Politics & Policy

The Secret to Mitt's Success: Harvard


The Secret to Mitt's Success: Harvard

Photo Illustration by Justin Metz; Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images; Win McNamee/Getty Images; Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney likes to jab President Barack Obama for embodying the values of the Ivy League. “I didn’t learn about the economy just reading about it or hearing about it at the faculty lounge at Harvard,” he said in Illinois on March 18, in a not-so-veiled swipe at Obama.

That slyly placed “just” is Romney’s way of distinguishing himself from his fellow Harvard alum. Like the president, Romney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Unlike Obama, he also has a second Harvard graduate degree, an MBA. Yet you won’t find the Republican front-runner boasting about his Ivy League pedigree. That would undercut his appeal to Republican voters who already doubt his conservatism and are suspicious of elite institutions. Instead the former Massachusetts governor regularly lacerates his alma mater in campaign speeches, bashing Obama as an ivory tower theorist. It’s a difficult maneuver to pull off. Romney, a son of privilege and a millionaire a couple hundred times over, is the epitome of the Harvard Business School man. He owes his chief credential as a candidate—his career in finance—to the lessons he learned in Cambridge classrooms.

Romney reached Harvard in 1971 after graduating from Brigham Young University and completing a Mormon mission overseas. He enrolled in a joint law and business school program, earning two graduate degrees in four years. Studious and ambitious, he thrived, reveling in the intellectual challenge and impressing classmates with his drive and discipline. “He had a gravitas,” says Howard Brownstein, a law school classmate. “You thought: This guy could be president. And I remember thinking that in 1971.”

Romney agreed to add law school to his business studies at his father’s request and carried George Romney’s battered brown leather briefcase to class. The elder Romney, a former Michigan governor, was then serving in President Richard Nixon’s cabinet after seeing his own White House ambitions dashed.

Brains and determination were taken for granted at the nation’s premier university. Romney stood out more for the intensity of his work ethic and his commitment to his Mormon faith. “He was very serious about his religion and his relationship with God,” says Mark Mazo, a member of Romney’s law school study group. “That was highly unusual at the time.” At 24, Romney was older than many of his classmates. Married and a father, he lived with his wife, Ann, in an off-campus rental in suburban Belmont. One night, while the Romneys and Brownsteins were strolling through town, some local toughs began verbally harassing them. Romney immediately positioned himself between his wife and the townies in a way Brownstein recalls as “chivalrous.”

Romney was a traditionalist at a time when tradition was scorned. His business school class was among the first in which male students didn’t routinely wear jackets and ties. In the tumultuous early 1970s, U.S. troops were still in Vietnam. On Cambridge Common, a city park adjacent to Harvard Yard, the counterculture was in full swing. “Cambridge Common was a constant party,” says Tom Phillips, another law school classmate who later became chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. “There were musicians, jugglers, and people doing things the law said they shouldn’t be doing. If you opened your window for some fresh air, you were likely to get a whiff of something else.”

Romney didn’t indulge in that part of campus life. His habitat was the business school, across the Charles River in Allston. Romney’s bottom-line way of thinking was especially suited to the MBA program’s emphasis on isolating key questions and finding answers by vacuuming up all available data. “Mitt is the ultimate pragmatist. He’s only interested in what will work,” says Brownstein, who later worked alongside Romney at Boston Consulting Group and now runs a crisis-management firm in Pennsylvania.

At rival Yale University, law students often went on to work in government. Harvard sent more graduates to legal careers on Wall Street or in the corporate world. The law school was a cerebral institution, populated with aspiring politicians and devoted to understanding the norms that govern society. The business school was defined by empiricism—what worked and what made money. Harvard faculty and students tended to regard the business school with a mix of disdain and condescension; its students were seen as academically suspect. Overwhelmingly white and male—just 11 percent of Romney’s HBS classmates were women—the business school was insulated from the forces buffeting society. For clean-cut business students, venturing onto the main university campus meant running a gantlet of hostile looks. “You felt like they didn’t want you to be there,” says Mitch Kurz, who was a year behind Romney and later became chief executive officer of Wunderman, an advertising agency.

As the Vietnam War wound down, the Watergate crisis began to dominate political discussions, especially at the law school. Romney’s friends recall that he kept up with current events but wasn’t especially political. Most of all, he was interested in getting his degree and starting his career. Harvard Law Professor Detlev Vagts, who headed the joint Law-MBA program from 1969 to 2005, recalls Romney as a strong student who lacked “a certain sense that the way things are, are not the way they have to be—that you could do things differently.”

Yet Romney and his classmates weren’t entirely untouched by the national tumult beyond campus. With the stock market in free fall—down more than 40 percent from 1973 to 1974—the business school began cutting spending on new course materials and computers. The MBA program traditionally had trained managers to run large corporations. A course that dealt with retail franchises, Management of Service Operations, became one of the most popular. As economic growth slowed and inflation soared, employers such as General Motors (GM) and Ford Motor (F) took the extraordinary step of rescinding job offers to graduating students. “It was the last part of an era at HBS,” says Kurz.

Romney, who graduated near the top of both his business and law school classes, had no such trouble. He was wooed by consulting firms and investment banks, and chose Boston Consulting Group. Two years later he moved across town to consulting firm Bain & Co., and later went on to head its new investment arm, Bain Capital.

Romney often touts his great success in private equity as evidence of his ability to solve tough problems and turn around troubled institutions. The data-driven approach he learned at Harvard had a lot to do with that. Romney’s former classmates say the imprint of his Harvard years is still very apparent in his presidential campaign. Howard Serkin, a business school study group partner who is now chairman of Heritage Capital Group, an investment banking firm in Jacksonville, Fla., says Romney’s 59-point economic plan is classic Harvard Business School: impressive, if numbing, in its detail. Even the candidate’s history of shifting positions on issues to adapt to new conditions derives from the unsentimental brand of analysis he learned at HBS, says Kurz. Romney “seems to be doing what they teach you in business school.”

The bottom line: At Harvard in the ’70s, Romney learned the data-driven method of problem solving that made him rich—and defines his campaign.

Lynch is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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