Harward: The Consultant Trap

Jason Harward, Op-Ed Contributor

When assigning blame in the imperial administration, it’s fair to think first of those affiliated with the American military and its various private contractors, the ones who directly administer violence in the name of global order. Yet this answer ignores the people who determine that order in the first place. Say what you will about those in the armed forces, but they do not directly generate enough capital or have the requisite expertise to keep a system this vast and complex functioning. The people who do that don’t go to boot camp. They go to Northwestern and other elite universities, where they’re encouraged — in vague terms — to make something of themselves.

During the rat race that is collegiate career search, it’s difficult to step back and think about responsibility. It would seem counterproductive for NU students, alienated from any consequential decision-making, to take responsibility for the forces that inflate Western standards of living at the expense of the Global South. But what institutions such as NU have created is a very sleek, adaptable contribution to maintaining global dominance. The habits formed at elite universities like NU encourage students to hold two directly opposed ideas. These habits allow a perfectly well-meaning student to sit in lectures about the massive human cost of the systems inherent to our global order, then change into professional clothes and interview for a career in maintaining those systems.

From 1757 until 1858, the British East India Company directly oversaw the Crown’s rule in India, a marriage between the corporation and state for the purpose of colonial administration. The company exercised its monopoly on labor and raw materials in India and later China through private military force, but financed that violence through trade. This administration of trade was carried out from afar by highly-educated bureaucrats, well-paid and entirely alienated from the brutal exploitation that happened under their pen strokes. In this example, and in the similar structures of European colonialism that infected the globe, who was actually responsible?

It’s interesting to think about what the East India Company might look like today. Maybe there would be books promising to help you ace the cases in the interviews for this elite company. Collegiate business clubs might draw their exclusivity from the promise of helping you work for that elite firm upon graduation. Top universities would invite the company to appear at career fairs, openly legitimizing them as positive destinations for post-graduate work. Maybe the company’s enticing website would gloss over the true nature of its work, instead summarizing that it can “combine global expertise and local insight to help you turn your ambitious goals into reality.” That’s from McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm that many students on campus would accept an offer from instantly. 

McKinsey stresses that you’ll do good by solving global problems. But the hypocrisy in their line of work is that they are the problem. They help create the many different structures of control within the global economic order. Their incentives in staying relevant as the managers of this neo-imperial organization are, in every context, opposed to global liberation. At its most base level, their grift is predicated on convincing you that the core issue in the Global South is a lack of expertise rather than the systematic pillaging of value through free-market global trade.

A consultant is an economic mercenary, high priests tapped by executives to make impersonal decisions in the name of our most sacred secular deities: Efficiency, Profit and Optimization. You’ll never meet the workers contained in the sacrifice you make at the altar of Cost. Your hands won’t brutalize the asylum-seekers caught in your creative anti-immigrant plans. You won’t be at the funeral alongside the families ripped apart by your client-ready slides full of ideas to sell more opiates. You won’t directly experience the stripping of your nation’s resources and the cascading climate disasters driven by your advice to most of the world’s largest mining and metals corporations. Yet there is at least one instance where you have met people whose material well-being has suffered from this constant pursuit of economization — the NU service workers underpaid and mistreated by the consultant-driven shift to subcontracting.

Indirectly or directly responsible for the suffering of billions, the modern imperialist’s cynical embrace of the aesthetics of anti-racism in their commitment to diversity and inclusion should remove any doubt of the power-drunk nature of these institutions. Conveniently, their implicit bias training, like NU’s, would have you believe that racial hierarchy is maintained not by the global and domestic movements of capital but by individual thoughts, curable with the correct combinations of meaningless academic jargon. At its core, this cheap gloss of progress hopes to help candidates rationalize a false separation between their own individual choices and oppressive global systems. 

On this point, I want to offer an analogy using a story I heard in synagogue as a child. Once upon a time, there was a rabbi entering retirement. The townspeople planned to give him the best gift possible — a massive barrel of red wine. They laid out a barrel in the town square, instructing each family to donate a glass of wine at some point that week. One family was having a hard year, and money was tight. They had barely enough wine for Shabbat, certainly none to share. So, at nightfall, the father went out carrying a glass of water, hiding his identity under a hooded robe. He poured the water into the barrel. The rabbi would never know the difference. On his final day, the rabbi was given the barrel of wine. He left town for his retirement home in the country. That night, after a long day of traveling, the rabbi sat at his fireplace, opened a book and filled a glass, ready to kick off his retirement. He took a sip and spit it out. The barrel was filled entirely with water.

For me, part of the NU experience has been seeing exactly how these systems continue, exactly how each individual is convinced that nobody will notice if they substitute water for wine. It is demeaning to your individual value to pretend that your decisions don’t matter in the aggregate. The mechanism of how these exploitative systems continue for generations is very simple. It is the indoctrination that comes along with that phrase “make something of yourself,” the implication that going to work for a top consulting or financial firm is the natural extension of the overachiever, as inevitable as taking AP classes, acing standardized tests and attending an elite university. The impersonal cruelty is apparently just an unfortunate side effect.

To finish, I want to focus on NU’s administration, the ones who largely control the inputs that move students into these institutions. I understand the reasoning behind inviting some of the world’s most powerful firms onto campus, not least of which is the recent injection of McKinsey clout to our Board of Trustees. This practice keeps the ranking of the University high, increases the likelihood of lucrative donations and plants the next generation of employees, who will act as points of networking for the next crop of bright-eyed college students. 

Yet I refuse to believe that more than a handful of students come into college wanting to be a consultant; vastly more are simply looking to do something. The administration and career counselors at NU should keep exploitative firms away from career fairs, instead focusing on spotlighting community organizations and well-run nonprofits, where the value of top students would do actual good. You could even use some of your budget surplus and engorged, tax-exempt endowment to supplement these employer’s salary offerings. But, what you can’t do is concoct emails extending your deepest condolences for symptoms of our nation’s abhorrent inequality, systemic racism and dysfunctional public institutions, all the while continuing to use your vast resources to push students toward the actors that construct and profit from these realities.

Jason Harward is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.