From Harvard Business School, Mormon "Mini-Mitts" Cheer On Their Idol

From Provo to Cambridge, a singular experience. “You’re just in a stage of life ahead of everyone else.”

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On the eve of Super Tuesday, ten Harvard grad students squeezed on to old couches and folding chairs in a third-story walkup apartment a couple miles from campus to talk politics.

The subject: Mitt Romney. The consensus: He sure is wonderful.

These weren’t just any Romney supporters; they were part of Harvard Business School’s small but ever-present Mormon community — ambitious, young BYU alumni tracing the same academic path that the candidate did four decades ago. Now, with Romney poised to clinch the Republican presidential nomination, this club of young mini-Mitts is watching the race with a mix of glowing pride, fierce admiration — and a special understanding of the forces that helped mold their idol.

Indeed, if Romney ever had a core constituency, it was sitting in this room.

“He is like a role model to me,” said David Theurer, a Colorado native who studied mechanical engineering at BYU. “Fantastically successful career, served well in the church, Stake President — when I think of what would be a great life for me, his example of success in family life and professional life is inspirational.”

Austin Walters, an international relations graduate from Wyoming, was similarly effusive. “Romney’s a CEO type and not all politicians are. Some politicians are more middle-manager types—” he cut himself off. “OK, I’m betraying my biases here. I just love the guy.”

Their special affinity for Romney transcended politics — not everyone in the room was a Republican — and went deeper than their shared faith. More than anything, the group related to Romney’s CV, which includes, like theirs, stints at deeply religious Brigham Young University as well as the liberal academic hub that is Harvard. While each episode of Romney’s education has been mined independently for anecdotes that shaped him, it may have been the blend of both those experiences — his journey from Provo to Cambridge — that was truly formative.

It’s an experience perhaps best understood by the students who are following in his footsteps today.

Harvard Business School’s Latter-Day Saint Student Association has about 40 members. Most of them graduated from BYU, whose Marriott School of Management is among the top undergraduate business programs in the country. All but three of them are men, and most are former Mormon missionaries. As a community, they are socially self-sufficient and tightly networked: within hours of fielding BuzzFeed’s first interview request, two committed sources turned into ten.

The Latter-Day Saint (LDS) presence is widely recognized on campus, partly because their faith claims two former deans, as well as a star professor, Clayton Christensen, who pioneered the theory of “disruptive innovation.” An old HBS adage holds that the school’s student body is made up of the “three Ms”: Mormons, military, and McKinsey.

“Whenever I talk to somebody they always think there are more Mormons than there really are,” said Benn Manning, a BYU grad from Washington state. “Maybe it’s because we have kids, and that, like, doubles us.”

But Steve Pearson, a BYU alum from California, said the two schools share certain institutional commonalities that have led to his alma matter pumping out so many Cambridge-bound alumni over the years. Namely, professors at both schools tend to share a Romney-esque commitment to pragmatism, and an aversion to whimsical philosophizing.

Like BYU, “Harvard is very much about training you in the proven ways, and plugging you in to major corporations,” Pearson said. “There’s kind of a way to do it, and we’re going to show you how to do it. If you think about other hierarchical organizations where there’s a right way to do things — military, Mormonism, McKinsey — I think culturally they just fit better than they might at other schools.”

“I feel like BYU, not being a liberal arts school, offers a type of education that’s very different,” added Jen Porter, a 2009 BYU graduate and the only woman in the room. “Most of us come from business or economic backgrounds, and BYU had a very deliberate way of teaching.”

But despite philosophical similarities, the transition from BYU to HBS has always been rife with cultural tension — something Romney experienced firsthand.

Romney arrived at Harvard in 1971, having enrolled in the recently created JD/MBA program that allowed him to simultaneously earn the law degree his father wanted him to get, and the MBA he was more interested in. By the time he set foot in his first business class, he was already a husband, and father of two.

“When classmates visited the Romneys’ tidy home in suburban Belmont, they felt as if they were visiting a friend’s parents, not members of their own generation, and the young couple’s closest friends came from the Mormon church,” the New York Times’s Jodi Kantor wrote recently.

LDS students at HBS today admit their community has always been somewhat divorced from campus social life.

“You’re just in a stage of life ahead of everyone else,” said Pearson. “You know what it’s like to have to rush a child to the hospital. You have experiences most students can’t relate with.”

Indeed, thanks to BYU’s aggressive focus on matrimony — about 25 percent of the student body leaves campus with a wedding band — most of the school’s alumni at HBS are married, many with children. In fact, according to Theurer, Mormon kids account for more than half of all the children belonging to HBS students.

While their non-Mormon counterparts alternate between caffeine-addled cram sessions and bar-hopping excursions, BYU grads maintain a decidedly more staid lifestyle, often commuting to class from far-away houses, and trying to make it home for family dinner at nights.

They do their best mingle, hosting well-attended “Mormon 101” Q&A sessions to explain their faith to curious peers. And their classmates tend to reciprocate the hospitality: one student recalled an invitation to a “Whiskey Party” for his section that included a note at the bottom informing the Mormons that soft drinks would also be served.

But Ezra Hernandez, a BYU economics graduate from Texas, concedes that the glaring lifestyle differences alter the way they interact with their classmates. He remembered one class in particular where his peers looked to him as a de facto leader in group projects.

“I always felt like, even though I was roughly the same age, because I have a wife a daughter, they sort of looked at me like I was older,” he said.

It’s a dynamic that helps them sympathize with the common complaint that Romney can’t quite “connect” with average voters. Where many people see aloofness and snobbery in the candidate, his LDS fans at Harvard see a familiar social chasm. It’s not that Mitt doesn’t want to drink a beer with you — it’s just that he doesn’t drink beer.

And besides, to the students gathered in that room, the quaint notion of authenticity wasn’t exactly top of mind. Treating the campaign as a case study, they found little fault. Romney’s wonky 59-point economic plan, which has been widely derided for a lack of vision, was “fantastic… exactly what HBS would bring you up to produce.” His record of pandering to different constituencies was simply savvy “customer segmentation.” And his calculated flip flops on issues from abortion to health care were heralded as “pragmatic” — high praise in this crowd.

“If conditions change over time, a different course is needed,” explained Theurer. “At HBS that’s viewed as a strength. I view it as a strength.”

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