Harvesting Harvard

- The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The British Airways flight made a soft landing at Logan airport the most convenient airport from where to access Harvard where I was due to attend a course. It was a quiet airport and somewhat run down. Two large queues formed; we were advised by the BA pilot to make sure we filled out the immigration form properly; else he’d warned ‘you’ll be sent back to the end of a very long queue’. The man at immigration was pleasant enough though, setting aside any worries I may have had about having my American visa on an older, expired Indian passport.

I had booked myself at the Double Tree by Hilton on Memorial Drive, Boston. A large contingent of Finnish girls wearing grey-white track suits was also checking in around the same time. I understood they had come to display their skills at an ice skating performance. Standing beside me at the counter were also two married couples who had come with the express purpose of participating in the Boston marathon.

The friendly Ethiopian concierge brought up my luggage, even as he explained various conveniences in the hotel and my room to me. He came up to the large glass window in my suite, pointed to a small bridge on the river and said 'Now, you’ll have to walk across that to reach Cambridge. We here on this side of the river are in Boston.’ This made great sense to me! I’d been wondering why they had accommodated us, the students at Soldiers Field Park Apartments, the student residences at Boston, when our classes would be held at the Harvard Kennedy School at Cambridge. So… it was just a minutes’ walk across the river.

It was two am in London when I’d boarded, and it had been a fairly long flight so I ate an early dinner at the hotel’s excellent jazz bar and went to bed. The next day, I woke up to an early morning, orange-speckled view of the Charles River, for this particular property overlooks the river, the very reason I had chosen to stay there. Around seven o’clock I started to see signs of life ahead of a green-painted, picture-postcard boathouse: enthusiastic kayaking by 'able bodied' young men, fists pumping away, reminding me of that other Cambridge across the Atlantic when they run their annual contest with Oxford Union. A speed boat emerged. I saw a few enthusiastic joggers run along the river.


Many years before I came to Harvard I studied for an LL M in England at the University of Nottingham. It was a wonderful experience, both educationally and in terms of cultural exposure. It was also a huge change from what I had experienced by way of higher education at Delhi University. In a British University, unlike the case in India then, it was not considered bad form for a student to ask questions or make observations; rather questions and comments were encouraged, as was critical thinking. Very many classes were in the seminar style or structured in such a way that the professor was merely an expert interlocutor or even a co-coordinator of the class discussion. You were expected to have read the material before coming to class and you debated with your fellow students with the professor occasionally querying the class, correcting erroneous statements, and sometimes though not often ‘prompting’ a student where he was unable to express himself due to cultural reasons (we had a large overseas student population). We were all being carefully nurtured into critical thinking. In this regard I particularly remember classes conducted by Professor DJ Harris, author of several landmark publications on human rights and referred to as ‘God’ by some students.

I imagined Harvard to be not dissimilar to Nottingham in the above respects. D Singh, a former Delhi University batch mate who went to Harvard Law School subsequently recounted a story about his initial months at Harvard which reaffirmed this impression for me.

One of Singh’s professors had written extensively on a particular branch of legal jurisprudence. One day he asked the students to prepare an essay on a particular topic formulating their opinions after reading all the relevant literature, which included the professor’s own fairly extensive writings and reflections on the subject. Singh was a hard worker as many Indian students are, so he really slogged at the assignment and towards the end of the essay aligned his conclusions to those of the professor. He imagined the professor would be pleased.

Come presentation day, after all the other students’ work had been discussed and graded, the professor asked Singh to stay back.

‘Mr. Singh,’ he said, once everyone had left, ‘I have read your paper – and I must say you have summarized my views on the issue rather well. The thing though, is,’ he added with a laugh, ‘I already know what I think, and I don’t need you to tell me about it. I want to know what YOU think on the issue.’

It was a life changing moment for Singh. Brought up in a tradition of academic sycophancy, where to echo your professor’s views invariably led to higher grades, to challenge him in class often meant that you would be punished either immediately or sometime later – this was a completely new experience for him.


One can harvest Harvard as a student and later as an alumnus not only intellectually but also because of the power that the university commands. As an alumnus I now receive regular updates about various activities. In the space of a year I have been approached twice by former alumni, complete strangers to me, to either apply myself or nominate any other deserving candidate for prestigious fellowships.

Two examples of how the top universities in the world command great influence, which can affect their students, come to my mind.

