Desperate Times in Harvard Yard

“Old and Cold” describes why Harvard College has ceded its position as the most desirable undergraduate institution in the nation to Stanford University.

The numbers show that Harvard is no longer the top choice among elite students. Last year, Stanford received more applications - over 42,000, to Harvard’s 37,000; accepted a lower percentage of them, 5.05% to Harvard’s 5.3%; and had a higher percentage of its admitted choose to attend , 80.4% to Harvard’s 80%. Over 7,200 cast a single application early to Stanford, compared to Harvard’s 6,000.

President Drew Faust is now facing challenges that portend even further erosion in Harvard’s status as the most sought-after college in the country.

In a desperate move to regain its former glory, and to draw attention from past blunders, Harvard is now making a scapegoat of its social clubs. Anecdotal reports from female admittees, who increasingly choose to go elsewhere, point to a party scene concentrated in a few all-male social clubs. By banning membership in “single-gender, exclusive” organizations, Harvard believes it will win back these women. However, this action, the latest in a long string of administrative miscalculations affecting campus life, may only compound Harvard’s problems. Consider rival Stanford’s 30 single sex fraternities and sororities, to which 25% of its students belong, which haven’t slowed Stanford’s march to the top.

On the academic front, Harvard’s curriculum is seen as playing catch-up to Stanford’s more relevant and rewarding engineering and computer science fields. Just as applicants seem to be looking west, so too are elite academics: prize-winning Economics Professor Niall Ferguson is the latest faculty member to decamp for sunny Stanford. In spite of Harvard’s $450 million campaign to boost professorships and facilities in engineering, it seems too late. In the words of Harvard English Professor Louis Menand, “Let’s face it, if you’re in Silicon Valley, you are a sexy school. That’s where exciting things are happening.”

Harvard College has long struggled with a reputation for its Professors not caring about undergraduates. A recent faculty five-year review of its General Education requirements - implemented in 2007 - concluded that “in practice our program is a chimera: it has the head of a Gen Ed requirement with the body of a distribution requirement.” The report noted that Gen Ed classes are auditorium-sized, and taught by graduate students who are sometimes not experts in the material. The result? Students don’t take the Gen Ed classes seriously-- - courses which comprise a year or more of their academic careers.

In extracurricular activities, Harvard seems equally cold. President Faust notes that Harvard selects students for their many talents, such as writing, acting, or singing. But once on campus, students find that they have to compete for positions on the student newspaper, humor magazine, a cappella, and drama groups, among others. In contrast, many of Harvard’s peer schools welcome all comers in student activities. Undergraduates increasingly find that Harvard admission, which they competed so strenuously to win, is less about personal enrichment than about ongoing competition.

A greater source of student discontent stems from its housing system, which ignores student preferences and randomly assigns students to dormitories for four years. Fully one-quarter of upperclassmen are randomly assigned to live in the Radcliffe Quadrangle for three years, in a distant residential neighborhood more than a mile from classes and their fellow classmates living by the scenic Charles River and bustling Harvard Square.

In contrast to Princeton and Yale, which are investing in new residential colleges to enhance undergraduate life, Harvard is “renewing” its early 20th century dormitories. It’s eliminating the suite-style living that students like – and use for socializing—in favor of monastic single-room occupancy with Administration-controlled social areas. Compounding the problem is Harvard’s alcohol policy. Despite the fact that most upperclassmen must live in Harvard dorms, about 40% of whom are of legal drinking age, Harvard prohibits them from having alcohol in their rooms. While alcohol abuse is a problem on many college campuses, Harvard’s paternalistic approach is more like that of prep school parietals.

No wonder that Harvard Magazine recently reported that Harvard students are less happy about their experiences than those elsewhere.

Now comes the release of the American Association of Universities (AAU) study on sexual assault at elite universities—a massive study involving 27 campuses and thousands of students. In reaction to this report, Harvard’s social clubs, which are unaffiliated with the University, have become the latest targets of social “reform”. Traditionally low profile, seven ancient all-male and five new all-female “final” clubs (and one co-Ed) play a growing role in students’ social lives akin to fraternities and sororities – but without the housing. . Today, they are joined by 8 fraternities and 6 sororities, which have only recently emerged to fill a void left by the Harvard’s crackdown on socializing.

