Intellectual cream rises to the top

November 5, 2004

Harvard enjoys an embarrassment of riches - the nation's best students, the world's elite scholars and a vast endowment - but it is not without its critics, Jon Marcus discovers

There is a statue at the centre of the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, famous for telling three lies. The first is that the statue is of the university's founder, the Rev John Harvard. It is not: there were no likenesses of Harvard available when the sculptor set about his work, so an undergraduate descendant of the minister served as a stand-in. Nor was Harvard the university's founder. He was its first benefactor, leaving it his library and half his estate on his death in 1638. The university's date of incorporation is also incorrect. It was opened in 1636, a mere 16 years after the Pilgrims landed, making it the oldest university in the US.

Harvard is, nonetheless, unarguably America's - now the world's - best university. Its faculty members have won 40 Nobel and 44 Pulitzer prizes. It has produced seven presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush. Its library of more than 15 million volumes is bettered only by the Library of Congress in the size of its holdings. It has an endowment of nearly $23 billion (£12.7 billion), second in the world only to the Vatican's.

Harvard has always attracted America's top students. Now, internationally, a Harvard degree is a prized asset, notably sought by the UK's Laura Spence, who was turned down by Oxford University when she applied to read medicine there, and by Yiting Liu, the Chinese student majoring in applied mathematics and economics whose parents' book, Harvard Girl , became a bestseller in 2000.

The world's top academics are also drawn to Harvard's prestigious medical, law and business schools, and the university as a whole receives $300 million a year in government research funding. There are few areas of scholarship in which its academics are not engaged, from stem cell and genetics research at its medical school to analysis of American democracy and the global response to terrorism at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. The most recent additions to Harvard's long list of Nobel laureates include David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel (medicine 1981), Nicolaas Bloembergen (physics 1981), Carlo Rubbia (physics 1984), Amartya Sen (economics 1998) and Riccardo Giacconi (physics 2002).

Inevitably, Harvard's pre-eminence has made it a popular target of critics.

Grade inflation has been one area of criticism, after it was revealed that 91 per cent of students had received honours. Other critics object to the way it invests its endowment, which they say is so vast it could be used to influence corporate and government policy. Conscious of the impact on diversity of its annual costs of nearly $40,000 for tuition, room and board, the university has - in common with other top schools - beefed up its financial aid for low-income and hard-pressed middle-class students.

Harvard factfile

  • Academic staff
    About 2,000 non-medical
    9,000 medical school
  • Faculties Ten
    principal academic units
    nine faculties oversee 11 schools and colleges
  • Students (academic year 2003-04)
    Undergraduate 6,597
    Graduate and professional students 12,014
    Extension 1,079
    Total 19,638 (less 52 dual-degree students)

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World university rankings 2004
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