The Crimson Letter

Is a Harvard Degree the Biggest Liability in Politics?

By | Boston Magazine |
Is a Harvard degree a political liablity?

Illustration by Michael Cho.

At some point in a politician’s career, a Harvard education stops being a point of pride and starts becoming a problem. In August, former Governor Mitt Romney derided President Obama’s foreign policy as being from the “Harvard faculty lounge.” Two months later, Senator Scott Brown laid into his opponent Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor, saying, “I didn’t go to Harvard, you know, I went to the school of hard knocks.”

The curious part is that both of these naysayers have advanced degrees of their own from top-tier academic institutions. It’s true that Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, as did many of his advisers — and yes, Warren is a professor at the school. But Romney boasts dual Harvard MBA/JD degrees, and found his education valuable enough that three of his five sons also attended graduate school there. Brown, meanwhile, has degrees from Tufts and Boston College Law.

Romney and Brown clearly know better — what they’re up to is a simple game of distraction. Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, who taught President Obama during his days at the school, says that we’re living in an era where politicians are desperate for the support of Joe and Jane Six-Pack. That means folks like Romney and Brown — who are very much a part of the educated elite — will grab onto anything to make the other guy look bad. “People will use any ammunition they’ve got,” Tribe says, no matter how hypocritical. Richard Parker, senior fellow and lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, hypothesizes that those who villainize Harvard know they’re painting an inaccurate portrait, something they can get away with because they’re playing to a part of the population that’s more interested in perceptions than in truth. So: Just attack educated folks for being different, for being elite.

Ironically, Harvard is, in many ways, less exclusive than ever. The students are still top-notch (average SAT scores for the incoming class were between 2080 and a near-perfect 2380), but upper-crust WASPs no longer dominate the institution: Students from families earning less than $60,000 don’t pay a penny in tuition, and beginning this fall, that income level jumps to $65,000.

Harvard, for its part, is weathering the criticisms. According to Parker, the administration and faculty aren’t so worried about how they come off to one subset of the Republican party. “This isn’t a story about Harvard,” Parker says. “It’s about the cheap side of American politics … and part of the American population. Quite frankly, it’s ignorance.”