Harvard officials greeted with skepticism a recent survey that ranks Stanford as the nation's "best major university for undergraduates," edging out Harvard by a narrow margin.
The survey, conducted by U.S. News and World Report magazine, asked 1038 presidents of four-year colleges to rank the five best colleges in the nation.
48.8 percent of the respondents named Stanford among the top five schools, while 47.6 percent included Harvard.
A total of 662 presidents replied, basing their opinions on the quality of the courses offered the professors, and the "general atmosphere of learning," the survey said.
While the results of the survey attracted national attention. Harvard officials yesterday denied the significance of a 1.2 percent difference.
"It seems that the consensus is that there are two top schools," said Dean K. Whitla director of instructional research and evaluation. "However, the standard error you can expect in a sample that size is two to three times larger than the difference between the two figures." he added.
"There is no statistical significance in a 1.2 percent difference," said Victor Solo, assistant professor of statistics "Out of a sample of 662, the difference of seven individuals is of no real, practical consequence."
Other Harvard officials attacked the basis of the survey itself.
"Asking the opinion of 662 college presidents is not the most reliable was to objectively determine which is the best university," said Michael A. Dasaro '81 of the office of instructional research and evaluation.
'Waste of Time'
"Aside from the sense and validity of the survey, what does 'best' mean? The whole thing is a great waste of time," Solo added.
Solo said the value of the survey was also undermined by the low percentage of replies "Fifty percent is not a good response rate," he added. "Suppose the other 600 presidents who are too busy to answer were ex-graduates of Harvard? The whole set of findings could blow out."
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid David L. Evans said that the survey gave "no great reason to be disturbed."
"Seventy-eight percent of the students who are admitted to Harvard come here which is more than any other university in the land." Evans added "Since 98 percent graduate, we must be doing something right to keep them here." Until those statistics change, he said the admissions office will "take surveys like this one with a grain of salt."
Stanford officials also downplayed the poll's significance. "We don't put too much stock in the survey," said Karen Bartholomew, assistant director of Stanford News Service. "We're pleased about it, but we don't sit here and gloat."
Stanford President Donald Kennedy dismissed the importance of the survey, calling it a "sort of beauty contest It's not very meaningful," according to an article in the Stanford Daily.
Other national universities mentioned in the survey included Yale, ranked third, followed by Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley. The University of Chicago was listed sixth, while MIT tied with Dartmouth for 10th.
Among national liberal arts colleges, Amherst was ranked number one, while Bucknell and St. Olaf tied for the top listing among regional liberal arts colleges Washington and Lee, and Willamette University in Oregon were ranked the best "comprehensive universities."
The top "smaller comprehensive universities" were Colby-Sawyer, Millsaps College in Mississippi, and Evergreen State College in Washington.