Harvard administrators have seized on the AAU report as a pretext to force the clubs to change their member and guest policies, effectively regulating whom undergrads can befriend. Ostensibly the goal is to reduce sexual misconduct,but is Harvard trying to distract from its well-publicized woes? The AAU study noted that 75% of sexual assaults took place in dorms, while 15% occurred in Final Clubs. A faculty member of Harvard’s Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Assault called the data an “alarm bell” over clubs, while students point out the real problem is within Harvard’s own halls. “With all the negative attention final clubs are receiving for their role in creating potentially unsafe spaces, I would have expected a larger proportion of assaults to occur there,” Hope Patterson, a Harvard junior, told Harvard Magazine. “It clearly shows that the University must do more to combat sexual violence than blame final clubs and other unrecognized single-sex organizations.”

With 75% of sexual assaults occurring in dorms, one would expect more accountability here. While Harvard rails against single-gender organizations, other colleges are creating safer dorm spaces by separating men and women by floor. National studies show that 89% of sexual assaults involve alcohol, so how does Harvard – with its Puritan approach to prohibition-- suffer such a high incidence of sexual assault in dorms, where it prohibits alcohol?

The University setting rules for students’ socializing off campus could have the opposite effect of what Harvard wants. Schools in the AAU study with up to fifty percent of their students in fraternities and sororities experience sexual assault at one-third the rate of Harvard. Mother Harvard setting play dates will neither make students happier, nor stop them from forming associations that have mushroomed in popularity. Forcing co-ed socializing among these same clubs is no more likely to lower sexual assault than requiring mixed-gender rooming groups in the dorms. One undergrad lobbying for his club to go co-ed noted that doing so would “Rock the Harvard social scene to the core!”—hardly a recipe for reduced “unwanted attention”!

Entrenched in the past, even the fight song “10,000 Men of Harvard” reeks disrespect, a veritable – Veritas? – microaggression marginalizing women. Meanwhile, in Palo Alto, every Stanford touchdown prompts the Cardinal fight song, “All Right Now, Baby It’s All Right Now.” In Palo Alto, it certainly does seem like it’s all right now. Now, where would you want to go to college?

Tempest in a champagne glass…

A little bit of this actually true. A very little bit.

Tragic! Positively tragic!

Desperate times in Harvard Yard? That’s funny!
Harvard is doing just fine!

Of course this article drastically overstates things but it does touch on something I’ve noticed over the last couple years. Which is Harvard’s traditional lack of concern for students’ undergraduate experience is beginning to catch up to it, as more of the most highly qualified high school kids change their first choice to Stanford or Yale.

@thunderbolt1 clearly didn’t get into Harvard and is trying to antagonize people. Too bad.

Welcome to CC, @thundebolt1 .
Is there a reason that you chose this diatribe as your first post?

Do you have any idea what the lyrics to “All Right Now” are? (Not that anyone at Stanford does, either.) If “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” is microagression, “All Right Now” would be a felony.

(Also, I grew up on Harvard fight songs; my mother literally sang them to me in the cradle. I know most of them. I know all the lyrics to “Fair Harvard.” I have attended many joint Glee Club concerts Saturday night before The Game. I am not sure “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” even makes the top 10 of Harvard songs. The touchdown song at Harvard is “With Crimson In Triumph Flashing,” no?)

Hysterical post, with all possible meanings of that phrase applicable.

I think my daughter attends a different school named Harvard. There seems to be some space-time overlap, but not a lot.

Single occupancy dorms are a future trend.

Sigh. Still waiting for the reasoned, factual rebuttal.

@HappyAlumnus, I’m a Harvard College alum, and Stanford Grad school as well. The article intends to cover what I think are three primary drivers of students’ undergraduate experiences: academic, extracurricular, and social.

