Ivy League career services office—from Harvard to Rhodes to McKinsey—but he’s also the child of two tenured professors.) For even the most idealistic students at these schools, politics comes down to an essentially depoliticized vision of “making a difference,” ideally through means-tested, profit-maximizing measures.

The public outrage over McKinsey’s contracts with ICE should reveal not that McKinsey is imprudent about its clientele, but the consequences of a global restructuring regime, wherein all institutions prioritize profit over human rights and democracy, from the university to the detention center. To justify McKinsey as essentially benign is to justify the violence of the current world order. It’s not just critical thinking and spreadsheets.