The article below is a product of the Harvard Political Review. Review articles and viewpoints expressed are written and edited exclusively by Review undergraduate students, not the staff of Harvard's Institute of Politics.
Harvard is America’s university. It was, and remains, our answer to Oxford, where students are taught a liberal, democratic, and distinctly American brand of education. In recent years, Harvard has pivoted into a more global role, drawing students from every corner of the world. These students, though, do not always stay behind. Increasingly, graduates leave the United States altogether after graduation, often returning home to pursue careers in government in their own nations. Foreign heads of state and their top advisors not uncommonly trace their education back to our American institution in Cambridge. Only some of them, though, take back with them the democratic ideals this university, and country, strive to exemplify.
A Global Class
Harvard attracts an incredibly diverse group of students from around the world, who share their unique perspectives with fellow students and faculty alike. This diversity in turn attracts students from across the globe. Over the past decade, Harvard has gradually increased its enrollment of international students before leveling off at around 20% of total enrollment. As the admissions office is eager to point out, Harvard boasts students from over 130 countries, and has alumni in nearly every country on the planet.
This trend is even more pronounced in the Kennedy School. Almost half of all Kennedy School students are non-US citizens, and the large number of midcareer students further diversifies the student body. Harvard has begun to accept so many East Asian students that when Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-moon studied at the Kennedy School, he would introduce himself as JFK. He was another student “just from Korea,” he told the Institute of Politics in 2008.
Many enroll with significant previous political experience, most hoping to climb the career ladder further still. Others, such as former Prime Minister of Tanzania Frederick Sumaye, enroll in the Kennedy school only after a successful career. These students add to the depth of experiences and viewpoints found at the Kennedy School. Former President of Ecuador Jamil Mahuad, also a graduate of the Kennedy School, noted the importance of a diverse student body. Much of his learning, Mahuad recently told the HPR, came from other students. “In a place like the Kennedy School, they have so many different perspectives,” thanks in part to the large number of midcareer students who arrive with years of additional experience.
Former President Mahuad did caution that one can easily lose his or her identity at a place like Harvard, an especially potent problem for future politicians and executives, as “the first obligation of a leader is to stay connected with his people.” Plenty of other foreign leaders have faced accusations of excessive foreign influence. Born and raised in North America, George Papandreou, the Prime Minister of Greece from 2009-11, faced charges of not being Greek enough to lead the nation. Richard Parker, Senior Fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center and one of his longtime advisors, admitted such bluntly. “The Greeks are very nationalistic. He was thought to have lived too long abroad.”
The Teddy Brand
Three of the past four Prime Ministers of Greece have ties to Harvard, as do many of their staffers and advisors. Parker noted that some of the political ideas of these figures stem from their time spent at Harvard. For instance, the Mediterranean nation has become more transparent over the past several years as successive administrations have sought to replace deep-rooted clientelism with a streamlined meritocracy. The very notion of a transparent meritocracy is an inherently liberal, even Harvardian, ideal. Parker explained that the transition is emblematic of the ideals of “the Harvard of Teddy Roosevelt.”
The Harvard of Teddy Roosevelt is a romantic idea, shaped as much by the president as by the institution. One need look no further than Roosevelt’s policies as president to envisage the Harvard of Teddy. His is an institution that glorified both rugged individualism and community service. It emphasizes protecting everything from the little man to the environment. Above all, it represented practical idealism.
Teddy Roosevelt represents the best of Harvard and American ideals. He embodies the brand we like to imagine educates the future leaders of the world, and sometimes the university lives up to such standards. In the words of Senior Fellow Parker, students at Harvard are “exposed to all of the issues and techniques,” including mobilization of the public at home, negotiation of technocrats, and persuasion of fellow international leaders. Former President Mahuad added, “The advantage of American universities is [that] they are very practically oriented.”
Perhaps, as Professor Jeffrey Frankel of the Kennedy School told the HPR, “we [Americans] happen to be good at higher education.” In fact, the entire field of leadership seems most closely associated with America. Felipe Calderon, President of Mexico and once one of Professor Frankel’s students at the Kennedy School, talked to the IOP several years ago about his experience as a student at a leadership seminar: “I didn’t like it at the beginning. I said it’s too American.” It just so happens to be distinctly Teddy-esque as well. “But at the end I really appreciated the lecture and learned a lot.”
Some Never Learn
Not every Harvard graduate walks away with the values of Teddy’s Harvard. Some political office-seekers attend simply because they or their allies can afford the resume booster and explore other values. In Senior Fellow Parker’s words, “Many more of these governments have money now to spend to provide their rising talent with a Harvard degree.” Why Harvard? “It’s the name,” Parker explained.
Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan and one of the worst human rights abusers in power today, sent his daughter Gulnara Karimova to Harvard. Since graduating, she has balanced her time between working with her father’s government and attempting to become a pop star. Former British Ambassador Craig Murray himself has detailed the level of hatred Uzbeks have for Karimova, collaborates with a government which boils its opponents alive rather than advocating reform and helping others access the same opportunities she utilized. Karimova never internalized the Teddy brand, and she is by no means alone in that regard.
Many point to Harvard’s role in educating the next generation of Chinese leaders as an example of Harvard’s prioritizing its alumni network or future contributions over a commitment to democratic ideals. The Communist Party government has sent thousands of its public officials and their children to Harvard and other elite universities. For instance, Li Yuanchao, a leading member of China’s Politburo, attended Harvard. China’s vice president and expected future leader, Xi Jinping, sends his child to Harvard College, as did recently disgraced politician Bo Xilai before his scandal broke.
These individuals, as well as dozens of others, are not being sent to Harvard to learn democratic ideals and implement them upon returning home. In fact, many fear that Harvard equips these leaders with the tools they need to govern effectively and efficiently, without instilling in them Western, democratic values. As journalist William Dobson wrote in Slate, the institution is “arguably helping to perpetuate the dominance of a party that has no reservations about brutalizing those who do nothing beyond questioning its right to rule.”
Surely educating future leaders of China in a place like Harvard increases the probability of spreading democratic ideals and ultimately liberalizing the nation’s political system. For instance, Yu Keping is a Chinese government official and Harvard graduate, and also happens to be one of the leading voices in China encouraging democratization. However, the sheer number of Harvard graduates walking in lockstep with the ruling party in China portrays a less than optimistic picture of the cause of democracy and human rights.
Graduates such as Yu Keping keep the ideals of Teddy alive. Perhaps China can and will evolve into an open democracy with civil rights and individual protections. Examples such as Greece’s move to a more transparent meritocracy remind us of the power of a liberal arts education, particularly one as holistically and historically successful as Harvard’s. Thousands of Harvard graduates pursue careers in international politics, and even a small fraction of them has the potential to shape the world in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt. As long as those students keep coming, the spirit of the Bull Moose lives on.