During the late nineties when I studied in England, the Guardian newspaper carried a story about the Indonesian strongman Suharto’s son. The son studied at Cambridge at the time. This was not in itself at all remarkable. The story was about how Suharto Junior had chartered a flight and flown all his classmates to Jakarta for his birthday celebrations!

At one level this can be seen to be a story about corruption in the third world, which it clearly is, but it is also clearly an illustration of how a student can potentially create powerful connections for himself merely by virtue of having studied at one of the world’s most famous universities.

The way it works reduced to a nutshell is this. The world’s elite have their children admitted to the world’s great universities. Such universities usually require very high grades from students interested in studying there but have an admissions policy that generally allows for very many honorable exceptions for the children of prime ministers, presidents and those who are generally affluent or powerful in global terms. And so the children of, say, Asian elites meet with the children of other elites from other regions in the world. Very many of these students will in years to come themselves become part of the elite and powerful in their countries. Meanwhile they will have formed lifelong friendships with some of their class mates, who might be subsequently contacted to collaborate and help them in important activities.

Say for instance, an Ambani is studying at a particular university. When Junior Ambani grows older and inherits part of his father business empire he might induct some former classmates in key roles. It is not university alone that fosters lifelong friendships that can be professionally advantageous in later years; schools are as important. Examples of such associations having reaped benefits for people are legion.

At my own British university, I recall one of the students being the son of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, and another the son of a cabinet minister in Kenya. ‘My father’s been shot,’ said the Kenyan worriedly to me one day after class. ‘Oh?’ I said, not knowing how to react. ‘He’s a cabinet minister,’ he went on to explain, ‘and was travelling in a bullet proof car, but they managed to hit him. Thank God he’s out of danger. The thing is, he has many enemies.’ We had the children of elite studying at Nottingham as well, but their numbers paled relative to those at Oxford and Cambridge, where at some colleges and on some courses the parents of third world students in particular reads like a who’s who of the world.

So… one way that a student harvests Harvard University’s global branding is by virtue of the class fellow connection. There are also instances of harvesting the connection directly through the university itself, especially if it happens to be a rich and powerful university such as Harvard. As an alumnus I see how much effort Harvard puts in to secure placements for their students; this includes, for instance, the preparation of a directory of CV’s and extensive networking on their behalf. A qualification from Harvard might not yield dividends immediately or guarantee lifelong employment though. Obama’s father is a case in point. Although his Harvard qualification secured him an important government job when he went back to Kenya, he suffered great financial difficulties subsequently and was out of employment for many years. In his moving autobiography ‘Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’ Obama writes about how he worried during his own time at Harvard that he might end up a failure, in a worldly sense, like his father.

I recall the troubles of a friend from Mumbai who went to study for a Masters programme at Harvard. He came back to India soon after completing his studies and got married within a few months. I met him a few months after his wedding and he was distraught. ‘It’s my wife,’ he confessed. ‘She’s very upset.’ I wondered what had gone wrong. ‘You see,’ he went on to explain, ‘she somehow assumed that since I had been to Harvard, I must automatically be someone employed in the high income bracket. This is not the case. I went on a scholarship – and having returned from Harvard does not mean that I will automatically start earning a lot of money. So…she is very disappointed.’ I understood my friend’s concerns. Two years down the line however Harvard University decided to enter into multi-million dollar collaboration with an Indian university (the funding all coming from the Americans). And who did they decide to have to manage the entire collaboration? My friend! So, that connection with one of the world’s richest and most powerful universities did succeed in eventually pulling him up, and he has never fallen since.


Classes were to start the next day so I decided to have a small breakfast somewhere on campus, instead of the sumptuous but expensive affair at the Hilton. I walked past a building under construction covered with scaffolding. When I paused to see what it was I discovered from a noticeboard beside it that the building once completed would be known as Tata Hall which would be part of the Harvard Business School. The name Tata would be in honor of the Indian company that had put up the money for its construction. I decided to have a look at the main business school building.

It was a large impressive building with an 'Ivy League' poster hanging on the street light. As if to show this was not only on paper, there was actually ivy climbing up the red bricked pillars of the business school; the ivy was well manicured, but had turned brown.

Reversing tracks, I now walked across the small bridge that hung over the Charles and transited from Boston into Cambridge. And then I was in a park with squirrels as large as cats running about a black, granite statue of John F Kennedy. As I moved closer towards it, an American tourist pre-empted my intentions. ‘Supposed to bring bad luck to touch it!’ he said.

