Mitt Romney likes to take jabs at President Barack Obama for representing the values of the Harvard faculty lounge. He should know.
Like the president, the former Massachusetts governor is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Unlike the commander-in-chief, Romney also has a second Harvard graduate degree, in business.
While bashing Harvard is intended to paint Obama as an ivory tower theorist out of his depth in the presidency, Romney owes his chief White House credential -- his business career -- to the school.
That Ivy League pedigree undercuts Romney’s appeal to many Republicans who already doubt that he shares their values. So as he heads for his party’s nomination, Romney lacerates his alma mater on the campaign trail, seeking to channel the resentments of voters soured on elite institutions.
“I didn’t learn about the economy just reading about it or hearing about it at the faculty lounge at Harvard,” Romney, 65, said on March 18 in Illinois, in a swipe at Obama.
Yet by all accounts, Romney thrived at Harvard, reveling in the intellectual challenge and impressing classmates with his drive and discipline.
“He was years ahead of us,” says Howard Brownstein, a law school classmate. “He had a gravitas. You thought: ‘This guy could be president.’ And I remember thinking that in 1971.”
That year, Romney enrolled in a joint law and business school program, which allowed him to earn two graduate degrees in four years rather than the customary five. Of the 1,350 students in Romney’s combined law and business school classes, only 15 earned the joint degree.
Brains and determination were taken for granted at Harvard, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, institution that is consistently ranked among the world’s top universities. Romney, seen as smart, though not exceptionally so, stood out 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.”
Mazo recalls peppering his friend with questions about Mormonism one day over lunch. Romney, who regularly attended church services and abstained from alcohol, tobacco and caffeine in accord with Mormon practice, fielded the queries genially. Then he offered to talk more in depth if Mazo were interested.
“Contrary to the stereotype of Mormons, he was not a proselytizer,” says Mazo, now a Washington lawyer who has donated $2,400 to Romney’s presidential campaign and $2,000 to a political action committee that supports his candidacy. “He was not going to bug you about it.”
Romney was a traditionalist at a time when tradition was out of favor. At Harvard Business School, his class was among the first in which male students didn’t routinely wear jackets and ties.
He reached Harvard after graduating from Brigham Young University and completing an overseas mission as a member of the Mormon Church. As the son of a prominent national politician, he bore a famous name. He wasn’t alone: His law school classmates included Susan Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter. A year behind him in the business school was the son of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, George W. Bush.
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. Apart from the occasional lunch or pickup basketball game, the demanding course work didn’t leave much time for socializing.
“When study time was over, he wanted to get back to his family,” says classmate Tom Phillips, who later became chief justice of the Texas state Supreme Court.
One night, while the Romneys, Brownsteins and a third couple were strolling through town, some Cambridge youths began verbally harassing them. Romney instantly positioned himself between his wife and the local toughs in a way Brownstein recalls as “chivalrous.”
Romney had agreed to attend law school at his father’s request and carried George Romney’s battered, light-brown briefcase to classes. The elder Romney, a former Michigan governor, was then serving in President Richard Nixon’s Cabinet after seeing his own White House ambitions dashed.
The early-1970s were a tumultuous time. U.S. troops were still in Vietnam. At Harvard, memories were fresh of the student occupation of the school administration hall in April 1969, which had ended when police cleared the building using billy clubs and mace.
‘A Constant Party’
On Cambridge Common, a city park adjacent to Harvard Yard, the counterculture was in full swing. “Cambridge Common was a constant party,” says Phillips. “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.”
If that doesn’t sound like Romney’s natural habitat, the business school -- across the Charles River in Allston -- proved more hospitable. Howard Serkin, who sat next to Romney for the introductory lecture, teamed with him to establish a study group, whose members shared responsibility for preparing the individual cases that formed the core of the MBA program.
“He wanted our study group to be the No. 1 study group,” says Serkin, chairman of Heritage Capital Group, a Jacksonville, Florida-based investment banking firm. “He wanted us all to get straight A’s.”
‘The Ultimate Pragmatist’
Romney’s innate bottom-line orientation found a home at Harvard Business. Devoid of ideology, he instead sought truth through facts, the essence of the business school approach.
“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 his own crisis-management firm in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
At Ivy League rival Yale University, law students often went on to careers in government service. Harvard, in contrast, sent more graduates to legal careers on Wall Street or in the corporate world.
Still, 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.
“It’s on the other side of the river,” says Brownstein. “But the difference is more than a river.”
Running a Gauntlet
HBS was regarded by Harvard faculty and students with a mix of disdain and condescension, seen as both academically suspect and financially gifted. For clean-cut business students, venturing onto the main university campus meant running a gauntlet of hostile looks.
“You felt like they didn’t want you to be there,” says Mitch Kurz, who was a year behind Romney at HBS and later became chief executive officer of Wunderman, an advertising agency.
At a time when many questioned authority, Romney embraced it. To Harvard Law Professor Detlev Vagts, who headed the joint program from 1969 to 2005, that trait prevented Romney from ranking as a truly exceptional student, such as the late investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, who graduated in 1971. Romney, Vagts says, lacked “a certain sense that the way things are are not the way they have to be -- that you could do things differently.”
Vacuuming Up Data
Still, Romney excelled at both schools, proving especially suited to the MBA program’s emphasis on isolating key questions and then answering them by vacuuming up every bit of data.
As the Vietnam War wound down, the Watergate crisis began to dominate political discussions, especially at the law school. His friends recall Romney as interested in current events, though memories of specific conversations are scarce. If the business school was relatively immune to the forces buffeting society -- just 11 percent of Romney’s HBS class was female --it was an institution in transition.
With the stock market in free fall -- down more than 40 percent in 1973-74 -- the professional school began cutting spending on new course materials and computers.
The MBA program traditionally had trained managers to run large corporations. Now, one of the most popular courses, “Management of Service Operations,” dealt with retail franchises. As economic growth slowed and inflation soared, employers such as General Motors and Ford Motor Co. took the extraordinary step of rescinding job offers to graduating students.
“It was the last part of an era at HBS,” says Kurz.
Far more than previous generations of Harvard Business students, Romney’s class went into small business, consulting and financial services, according to John Kotter, an HBS professor who wrote a book on the class of 1974 called “The New Rules.” Romney, who joined Boston Consulting Group upon graduation and later built a private-equity startup into an industry power, personified the shifting tides.
Today, as he advances toward the Republican nomination, he scorns the school. Matthew Dowd, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, says Romney’s anti-Harvard jibes are aimed at aligning him with Main Street constituents.
“Romney needs that,” says Dowd, now a Bloomberg political analyst. “One of his big vulnerabilities -- because of his wealth -- is he does not have a great connection with middle-class and blue-collar voters.”
Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney, didn’t return an e-mail requesting comment.
Romney doesn’t have problems connecting with those who studied alongside him years ago. Many of his former classmates support his presidential bid. Some are baffled by the public perception of their Harvard friend.
‘Like Everybody Else’
“Everyone says he’s robotic and can’t connect with people,” says Serkin. “When he’s in an environment with people he knows and likes, he’s just like everybody else.”
On the campaign trail, Harvard’s imprint can be glimpsed. Phillips, a legal policy adviser to Romney’s campaign, says his candidate took from the law school a respect for the judiciary that kept him from endorsing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s call to haul judges before Congress to explain controversial rulings.
Serkin says a 59-point jobs plan that Romney announced in September is classic Harvard Business School. Even the candidate’s reputation for changing positions on key issues may originate in the agile, unemotional brand of analysis he imbibed at HBS, according to Kurz.
Romney, he says, “seems to be doing what they teach you in business school.”