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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

Harvard, the Stanford of the East

Harvard Yard in May.
Harvard Yard in May.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

When the new president of Harvard takes the helm next summer, she’ll have to worry about the usual stuff — padding the university’s enormous endowment and corraling all those Cambridge-sized egos.

But she’ll also face a more fundamental challenge and, perhaps, a more important one: getting Harvard’s groove back.

Not so long ago, Harvard was considered, almost by acclamation, the Best University in the World. Not anymore. Just this week, US News & World Report issued its annual college rankings. For the seventh straight year, Princeton topped the list.

The New Jersey school isn’t even Harvard’s most formidable rival. Far more important than US News is what parents and students think. This spring, for the fifth year in a row, a representative sample identified Stanford as their “dream school” in a Princeton Review survey — once again elevating the sunny engine of Silicon Valley over the wintry gatekeeper of the old economy.

The gap is reflected in admission numbers: The California school is now the nation’s most selective college, a distinction Harvard long enjoyed.


For good reasons, university administrators hate simplistic data points and arbitrary magazine rankings. But universities are brands, whether they like it or not — built on prestige and pop culture cachet and shaped by tectonic shifts in global affairs.

Last century, when two world wars elevated the United States to superpower status, its universities went along for the ride — none more than the nation’s oldest. Harvard transformed from a wealthy Brahmin redoubt to a super-wealthy international force.

This century, it’s not geopolitics that’s shifting the pecking order in elite academics. It’s technology — with Stanford riding the semiconductor and smartphone to new heights.

Being on top confers real advantages. The best brand draws the best students and faculty — and the best students and faculty are more likely to produce the next breakthrough. That means big gains not just for the Number One university, but also for the region that surrounds it.


It only follows, then, that the school that slips to Number Two loses something of real significance — and so does the region that’s tied up so much of its economy and self-image in its flagship institution.

Larry Summers announced his resignation during a press conference in February 2006.
Larry Summers announced his resignation during a press conference in February 2006.Globe Staff/File

LARRY SUMMERS warned us about all this. Brilliant and cocksure, he began his career as the youngest tenured professor at Harvard and built a national reputation as a senior official in the Clinton administration, eventually serving as secretary of the Treasury.

Time magazine once named him part of the “committee to save the world.” And when Harvard tapped him to serve as president in 2001, he was determined to execute another rescue job.

Harvard, he insisted, had grown complacent: its undergraduate experience lackluster, its attention to the sciences inadequate for an age of innovation, its culture too slow to adapt. He was impatient. His knees bounced, his fingers twitched.

“He’ll either implode in the first 24 months because he tries to do too much in too heavy-handed a way,” a senior administrator at the university told the Globe at the start of Summers’s tenure, “or he’ll be the greatest president of Harvard in the last 100 years.”

In the end, neither prediction came true. Summers’s elbowy leadership style and controversial comments on innate differences between women and men alienated big swaths of the campus and eventually derailed his presidency. But it didn’t take 24 months. It took five years — enough time to offer a tantalizing glimpse at what a bolder Harvard might look like.


Summers eliminated tuition for families earning less than $60,000. He expanded the faculty, enlarged the school’s international footprint, and jump-started plans for a transformational, science-centered campus across the Charles River in Allston.

It was an audacious start, but he couldn’t finish, leaving behind a half-formed legacy and an admonition for a still-too-staid campus. “Great and proud institutions, like great and proud nations at their peak, must surmount a very real risk,” he said, in his final commencement address, “that the very strength of their traditions will lead to caution, to an inward focus on prerogative, and to a complacency that lets the world pass them by.”

The irony of Summers’ presidency is that his aggressive approach — or, rather, the excesses of his aggressive approach — ushered in a period of retrenchment. One of his successor’s primary tasks was restoring peace to the campus he had so agitated.

That successor, Drew Faust, has performed well by objective measures. She stared down the Great Recession, which in fiscal year 2009 destroyed more than one-quarter of an endowment that had reached $37 billion, and she responded well — raising $8 billion and counting in a record-breaking capital campaign.

She’s also dutifully defused many of the race-and-gender controversies that have roiled Harvard and so many other American campuses of late. Last year, she installed a plaque honoring four slaves who helped build a part of the Harvard campus, and she suspended the men’s soccer team after the discovery of a lewd “scouting report” of female athletes. Now, as she prepares to step down next summer, she’s trying to trim the sails of the male-only “final clubs” that have long symbolized elite privilege and now, administrators say, foster a party culture than can lead to sexual assault.


