America’s ‘It’ School? Look West, Harvard

05/29/2014 5:18 PM

05/29/2014 5:18 PM

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 3,000 miles.

Riding a wave of interest in technology, Stanford University has become America’s “it” school, by measures that Harvard University 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 University “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 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. “It wasn’t considered the sort of thing gentlemen did.”

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.

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