“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?