To make it a bit easier, here’s the bullet point version:

  1. By the numbers -- applications, acceptances, early applications, yield -- Stanford has surpassed Harvard as the most sought-after, most desirable undergrad institution. Harvard even had to resort to extensive use of its Wait List this year to meet its enrollment objective - says 93 students.
  2. Dean Khurana has, in meetings, confided that some female admittees have cited the final club party scene as the reason they chose to go elsewhere -- although his comments were reported to me by third parties. It doesn't add up that those females are choosing Stanford, Princeton, or Yale simply because of the existence of single-gender, exclusive organizations -- all of those have "single-gender, exclusive" organizations.
  3. The $450 million to engineering is a widely-known fact, and I don't think many dispute that Harvard is behind Stanford on that front. The Professor Menand quote is from published sources.
  4. The faculty five year review of General Ed was published Spring 2015, and reported in Harvard Magazine. It replaced a 30-year old Core curriculum, which suffered the same flaws.
  5. Students have to compete to join many extracurricular organizations (like the ones I cited), in contrast to many of Harvard's peers in the Ivy League and near-Ivies. I'm not including athletics, which are competitive everywhere - although a Stanford football player, who chose to walk on there rather than accept a recruited position at Harvard, told me that "I didn't want to go to a school where athletes are perceived as the dumb kids, and so many of the rest of the kids are depressed."
  6. The Quad really is more than a mile from many classes and the River (and River Houses). Students really are assigned randomly, 25% of them to the Quad. Dining hall policies are restrictive -- limiting Quadlings' ability to eat in River Houses, which can be particularly burdensome on athletes whose practices end late across the River (or who just want to eat with their friends at a River House).

I’m understating it to say that some Quad residents would prefer a River House. When it went co-ed forty years ago, Harvard could have invested in new River Houses – say, where it built a hotel on the old Gulf Station on Mass Ave. The only new student housing built in the last 40 years - on DeWolfe Street, as overflow space from 5 or 6 other dorms - is even being phased out, as singles are implemented in the “renewal” program, capturing former private living rooms as dorm rooms.

  1. The alcohol policy is, what it is. The student life policies seem to have been drafted by an insurance lawyer. And they've had the result of creating that party scene I mentioned above.
  2. The sexual assault study figures are from the AAU report. The "alarm bell" quote is public, from Professor Laibson, who is on the Task Force. In response, President Faust has gone on the attack against "single-gender, exclusive" organizations but the connections are tenuous at best: Case Western is the school with fifty percent of its students in frats and sororities, and one-third the sexual assault rate, and there are similar stats in the AAU report. So, the attack is ideological and political - and sanctimonious, from the President of an institution whose stock in trade is its exclusivity! - as well as totally subversive of student choice, where probably 25% of upperclass students belong, and their numbers have been increasing rapidly (just to judge from the new existence of five women's clubs, and 14 Greek organizations).
  3. @JHS, "10,000 Men of Harvard" is in fact the Harvard fight song (and pre-Game performances are on Friday nights -- the Game is on Saturdays -- but I will spot you that minor factual erro). Your comment made me double-check my lifetime of Harvard football game experiences, but YouTube agrees with me.

Also, I checked the lyrics of “All Right Now,” and I am willing to assert that they describe an interaction that meets contemporary standards for affirmative consent!

Someone sounds bitter… LOL… I’d imagine a successful Stanford graduate alum would be having such a super fantastic awesome life that they wouldn’t have time to, ummm, ***** a website for teenagers. “The Lady doth protest too much…”

In any case:

(1) Microscopic differences in admissions stats are a silly thing to focus on… Harvard still has higher SAT scores, still wins cross-admit battles with Stanford… but it would be foolish to think any of HYPSMCC are really any easier or more selective than any of the other. And those insignificant differences translate into absolutely no difference to the quality of undergraduate education and interaction on campus. Please, do you have a study that says that less than half of point of percentage in admission stats means one school is “better” than the other or that the educational opportunities are in any way impacted??

(2) Finals clubs… who cares! The vast majority of students certainly don’t… the only people who really care about finals clubs are… folks in finals clubs and those who wish they were… The social life is plenty diverse and everyone can find their niche and have as thriving a social life as they want. I think I thought about Finals Clubs for all of 10 minutes in my entire time there… (though, I remember watching the movie “The Social Network” and was genuinely shocked to see that certain folks really obsessed over them… glad I never hung-out with such insecure folks).

(3) Are you trying to tell anyone anything that they don’t already know? Of course everyone knows Stanford has significantly stronger engineering than Harvard… Harvard has historically never had a strong incentive to expand in that direction when MIT was 15 minutes away… though that apparently is changing. It will be interesting to see how Harvard will attempt to leapfrog over traditional 20th century engineering directly into 21st century engineering. That said, in mathematics/physical sciences/biological sciences, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Berkeley are pretty much equal. And in my field of science, astrophysics, Harvard destroys Stanford.

(4) Good grief… core, gen ed… whatever… every university has these, and students love to complain about it at nearly every university. I actually like the old Core… rather than taking boring survey courses that tried to cram everything in one term with absolutely zero depth, I got to take some interesting specialty courses that were targeted for non-majors. One of my favorites was a “Moral Reasoning” course on comparing and contrasting Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche on what constitutes the foundation of morality… I took a great course in “Foreign Cultures” comparing and contrasting the rapid industrialization of Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. You make of the core/gen ed what you want to make of it. If you see it as a waste of time, well then it most likely will be a waste of time. But if you see at as an opportunity to expand the breadth of your knowledge, it can be a wonderful experience.

(5) Another good grief… at most of the elite schools, there are extracurriculars that are competitive and others that are open to all. At my time at Harvard, I did some theater, did orienteering (think cross-country through the woods with a map and compass), participated in various outreach activities through Phillips Brooks House… even in theater, while it it obviously competitive to try out for acting roles, there is still plenty to do behind the scenes… I ended up producing a couple shows and had a blast.

(6) The House system is fantastic… I really appreciated the fact you join a community for 3 years rather than just random dorm hopping from year to year. As for the Quad… a whole mile… OMG, a mile? That’s a whole 15-20 minute walk… OMG… the hardship, the injustice, the travesty! Seriously, did you really go to Harvard… I don’t recall anyone complaining that much… it is a relatively tiny inconvenience. I had plenty of friends in the Quad, and I also had the reverse walk because I lived along the River, but had classes at the observatory. I survived. It just wasn’t that big of a deal…

I guess I could go through your other silly points… but I’m getting bored.

Your whole article is about turning really tiny differences and very minor inconveniences into major catastrophes and huge injustices. Get. A. Grip. It really is not that serious. If Harvard is the cesspool that you claim it is… what does that say about 99% of all other universities?

Harvard is what you make of it… it sounds like you didn’t make much of it and are bitter. That sucks. I suggest you get some therapy to process through your grief… it really can’t be good for your psyche to be carrying around that kind of grudge/chip on your shoulder long after you graduated. Clearly, your time at sunny/shiny/happy Stanford hasn’t cut through your melodrama. As for me… my next reunion is 3 years away, and I. CANNOT. WAIT! To see my amazing friends, to reconnect with folks who were in common extracurriculars and activities, to just take in the Yard, Cambridge, and everything else.

This is silly. Some Stanford dorms are quite far from classrooms, people do have to compete for EC activities and no one thinks Harvard is not educating students well, including engineering students. There is much to be said for Stanford ( besides the weather), but this isn’t it. What I will say though is that It looks like Harvard did much last year to make sure the difference in admit stats was kept minimal. After years of claiming the stats crown, Harvard cannot say it doesn’t matter now. Even if it doesn’t.

I don’t think Stanford is immune to rape and assault.

OK, so if you believe all this is true, of Harvard or any other college, then that school is not right for YOU. Fortunately, there are lots of other schools you can apply to.

Apparently one or two other people are pretty sure that Harvard is the right choice for THEM.

Next topic?

I’ve scoured the thread 3X now and I just can’t find where someone claimed any school is immune from that. Could you point it out?

Stanford doesn’t appear. And there is certainly no claim even remotely resembling yours.

From the headline I thought this was going to be about all the tour groups wandering through Harvard Yard . . . that I do think can be pretty irritating actually.

Certainly Harvard has some problems, as does Stanford, Yale, Princeton and every other university. It also, obviously, has tremendous strengths and remains a top choice for many of the very best students.