By this time, I had built up quite an appetite. I walked past the main university buildings now, for Harvard is primarily an undergraduate university, and reached Harvard Square. The idea had been to have a simple breakfast but the four or five cafes I entered were noisy, busy and streaming with students; even the Starbucks had barely enough standing room. To cap it all, despite it being early spring, it was freezing outside. Warmth before food, I decided. And so I entered a large shop known as the Harvard co-op and bought myself some gloves and a scarf. It’s a sign of the times I suppose that the Harvard memorabilia that I purchased had all been made in China! As I wrapped the scarf around my neck, I saw the solution to my hunger: a very large Harvard co-op book store. Surely they would have a cafe inside? They did, indeed, with spare tables and seating. The breakfast I ate was simple but good: a heated up egg and cheese muffin with hot tea.

After breakfast I took a closer look at the bookshop itself. In the display window I saw books like ‘Why Nations Fail,’ ‘Blink’, ‘Thinking- Fast and Slow,’ books that I had seen at airports but had not then realized that they were all written by present or former Harvard faculty. A section inside was devoted to bestselling campus titles. This included something that I initially took to be a symbol of youthful irreverence: ‘Arseholes, a Theory.’ A quick scan through showed me that it was not, unfortunately, the vengeful work of a brilliant Harvard drop-out having a go at some of his professors who may have given him low grades, but it was one of the Harvard profs himself who was the author. The almost laughable title was misleading; the book made for fairly heavy philosophical reading.



A few words about my classmates.

We had a small representation of Africans in our group with two, tall Nigerian men and a middle-aged woman from Kenya. The lady was a slender, bright, businesswoman who went on to win an international award of some substance. A large group from the Middle East was attending, if somewhat overrepresented by Kuwait which sent six people, mostly from the oil and petroleum sector. I identified three Europeans: A Swede, an Austrian and a Frenchwoman. Among the Latinos there were three Brazilians, an Argentinian and a couple of Mexicans. The majority of students in our class were United States citizens, mostly in government through there were a couple of private lobbyists; they NEEDED negotiating skills the most, I suppose. Among Asians, I counted one Taiwanese; one Sri Lankan working in the ministry, one Thai working for DuPont, one Vietnamese working in France and that was it. Not a single Russian, not a single Chinese and not a single Indian (besides me of course).

Now, to the classes themselves. We had a forceful personality in Dr. Brian Mandell, the Director of the Harvard Kennedy School Negotiation Project who led our course on ‘Mastering Negotiation’. He was supported by John Williams, an easy-going tall American who coordinated the programme and Anna Shanley an exceedingly pleasant woman who gave up a potential career in the Foreign Service for a more settled semi-academic life at Harvard.

It was in between one of Brian’s classes, when he had fixed us with his ‘glittering eye’ while making a particularly important point, I realized one of the important differences between the English approach to higher education and the American approach. In the US they quite often expect the teaching staff to be a bit of a performer in class. And therefore although Brian had the personality and bearing of a Roman senator, in his tutoring function he was actually more akin to a gladiator in the pits who commanded the attention of us, his students aka the citizens of Rome who waited to see what new trick he pulled up from his sleeve. This is not my impression alone. At the Cambridge Judge Business School, one of my professors who taught at British as well as American Universities spoke of the differences in a similar vein.

Professor Max Bazerman, co-author of the brilliant and widely influential ‘Negotiation Genius’ (Random House, 2007) came in one day from the Harvard Business School. He was extremely erudite and would have held our interest anyway but he still used various techniques to raise the level of participation and interest in the students. He taught an interesting class on negotiation, that I was fortunate to attend. One very early morning class, he introduced himself with an apology for getting us in so early, and then explained that he had devised a technique to wake us all up. This would be the auction of a hundred dollar note. The prospect of making or losing money, he said, was one of two things that woke most people up – he left us to guess what the second thing was – and so we would start the day’s class with an auction. ‘It’s genuine,’ he insisted, as he brandished the greenback, to our collective amusement for we doubted him not on that score. ‘There is no trick here.’

The rules he then proceeded to outline prohibited any student from talking to the other. Interestingly, under the rules the second highest bidder would also have to pay the amount he bid to Max. No bid could be less than five dollars. In less than fifteen minutes we were all wide awake watching two of our Kuwaiti classmates embroiled in a bidding war, the higher of the two offering two hundred and fifty dollars for something worth far less than half that value. They just didn’t try and anticipate how the other would react. This was a real life illustration in class of the importance of ‘getting inside the other persons mind-set’ to see things from his point of view – crucial to any important negotiation.

