When I speak to students and teachers in New Zealand or Samoa, I almost always get questions about American colleges and universities. The topic is near and dear to my heart, but talking in abstract or general terms can be quite difficult because of the vast number and diversity of choices inherent in the American system.
There are more than 4,500 accredited tertiary education institutions in the United States (along with many hundreds of non-degree programs and unaccredited schools).
The American Government runs only our five military service academies. The rest of our tertiary schools are owned and operated by private institutions, religious institutions, individual States, or municipalities. Thus, each school has a different array of strengths, priorities, programs, degrees, campus environments, student activities, and cultural characteristics.
I don’t think I’ll be Ambassador long enough to talk about each of the 4,500 schools. Every couple of weeks, though, I will try to highlight a particular institution to give you a flavor of the very different kinds of choices, atmospheres, and programs available. I thought it would be only fair to start with America’s first and oldest tertiary school … Harvard University.
Harvard was established in 1636 by leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Originally called New College, the school was renamed in 1639 to honor John Harvard, a young Puritan minister who on his deathbed bequeathed his extensive library and half his estate to the enterprise.
In the 376 years since its founding, Harvard has grown into an unsurpassed educational powerhouse. The school’s faculties and programs consistently rate at the top of league tables and “best” lists. For the past several years Times Higher Education magazine of London has ranked Harvard as having the best reputation for education on Earth.
Harvard College has approximately 6,700 undergraduate students, with another 14,500 enrolled in the University’s graduate and professional schools.
Because of its commitment to small class sizes, Harvard maintains just over 2,100 faculty members, plus more than 10,000 academic appointments in its teaching hospitals. The faculty is known to be highly accessible, and approximately half of the undergraduate courses each semester have 10 or fewer students.
I find some of the school’s other numbers equally impressive. By my count, 44 Harvard professors have been awarded Nobel prizes. The University’s total real estate footprint covers more than 5,000 acres. Its library is one of the largest on Earth, containing more than 17 million volumes.
I cannot really discuss the specific academic offerings in any detail here because of their great scope, depth, and diversity. The University comprises 11 principal academic units – Harvard College, 9 distinct faculties and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study – that oversee various schools and divisions that award academic degrees.
Several of the graduate and professional programs are legendary, including Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School, the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Divinity School, and others. Those schools are household names around the world for good reason.
Academically, if you want it, Harvard has it. The same statement holds true in other aspects of student life including with respect to co-curricular offerings. There is a full array of interscholastic and intramural sports teams, including rugby and rowing, and some of those teams are perennial collegiate powerhouses.
The school hosts a bewildering array of student activities that seem to touch every interest and sub-interest in fields from music, art, dance, and painting to culture, politics, debate, religion, ethnic affinity, philosophy, environmental advocacy, human rights, recreation, and more. I started to count the student groups listed on the school’s websites but gave up at 200.
And humor is not neglected. Among the best known of Harvard’s student groups (and one of my favorites) is the Harvard Lampoon, the world’s oldest continuously published humor magazine. Founded in 1876, it launched the National Lampoon, sired folks like Conan O’Brien, and inducted as honorary members visiting personages such as Winston Churchill, John Wayne, and Paris Hilton.
I would also personally commend to you the Harvard University Marching Band (HUMB), with which I tangled during my Princeton years. Like Princeton’s, Harvard’s band is best classified as a “scramble” band, running between formations and lacing its routines with humor, sarcasm, literary references, and double entendres. In 1970 the University administration began insisting on pre-approving football game half-time shows after a salute to Harvard’s first year of co-education scandalized alumni.
I feel compelled to note two other bits of HUMB history. I was impressed to learn that Harvard appears to have pioneered the sub-genre of “skating” bands when its musicians laced up and took to the ice in 1954 to perform between periods of the big Yale-Harvard ice hockey game. Also, I recall hearing when I was on campus that the infamous Unabomber played in the Harvard band before marching off to other activities.