To Faust’s critics, though, her tenure still feels small — smacking too much of the “inward focus” Summers warned about in his last commencement address. “It’s not hard to beat up on the final clubs,” says Richard Bradley, author of the book “Harvard Rules.” “You couldn’t pick an easier villain. But at the end of the day it’s not, honestly, a very important issue. It’s not a change-the-world kind of issue.”

Harvard’s last decade looks especially flat against the backdrop of Stanford’s surge. While Harvard has fought the dreary culture wars playing out on American campuses nationwide, Stanford has been busy creating an entirely new culture.

Google, Instagram, and Snapchat all have Palo Alto roots. And venture capitalists prowl the campus for the next big idea. John Doerr, a partner at the venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has described the school as “the germplasm for innovation,” adding, “I can’t imagine Silicon Valley without Stanford University.”

With so much happening out West, Harvard’s recent forays into the new economy — like the Innovation Lab, a shiny orange-and-white incubator in the shadow of the business school — can look like a bit of high-priced catch-up.


If the university is a laggard on tech, it is an important player in Massachusetts’ play for the next big thing: the life sciences. Boston’s Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals are an important source of research and patients. And the university’s Allston campus — finally rising after a recession-era pause — could be a significant boon to the effort.

But even here, Harvard is viewed as a junior partner. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a much older and far richer tradition of turning research into real-world application.

And while the region has a strong head start on biotech, it does not have a lock. The venture capital infrastructure is more robust in California. And Travis McCready, the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, worries about Silicon Valley’s strength in the next phase of biotech development.

Right now, he says, it can take years to work through the animal and human trials for a new drug. But the sort of artificial intelligence growing in and around the Stanford campus could allow researchers to simulate a drug’s effects and speed up trials. “And that,” he says, “changes everything.”

Howard Anderson, a former venture capitalist who has lectured at Harvard, says the university needs to install a technologist as its next president. The university needs someone who will help Cambridge build an insurmountable lead in the life sciences, he says, uniting the Harvard campus against the common enemy — the new Number One — Stanford.

Harvard President Drew Faust posed for a portrait. Faust has announced that she will step down next year.
Harvard President Drew Faust posed for a portrait. Faust has announced that she will step down next year.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2017

HARVARD, IT should be said, is not tumbling into oblivion. It’s too rich and too smart; its legacy too strong. Robert Frank, co-author of “The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us,” says the university can still thrive, even if it’s no longer seen as the best.

“The real prize is being a plausible contender for the top spot,” he says. “Harvard has always enjoyed that status, and still does. I don’t think they’re going to see the bottom drop out from their operation anytime soon.”

But if Harvard and its partners are sure to claim their share of high-profile victories in the coming years, recent history suggests the penalty for finishing second can be steep. In the 1970s, Massachusetts seemed likely to emerge as the hub of the computing industry. Harvard and MIT were here. So were Digital Equipment and Wang Laboratories. Route 128 was known as “America’s Technology Highway.” But then it slipped away.

Private industry played a big role in that failure. But the big universities share in the blame. Harvard, and even MIT, kept a bookish distance from industry — precluding the sort of borderless collaboration that made Stanford and Silicon Valley king.

The tally of Internet Age goliaths that sprouted from Stanford’s campus over the last few decades is staggering: not just Google, Instagram, and Snapchat, but Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Netflix, eBay, Electronic Arts, Intuit, LinkedIn, and E*Trade. Harvard’s one bona fide star, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, dropped out during his sophomore year and decamped for Palo Alto.

Massachusetts’s loss during this period, in capital and prestige, is almost incalculable. Preventing another setback of that magnitude will be a challenge. Because it’s not just about Harvard or MIT; it’s about the buttoned-up, stove-piped culture of the entire region.

“You’re not just trying to change the culture of Harvard, you’re trying to change the culture of Massachusetts and Boston, and that’s hard to do,” says Bradley, the author of “Harvard Rules.” “Boston doesn’t change for anyone, really. It’s kind of the point of Boston — that it doesn’t change.”

The university, to its credit, is eyeing a significant challenge to that culture down the road. It’s got long-range plans for an “enterprise research campus” in Allston that would house biotech companies and try to emulate the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine Harvard — or the rest of the region — building something quite so open and dynamic. But perhaps the Stanford of Massachusetts can at least get close.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe