Let's give non-Ivy Leaguers a chance to rule the world

Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Michael Fein | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

You probably don't know Harry Hopkins.

That's okay—the man who hired Harry Hopkins didn't know Harry Hopkins, either. But in 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) appointed Hopkins to implement some of the most important programs of the New Deal, despite the fact that Hopkins had not been part of Roosevelt's campaign.

In addition to being unknown, Hopkins was different than most of Roosevelt's "Brain Trust" in another significant way. He didn't attend Harvard or Columbia—educationally speaking, he came from the middle of nowhere.

Hopkins was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and attended Grinnell College. After college he moved to New York City, where he gained a reputation as one of America's most talented and effective social workers.

What Hopkins lacked in the form of an elite education, he more than made up for in ability.

Hopkins managed the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which employed 8.5 million people during its history. Hopkins influence in the Roosevelt administration also grew beyond just domestic programs, and he played an important role as FDR's liaison to Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union during World War II.

In fact, FDR was so impressed he considered Hopkins his preferred successor.

The right school?

Hopkins didn't have a pedigree that said he was destined for greatness.

But, he knew how to get things done. He knew how to create and run programs that put food on the table for millions of workers, and food on the table helped keep desperate Americans from being swayed by the fascism taking hold across the globe in the 1930s.

Hopkins wasn't born in the "right" place.

Hopkins wasn't born to the "right" family.

And he didn't go to the "right" schools.

"Knowing your way to the Ivy League is not synonymous with knowing what you're doing. Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain are two of America's most notorious corporate villains. They both knew the way to Harvard Business School."

Most of us know you don't need to go to the right schools and come from the right family to change the world for the better. But, apparently, you do need to go to the right school if you want to change the world from Washington D.C.

By the time Donald Trump's term ends in 2020, the country will have been led by an Ivy League graduate from 1988—2020. That's 32 years of unbroken White House rule by graduates of schools that educate a statistically insignificant number of all college students. (It's also 32 years of rising income inequality.)

And when it comes to staffing the federal government, Ivy League alumni tend to appoint fellow alumni.

The Obama administration has appointed a disproportionate number of Ivy League graduates to important positions—but educational elitism isn't just restricted to one party.

Donald Trump's version of Harry Hopkins—the powerful advisor and right-hand man—Stephen Bannon, he of the vocally anti-elitist Breitbart News, is a Harvard Business School graduate. Three of Trump's four adult children—arguably his closest advisors—all graduated from the same Ivy League school their father attended.

A First Family preference for the Ivy League is nothing new: during 20 of those 32 years (the administrations of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) the presidency was held by someone whose father also graduated from an Ivy League school.

From here to the Ivy League

In The Wire, there is a scene where a former felon is speaking with a young man who wants to change his life. The former felon tells the young man there is more to the world than what the young man sees every day on the corner, where he and his friends sell heroin.

After the young man hears that, he asks a question:

"Yeah, but how do you get from here to the rest of the world?"

The former felon answers with this:

"I wish I knew."

I didn't know how to get from my corner of the world to the Ivy League—I barely knew how to get to the local community college. But after finishing grad school at a (directional) state university my employer offered to pay for me to get two certificates in leadership and finance, through Cornell's distance learning program.

I am not an alumni of Cornell, and by the very nature of the programs they were the least impactful part of my education. They didn't teach me how to be a better writer or a more critical thinker—but they did teach me the value of the Ivy League brand. Before I started my business the Cornell name was often the line on my resume that stood out most to potential employers—and the bigger the employer, the more it stood out.

Sometimes an interviewer would see "Cornell", and the rest of my education would become irrelevant. A 6-week program became more relevant than the years I'd spent getting my actual degrees.

That's crazy.

Knowing your way to the Ivy League is not synonymous with knowing what you're doing.

Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain are two of America's most notorious corporate villains.

They both knew the way to Harvard Business School.

Harry Hopkins knew how to help working people because of his experience in the poor neighborhoods of New York City, not because he learned the way to the Ivy League.

We need more people like Harry Hopkins—even if they didn't go to the "right" school.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. He was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

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