Harvard is a private institution, and tuition is not free or cheap. The school, though, has very generous scholarship programs because it is committed to attracted the best and brightest students, not the most affluent. More than 60 percent of Harvard undergraduate students receive financial aid.
The average scholarship grant this year is US$ 40,000, and the school’s total investment in financial aid is more than US$ 160 million annually. Harvard has one of the largest academic endowments on Earth, last year topping US$ 32 billion, raised almost exclusively from its loyal alumni.
More than 360,000 Harvard alumni are alive today, including more than 52,000 citizens of approximately 200 countries other than the United States. That constitutes an extraordinarily powerful, valuable, and influential network.
Eight American Presidents attended Harvard, as have many dozens of students who went on to become presidents, heads of state, and heads of governments of other countries. Two-thirds of the current U.S. Supreme Court attended Harvard. There is no way to list or even count the many hundreds of prominent political figures, CEOs, publishers, scientists, inventors, writers, and other trailblazers who are Harvard alumns.
To a greater degree than many other places, I believe, American universities are institutionally focused on preserving, leveraging, and networking the affinity that students and alumni naturally feel for their schools. One of the great assets that a Harvard education provides, similar to many other American universities, is graduation into a large, vibrant, and supportive alumni network.
There are plenty of other marvelous Harvardianic things to talk about, but I don’t want to tax your patience. Just a few final notes about matters that American universities tend to take quite seriously.
First, Harvard’s motto is “Veritas,” which is Latin for “truth.” The motto is ubiquitous on campus, and interpretations of that imperative inform how the university approaches its charge.
Second, the school’s color is crimson, selected over magenta on May 6, 1875 in iconic American fashion by plebiscite of the undergraduates. The next day the student newspaper, then called The Magenta, changed its name to The Crimson.
Third, Harvard believes itself to have an intense rivalry with Yale. When I was studying at Yale, I don’t recall anyone noticing.
Harvard does not stand off on a hill by itself, of course. The main campus is located in historic Cambridge, Massachusetts, directly across the Charles River from Boston.
Boston is a vibrant city of approximately 620,000 people, sitting at the heart of a metro area with approximately 4.6 million people. Within easy reach of Harvard Yard are staggering numbers of museums, cultural and entertainment venues, historical sites, outdoor recreation options …
… and other educational institutions. Harvard’s immediate neighbors include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tufts University, Brandeis University, Boston University, and Boston College, constituting one of the most dynamic intellectual, scientific, and technology precincts on Earth and seeding Boston’s extensive high tech and biotech industries.
I’ll start to wrap up by circling back to where I started, with a bit of history. During the War of Independence colonial soldiers were quartered in Harvard’s buildings. Eight Harvard alumni signed the Declaration of Independence.
When General George Washington drove the British out of Boston, Harvard trustees voted to confer upon him an honorary degree which he rode over on horseback to accept the same day. Riled by the activism of Harvard students and faculty, a subsequent President, Richard Nixon, took to referring to Harvard as “the Kremlin on the Charles.”
I’m a particular partisan of another kind of president, University president James Bryant Conant, who led Harvard from 1933 to 1953. He viewed higher education as a path of opportunity for the talented rather than a privilege of the wealthy or well-born. He aggressively recruited promising students from all walks of life, admitted women to the professional schools, and led his faculty to issue a formal manifesto on meritocracy that cemented Harvard’s eminence and profoundly influenced the course of American education.
It was discovered decades later that President Conant had left a sealed envelope in the Harvard archives with instructions that the envelope should be given to the person leading Harvard into the 21st Century. Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s first woman president, received the envelope and broke the seal in 2007.
The letter within expressed President Conant’s hopes and fears for the institution, concluding, “That Harvard will maintain the traditions of academic freedom, of tolerance for heresy, I feel sure.” His confidence was well placed, and his legacy secure.
For more information about Harvard’s programs or the process for applying to attend, see the University’s website or the websites for Harvard’s various graduate and professional schools. You can also contact our Embassy’s educational adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov. For more information about the great city of Boston, check out CityofBoston.org.