The concept of merging education with entertainment is nothing new. It helps to center the attention of the students, and in the process they learn more. At the course we watched a Hollywood film, something by the name of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ a 1957 American classic. The movie was entertaining but also about negotiation as the story line focusses on how one juror convinces all the others to vote not guilty in a trial. The process was examined under a microscope in class. Of course it is not the Americans alone who try and fuse entertainment with education; I watched a three hour long television drama on the sex trafficking while attending a course at Oxford. However the American system certainly places more emphasis on getting the attention of the class, and dramatic presentations do help in this regard.

I imagine that this difference between the way the English and the Americans teach has something to do as well with cultural differences. The English are a quieter, more subtle race compared to the Americans. The British ‘understatement’ is globally understood to be a defining national characteristic.

Brian Mandell also peppered his talks with wisecracks and jokes.

I remember a joke he made about Harvard students.

Students from this university, so goes the joke, never ever give a straightforward answer to a question.

The answer is always: ‘It depends on what you mean by….’

So if a Harvard student is asked if the Republicans are better than the Democrats, he would typically respond with: ‘It all depends on what you mean by ‘better’?’


Is milk more nourishing that a banana?

It depends on what you mean by ‘nourishing’…

And so on and forth…

Another not-so-common joke someone told me has to do with Harvard and the great institution on which it was originally partially modeled – Cambridge.

Someone asks a question: Why is studying at Harvard better than studying at Cambridge?

Answer: If you studied at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School you could say, quite truthfully that you had studied at Harvard and you could also say that you had studied at Cambridge, since the Harvard Kennedy School of government and the Harvard Law School ARE in Cambridge. So you could effectively kill two birds with one stone, meaning if you studied at Harvard you could say that you studied at Harvard AND Cambridge. The reverse of this would not be possible. If you studied at Cambridge you would be unable to say that you studied at Harvard.

A related question is: Why study at Harvard Kennedy School or Harvard Law School instead of Harvard Business School?

Same answer. The HBS being across the river is in Boston, not Cambridge, so if you studied there you studied only at Harvard, not Cambridge as well.


There is a great deal of learning that takes place outside classrooms as well. At the HKS I remember evenings where there would be choices between going to attend a talk in the auditorium to listen to the visiting Prime Minister of say Country X or going to another venue near the library where, say the Defense Minister of Country Y was coming to speak. Sometimes there would even be a third speaker from Country Z in another hall. In terms of an intellectual diet we were rather spoilt for choice, and it was often difficult to decide where to go. The point is that if you spend a year listening to such eminent and influential people talk, it cannot but help contribute to the widening of your mental horizons, more especially if you are studying international relations at the HKS but even otherwise. These days you could access the speeches of world leaders on You Tube but this is not at all the same thing as being able to watch, say, a live discussion between acknowledged global experts, with time allotted at the end to ask any queries that you might have.

One of the interesting discussions I attended during my time at Harvard was titled 'Presidential leadership and the Rise of American power.' Professor Joseph S Nye who taught UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon when he was a student at Harvard, and coined the term ‘soft power’ now in common usage, chaired that discussion. Also present was Professor Nancy F Koehin, a relatively young, but extremely knowledgeable historian from the Harvard Business School. It surprised me that the HBS had a historian on its faculty. Nancy taught ‘Leadership’ and ‘Entrepreneurial History’ but clearly had a deep understanding of historical issues of wider import. It goes without saying that dons like Professor Nye are hugely well connected and influential, but what is often not sufficiently appreciated is how those associations can impact, sometimes profoundly on their understanding of their subject matter, which they correspondingly transmit to their students. It was while answering a question from the audience and in order to illustrate a point, he regaled us with small snippets from a conversation with George Bush Senior the previous weekend during the course of dinner.

At Universities all over the world knowledge is broken up and separated into different disciplines for students to study them better, but actually knowledge is one whole and everything is connected. So it actually makes perfect academic sense to have a historian in the business school – though perhaps the role reversal of having a ‘Negotiation Expert’ in the Department of History might be stretching the point!

As one of the world’s preeminent universities Harvard recognizes the artificial divide that often exists between different subjects. Not only this, it encourages cross pollination. This is why while studying ‘Mastering Negotiation’ at the Harvard Kennedy Center for Government we also had staff come across from the Harvard School of Business (and there were plans, I was told, in the future to have someone come in from the Harvard School of Law as well.) This substantially enriched the overall experience.


