'After all, where else would you want to be?'

November 30, 2007

Nobel prizes, vast endowments, world-best rankings - and a viciously competitive ethos. Can anyone resist Harvard's lure Jon Marcus reports. Its elegant ivy-covered brick buildings surround a quadrangle where the sounds of the outside world seldom intrude.

Its students are the cream of American society. Its alumni have led in every field, from seven US presidents - including George W. Bush, who graduated from the Business School - to Benazir Bhutto and Al Gore. Even its dropouts are overachievers, from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Polaroid inventor Edwin Land to publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and actor Matt Damon.

Harvard University stands at the top of the world - and at the top of The Times Higher 's world university rankings for the fourth year in a row.

Its endowment of more than $35 billion is larger than that of any private institution outside the Vatican and larger than the gross domestic products of well over half the countries in the world.

Harvard's faculty have won 43 Nobel prizes and its alumni (including Mr Gore) another 32. Its library is the largest at any academic institution in the world, with nearly 16 million volumes.

But despite its staggering wealth, Harvard has found that staying number one is not easy. In the most influential American league table, published by the magazine US News & World Report , Harvard has slipped to second behind Princeton. It fares less well than Princeton University in the ratio of faculty to undergraduates. In fact, undergraduate education is widely seen as one of Harvard's weak spots, especially in terms of student contact with faculty and the seriousness of the curriculum.

Moreover, there have of late been scandals, in-fighting, faculty defections, problems with super-sized egos and a stubbornly preserved hierarchy that discourages all-important interdisciplinary collaboration.

Still, perception in higher education counts for much, and America's best students continue to flock to the pretty campus on the banks of the Charles River. So many students, in fact, that fewer than one in ten applicants is accepted. And it is the sense of competition this engenders that may be Harvard's greatest asset.

"Harvard has just come off a really bad five-year period in which it lost a president and had a divided campus. And no one really cares," said Richard Bradley, author of Harvard Rules: Lawrence Summers and the Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University , one of several books to chronicle the recent problems at the university.

"The power of the brand is so strong that everybody wants to go to Harvard regardless of whether or not they're actually getting what they're paying for."

Even in that category - cost - Harvard has been slower than its peers to innovate, in spite of its wealth. Princeton stole some of its thunder by pioneering a "no-loan" financial aid policy, replacing tuition loans with outright grants, even for qualifying international students.

Arch-rival Yale University was among the first institutions to waive tuition for the children of families with income below $45,000 and has instituted a tuition loan-forgiveness programme for law school graduates who go into public service. Harvard disburses $231 million a year to students in financial aid, but its help for middle-class students falls short of Yale's.

Yale, Princeton, Stanford and other universities also freely poach from Harvard's faculty and have found willing transplants there, frustrated by the slow pace of advancement or by internecine power struggles.

"There was a time when, if Harvard offered a professor a job, it was a no- brainer - you took it," said Mr Bradley, who followed his undergraduate study at Yale with a graduate degree from Harvard and later worked there as a teaching fellow.

"After all, where else would you want to be? But for quite a few professors these days that's no longer the case. Quality of life is an issue, the culture of the university is an issue.

"Harvard is not a particularly warm and fuzzy kind of place. It's not welcoming. It's a testosterone-filled, me-against-everyone-else sort of culture. And there are a lot of people who don't want to put up with that any longer," Mr Bradley said.

Officially, at least, Harvard is dismissive of being ranked. "We believe that the most important thing is for a student to find the best fit for him or herself, regardless of a ranking," a university spokesman said. "There are many high-quality schools, all with various attributes that individual applicants should seek out to find what works best for them."

But Harvard is indisputably a lure for high achievers and the standard by which those other schools are often measured.

Mr Bradley, who is now the editor of an independent magazine for Harvard alumni called 02138 - the postcode of the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts - recounts a story he heard from a student he interviewed for his book.

"One of his professors asked the students: 'If you could either go to Harvard and not have a diploma or not go to Harvard and get a Harvard diploma, which would you choose?' In other words, if you took away the brand power of the Harvard diploma, would the experience still be worth it?"

Mr Bradley said that the student could not decide.

That brand power does not seem to have been tarnished, even after Harvard's immediate past president, Lawrence Summers, left amid the controversy he created by raising questions about the ability of women to excel in mathematics and science, resulting in a dramatic vote of no confidence by the faculty.

He has been replaced by Drew Gilpin Faust, the first woman ever to hold that job. Harvard has also launched an initiative to increase the number of women on the faculty and to support tenure-track female and non-white academics.

Dr Faust, who has already been featured in Glamour magazine, seems more aware of social conventions - and much more diplomatic - than her predecessor. But she faces the same major problem as her predecessor: the traditional independence of the various separate and powerful Harvard colleges, all of which fiercely guard their independence at a time when other universities are excelling at interdepartmental collaboration.

So intractably independent of one another are the colleges that make up Harvard that it is creating an entirely new campus largely to encourage interdisciplinary study, to be paid for by a long-delayed, much- anticipated multibillion-dollar fundraising campaign that will test the loyalty of Harvard's eminent alumni.

The huge new Allston campus, just a short walk across a footbridge over the Charles River to neighbouring Boston, will be home to expanded science and technology facilities. It will be anchored by the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, the first non- commercial enterprise in the US to create disease-specific stem-cell lines to develop treatments for what are at present incurable conditions.

In the end, for all of the obstacles it creates to fostering collaboration and goodwill, it is the competitiveness that Harvard implicitly encourages that may be its abiding strength.

"If you had to pick one thing that defines the culture of Harvard, you'd have to say that it is competition at every level, starting from the absolutely vicious competition to get in," Mr Bradley said. "To get to Harvard, whether as an undergraduate or a graduate student or a professor, you have to integrate competition into everything you do. Once you get there, you can't stop. It's part of your nature. The result is that people can do remarkable things, because they're in an intensely Darwinian universe."

That, along with the power of long-held perception, Mr Bradley said, "is why it's so hard for everyone else to knock Harvard off the top".

HARVARD: IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

  • Harvard was founded as a college in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature; its governing body is the oldest corporation in North America
  • It was named for London-born John Harvard, a minister who left his library to the college on his death in 1638
  • Harvard has 6,715 undergraduates and 12,424 graduate and professional students
  • It receives 18,161 undergraduate applications, of whom just 2,068 are accepted
  • The annual cost of undergraduate tuition, room, board and fees is $43,655 (£21,245)
  • There are 2,520 non-medical faculty, 810 of whom are women, and 10,674 medical faculty
  • 43 faculty and 32 alumni have won Nobel prizes
  • Harvard's annual revenues are $3 billion; the annual value of its research is $400 million; and its endowment is $34.9 billion
  • Its library holdings total 16 million volumes, the most of any academic institution.

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