Riding technology wave, Stanford rises to top of some measures
By Richard Pérez-Peña
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — In academia, where brand reputation is everything, one university holds an especially enviable place these days when it comes to attracting students and money. To find it from this center of learning, turn west and go about 2,700 miles.
Riding a wave of interest in technology, Stanford University has become America’s “it” school, by measures that Harvard once dominated. Stanford has had the nation’s lowest undergraduate acceptance rate for two years in a row; in five of the last six years, it has topped the Princeton Review survey asking high school seniors to name their “dream college”; and year in and year out, it raises more money from donors than any other university.
No one calls Duke “the Stanford of the South,” or the University of Michigan “the public Stanford,” at least not yet. But, for now at least, there is reason to doubt the long-held wisdom that the consensus gold standard in American higher education is Harvard, founded 378 years ago, which held its commencement on Thursday.
“There’s no question that right now, Stanford is seen as the place to be,” said Robert Franek, who oversees the Princeton Review’s college and university guidebooks and student surveys. Of course, that is more a measure of popularity than of quality, he said, and whether it will last is anyone’s guess.
Professors, administrators and students here insist that on the whole, they are not afraid that Harvard will be knocked off its perch, either in substance or in reputation. But some concede, now that you mention it, that in particularly contemporary measures, like excellence in computer science, engineering and technology, Harvard could find much to emulate in that place out in California.
“Harvard for a long time had sort of an ambiguous relationship to applied science and engineering,” said Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor here and a former dean of Harvard College. “It wasn’t considered the sort of thing gentlemen did.”
People in academia tend to roll their eyes at the incessant effort to rank colleges and universities, insisting that they pay little attention to the ratings that their institutions spend so much time and energy chasing. They scoff at the notion that there is one pre-eminent institution, or that vast and varied schools can be seeded like football teams.
That has not stopped a growing list of organizations from taking a crack at it, and for what it’s worth, in recent years ranking systems from U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Newsweek and The Daily Beast have, at various times, placed Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Williams, Yale and the U.S. Military Academy at the top of the heap.
Stanford basks in its image as the hub of Silicon Valley, alma mater to a string of technology moguls; incubator of giants like Google, Yahoo and Cisco; and beneficiary of their success and philanthropy.
In fact, while the university declined to comment for this article, administrators and professors there have voiced concerns that too much of the university’s appeal is based on students’ hopes of striking it rich in Silicon Valley.
Other colleges would love to have such problems.
“There has been an explosion of interest in engineering and related areas,” said Alan M. Garber, Harvard’s provost. “We simply have had a hard time keeping up with that demand.”
At the same time, he said, Harvard has a number of joint projects with its neighbor the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and “it doesn’t make sense for us to duplicate a lot of what MIT does within Harvard.”
Undergraduates here are aware of the contrasts with Stanford (and Yale and Princeton and MIT), but they vary widely in how seriously they take the topic.
“I’m a bio major, and within that field at least, it’s not spoken about at all, whether or not one school is superior to the other,” said Michelle Choi, who just finished her second year. “I don’t think Harvard students at all feel threatened.”
But for students more attuned to technology, “there’s a sense that they have a direct pipeline to Silicon Valley and money that doesn’t exist here,” said Nicholas P. Fandos, the managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, who just finished his junior year.
About 5 percent of Harvard’s undergraduate degrees are awarded in computer science or engineering, compared with about 27 percent at Stanford. At Stanford, about 90 percent of undergraduate students take at least one computer programming class, compared with about half at Harvard.
The disparity has deep cultural roots at many liberal arts institutions: Anything that looked like practical career preparation was seen as something less than real undergraduate education. Stanford, which established an engineering school in the 1920s, was never like that. In fact, it has become one of many universities that worry about how far the pendulum has swung away from the humanities.
Harvard administrators have worked for years to expand offerings in computer science and engineering, but the going has been slow. Harvard created its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2007, and it is planning a new campus across the Charles River, in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, largely for those studies.
Harvard professors in a variety of fields said that a little fear of a competitor was a healthy thing, and that the university was less complacent about its leadership than it once was.
“I think there’s a halo effect that doesn’t do Harvard any good, because Harvard has, at times, had pockets of mediocrity that it could get away with,” said Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology and a noted author on that field and linguistics.
Harvard also has an image, reinforced in college guides and student surveys, as a less-than-happy place for undergraduates, while people swoon over the quality of life at most of its peers. Its students have a reputation for being intensely competitive, working hard, and getting by with little hand-holding, at least by today’s coddled standards.
Garber, the Harvard provost, said that “reputation lags reality” — the university has, among other things, recently beefed up its undergraduate advising — and that people may not have a clear view of their college experiences until many years later.
Students interviewed here said they considered the sink-or-swim image overblown. The norm at Harvard, they said, is to tell everyone how hard you work and how intense the place is. Students at Stanford say the prevailing ethos there is the opposite: work hard, but in public, appear utterly laid-back.
Jill Lepore, the noted historian and Harvard professor, said that the gap between the real Harvard and the imagined one — the university in the film “The Social Network,” she wrote, “is utterly unfamiliar to me” — was very, very old. She cited Benjamin Franklin, who as a teenager was frustrated that he could not attend Harvard College and lampooned it instead in one of his letters to The New-England Courant under the pseudonym Silence Dogood.
He wrote of dull-witted children educated at great expense, who “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely, and enter a room genteely,” but emerge “as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.”
Decades later, his view of Harvard apparently changed, Franklin became one of its patrons.