There is much that was good, even great, about the time I spent at Harvard. There was comparatively little that I found bad. Perhaps the quality of the meals served on the Executive Program paled in comparison to what full time students ate but this would be a small quibble. In the evaluation form, I scribbled my quibbles rating food quality as ‘poor’ During the subsequent shutdown of the University we all discovered that what was served at the student mess Spangler’s was far superior to what was on offer at the executive program, a bit of a contradiction since we were proportionately paying far more. Most meals were cold except for the soup which too wasn't great, didn't feel freshly made and was served in a paper cup. And not to forget that the spring that year was late, and it was still chilly, even during the day.

I rushed out during several of these cold lunches to eat something at a restaurant around the Harvard Square. Outside, lots of appetizing food was available. As an Indian I was drawn to the Maharaja, an Indian restaurant where I ate several satisfying lunches. The restaurant, in existence for many years now, provided a lavish buffet for thirteen dollars that included goat meat, chicken tandoori, chicken tikka (to mention only the non-veg; an assortment of veg dishes); South Indian dosas and sambhar; even gol gappas and papdi chaat. With all this at hand, it should have been enough, but as a fussy Indian I still asked the Nepali waiter if I could get tandoori rotis instead of the naan and he happily obliged at no extra cost.

There was another criticism that came to my mind, but which I did not make. Two of us on the course had a special interest in the negotiation of peace agreements both within a country and between different countries: my long-time friend and colleague Nasser Zakr, who coincidentally happened to be on the course, and I. Both of us knew how important negotiation skills are in achieving durable peace agreements in conflict zones. Possibly, we didn’t have enough content on the course to directly address such negotiations. While the course was extremely useful there was relatively limited discussion on this the theme of negotiating peace agreements. Considering that this was the Harvard Kennedy School of Government they could perhaps have swapped some of the more commercial content with an increased focus on the management of conflict and negotiation of peace agreements. I however hesitate to include this as a criticism.


What became ugly was not anything that happened on the course at such but the tragic events on the day of the Boston Marathon, which resulted in an immediate suspension of the classes and a general lockdown of the university. We were advised to stay inside our apartments, limit our movements even within the university, and not step out at all outside university precincts. The pressure cooker bombings themselves happened just days before our course was due to end, and so it upset the travel plans of many of us. No one had any idea when the lockdown would end, whether the authorities would manage to nab and arrest the Boston bombers (which they eventually did) and how long this would take, so we couldn’t do any future planning properly. Initially, there was a rumour that a bomb had been placed in one of the libraries and for some time it was speculated that it was the library at the HKS, but shortly thereafter the needle of suspicion moved to the general public library in the city.

I have to say that the Americans in our class responded splendidly. A few of them, like Jennifer Jacob felt somehow personally responsible, which they needn’t have. The programme co-coordinator John Williams kept us abreast of all the latest through email; we received words of reassurance via email from the Vice Chancellor soon enough.

We waited to hear something from the President of the United States, but a statement was not immediately forthcoming. A few commentators observed later that Obama had been wise not to speak too soon; he may have been forced to eat his words. As things turned out it was Muslims but not any rank outsiders. These were two brothers who had stayed in the US for ten years. The irony was of course that the US had in fact been supporting the cause of the Chechens and joining its European allies in upbraiding the Russian regime for its human rights record on Chechnya.

Several of us on the course couldn’t help discussing what had happened and speculating on possible motivations. If the two brothers really wanted to do something for the Chechen cause, it would surely have seemed more logical for them to have either targeted the Russian embassy in New York or flown to Russia and done something there. Had their pan-Islamic identity and possible sense of outrage at US foreign policy trumped their Chechen nationalistic feelings? On the other hand, perhaps they had both struggled and it was just general, misguided anger, thinking they had been badly treated because they were Muslim? In news reports that followed subsequently their uncle did say that they hadn't had an easy time in the United States, suggesting that this may have been a convoluted and bizarre revenge of sorts.

After the bombing outrage, there was great and heartfelt concern, but no panicked overreaction within the Harvard University community itself. There was a small window of time before curfew was imposed, (later there were criticisms from some quarters as to why it had been imposed at all) and during that period, while walking around Harvard Square in the evening, I did see the Arabs in my class cluster together in a group, possibly anticipating trouble, but they needn’t have worried. This was Harvard!


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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