McKinsey has called the reports on its contracts misleading. Meanwhile, the Buttigieg campaign has responded that the contracts began after he left McKinsey, and he would not have worked on them. When he was recruited to the firm as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, their argument goes, the company was just fine.
That’s simply not the case. And as we look at a candidate for president, it is worth considering what the decision to work at McKinsey at all reflects about Buttigieg’s judgment, no matter which clients he helped.
I was also a Rhodes Scholar when Buttigieg was at Oxford, and I witnessed and participated in vigorous debates among students about whether working at McKinsey was appropriate. Whether over a drink at the local pub or in seemingly endless communication on a very active email group, many of us argued that our peers were being recruited for problematic jobs at problematic companies, which often sell their services to even more problematic companies and governments.
McKinsey was usually the focus, because the company has long been one of the most aggressive recruiters of Rhodes scholars. (“We are the largest employers of Rhodes scholars and Marshall scholars on the planet, outside of the United States government,” one partner boasted to the New Yorker in 1999.) The company has courted Rhodes scholars in particular with on-campus events and free junkets in Italy; it even maintains its own Rhodes scholars recruitment Web page. To some, McKinsey offered a bright professional future: You could work with very talented colleagues, develop highly transferrable skills, earn a lot of money and either remain at the company or move on to basically any job you liked.
McKinsey, along with a few other companies like Google, was extremely effective at tapping into, and manipulating, a strain of Type-A angst common among Rhodes scholars. This is a group of eager overachievers who want to have a big impact on the world and are tasked by the scholarship to “fight the world’s fight.” But despite winning one of the world’s most prestigious awards, many of these graduate students have deep anxiety about what to do after they leave the hallowed halls of Oxford. I know I did.
McKinsey responded cleverly to this agita. With a deep pool of Rhodes alumni, McKinsey pitched itself as the next thing to do. Work with our prestigious firm, and get trained up with some of the brightest, nimble minds in the business for a few years, they argued, and you’ll be equipped to pursue the world-changing project of your dreams afterward. Friends told me the recruitment was designed to make these jobs seem like the best steppingstone for our budding careers — whether we aspired to launch a start-up, lead a Fortune 500 company, found a nonprofit organization or run for public office. This logic suffused the Rhodes community with a quiet air of inevitability.
But McKinsey’s presence at Oxford was highly troubling to others, including me, and we stayed away from their events. As we heard fellow students talk about the recruitment pipeline, we were concerned. We knew that, while McKinsey provided some consulting services to nonprofit organizations and certain noble enterprises, it also worked closely with multinational conglomerates and big banks, the military and undemocratic governments. That led many of us to believe that we and our peers should not go work for this company — or, at least, that far fewer of us should.
So we debated with our peers. And from my recent visits back to Oxford, it’s clear that the debate continues, especially with new scandals connecting McKinsey to President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, corruption in South Africa, profiting from and hiding conflicts of interest in Puerto Rico’s economic crisis, and boosting the image of autocrats in China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Meanwhile, many in the Rhodes community have worked to show our peers other potential paths — and to encourage looking beyond the conventional corporate paths that McKinsey and others package so effectively to students. (McKinsey’s global managing partner, Kevin Sneader, told Fortune earlier this year that the firm’s reputation is “first and foremost built by what our clients say about us,” not by criticism in the media.)
These have not always been easy conversations to have, and sometimes feelings are hurt. But they are conversations worth having. And in an election season where the entire raison d’etre of Buttigieg’s campaign is his personal story and character, the decision to join McKinsey should be evaluated carefully.
For someone who avowedly cares most about public service, Buttigieg’s decision reflected poor judgment. And his decision to keep the contributions from McKinsey executives despite revelations of where the company’s money comes from shows that he still doesn’t see the central problem with the firm’s work. Buttigieg is comfortable with being part of an institution that enables, and even helps exacerbate, human rights abuses in the United States and around the world.
Many have focused on Buttigieg’s client list. I’m glad that the information, which remained concealed until recently, is now public. But regardless of its release, Buttigieg’s decision to work at McKinsey in the first place — and his continued use of that network, and much of corporate America, to raise enormous sums of money — merits scrutiny. McKinsey was never a value-neutral institution. And working there wasn’t a value-neutral decision, either.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that McKinsey recommended "worsening conditions for immigrant detainees" as part of its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The firm recommended cuts to the costs of food and medical services, but its proposals were intended to reduce costs without sacrificing quality.