Questioning success

We [the organizers of Thursday’s protest] want to elaborate on why we chose to interrupt Larry Summers’ lecture “Larry Summers on the Economy.”

We chose to do a “mic check,” a form of demonstration that amplifies a message by having many people repeat a speaker’s words in unison. Due to the disruptive nature of the act, some have called mic checks tantamount to censorship. However, the purpose of the demonstration was not to silence Summers, but rather to expose the power dynamics at play and initiate a discussion about power, wealth and influence and the roles those factors play in our career decisions.

Audience members are expected to be passive in this type of forum, but we were demonstrating that, within such a context, the expression of ideas is not evenly distributed. We spoke before the question-and-answer session because we felt that our message could not be expressed with adequate force or receive the same regard given the social norms of academia in that setting.

We chose to mic check because we wanted to demonstrate that Summers is a controversial figure who embodies immense influence. For instance, significant controversy surrounds his historic support for deregulation within the financial sector, which some suggest may have been responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. A recent book, Pity The Billionaire by Thomas Frank, articles by Raghuran Rajan and movies such as Inside Job explore the nuances of Summers’ career. Our purpose was not to emphasize Summers’ culpability or lack thereof, nor was it to mount a personal attack. Rather, we sought to initiate a conversation by drawing attention to Summers’ controversial decisions and suggesting that audience members challenge traditional beliefs.

Our hope was to bring attention to a set of issues surrounding some conceptions of success at the College. We chose to start the dialogue with Summers’ talk because he is a successful figure within the financial industry, and in critiquing him we aimed to bring into question what the metrics of success should be.

The College is known for its close relationship with Wall Street and consulting firms, and this is reflected in the relative financial success of many graduates who go on to these institutions. In 2010, Forbes ranked Williams No. 1 on its list of “Colleges that Will Make You Rich” and found that the median yearly salary of an alumnus 10 to 19 years after graduation is approximately $120,000. This statistic illustrates the immense potential for financial success upon receiving a diploma from the College.

Yet there is very little present discussion on campus regarding the merits and drawbacks of pursuing professions geared towards monetary success versus social engagement.

We don’t claim that one criterion is more important than the other, nor do we believe that these options are mutually exclusive. Rather, we believe they are part of a larger conversation that has yet to be held in a meaningful way on this campus. Our purpose in pursuing a mic check was to highlight the pressing importance of this conversation to our campus.

The College’s mission statement emphasizes the importance of “nurturing in students academic and civic virtues … [which] include [a] commitment to engage both the broad public realm and community life and the skills to do so effectively.”

The conversation about the aim of an individual’s career is inextricably linked to the concept of civic virtue. This is because people’s professions often dictate how people spend their time and energy. Ultimately, what a person values in a job determines which career path they choose, which in turn determines much of an individual’s impact on the world.

Because of our educational privilege as students at the College, discussing the relative merit of various career paths is especially relevant. Our educational resources bestow upon us immense privilege, and we believe that privilege merits a discussion about the kinds of responsibilities that come with it.


Isaac Maze-Rothstein ’13 is a political science major from Watertown, Mass. He lives in Mills. Chie Togami ’13 is an environmental policy major from New Albany, Ind. She lives in Morgan.

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