UPDATED: October 30, 2014, at 3:35 p.m.
STANFORD, Calif.—Stanford buzzes. Walk across any of the 8,000-plus acres of earthy-red tiles and dusty, rolling hills of the university’s grounds and you’ll find yourself dodging hundreds of bicycles, whose moving gears and wheels make the campus hum.
More than 13,000 bikes belonging to students and faculty traverse campus daily, according to the school’s website, and it’s no wonder why. Stanford University, a massive tract of land that occupies what was once Leland Stanford’s Palo Alto Stock Farm, is its own city, so large it requires an individual zip code.
In a way, the constant motion of Stanford’s bikers is indicative of the university’s dynamism. Even the university’s motto, “Die Luft der Freiheit weht”—or, “The Winds of Freedom Blow”—nods at Stanford’s focus on the cutting-edge of research and education in the 21st century.
“I really have never encountered a place as exciting or as forward-looking as Stanford,” says William Damon ’67, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s in its time and in its place, sort of like Vienna at the turn of the 19th century.”
Three thousand miles northeast, administrators at America’s oldest university eye their California peer with intensifying scrutiny. Like Stanford, Harvard has a stated mission to embrace an ever-changing landscape of American higher education, one that questions the limits of humanities and is rapidly shifting focus to the quantitative and applied sciences.
With a delineated capital campaign initiative to raise $450 million for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and other entrepreneurial initiatives and a charge to “uni[te] the wisdom of the past with the urgency of the present and the promise of the future,” Harvard is positioning itself to be the leader in education and research in the 21st century.
But to do so, it must reconcile its foundations as a liberal arts university with the shifting priorities of higher education in modern America.
Conversely, while in recent years Stanford has moved to bolster its humanities and arts programs, the university remains steadfast to its charge to produce students with “direct usefulness in life.”
Despite both schools’ attempts to strengthen what some call their historically weaker programs, their respective identities have largely been determined. And while both acknowledge the influence of the other, even admitting to adapting best practices, Harvard and Stanford remain staunchly defensive of their own educational missions, and by extension, these distinctive identities.
By the time Stanford opened its newly-minted doors, Harvard was 250 years old.
According to legend, two Californians, Leland and Jane Stanford, visited Harvard President Charles W. Eliot in the late 1800s to see about establishing a university in memory of their recently deceased son. Popular stories tell that Eliot refused their offer for money to rename Harvard, so the two, dressed in homespun, faded clothing, returned west to found their own university.
This account is erroneous. In fact, Eliot advised the Stanfords to create a university in memory of their son, but did not reject a request to rename Harvard or any Harvard building, according to a letter Eliot sent Stanford President David Starr Jordan in June of 1919.
The misleading, oft-told account of Stanford’s founding speaks to the perceived cultural divide between the two schools. Many students, faculty, and administrators at Stanford say they think of Harvard as an old university modeled after European institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, entrenched in tradition and emblematic of the ivory tower. By contrast, Stanford affiliates say that their university’s relative youth and “West Coast energy” invigorate the institution.
“There is an excitement about Stanford and a pulse about Stanford that at this point Harvard doesn’t have,” Damon says. “[It is] kind of like you are in an adventure when you are at Stanford, like you’re creating the future.”
Some trace Stanford’s progressive rise in international prominence to decisions made by Provost Frederick Terman, a mentor to William Hewlett and Dave Packard, who during his tenure in the 1950s and ’60s bolstered technology and electrical engineering programs at the university.
“Stanford was not really known for engineering until Terman came in and said ‘We are going to be the best engineering school in the world,’” says Matt Ohline, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer at Stanford. “He really launched Stanford as an engineering institute and started the Silicon Valley in the process.”
What followed was a steady, decades-long development of the southern region of the San Francisco Bay, thanks in large part to Terman’s initiatives and Stanford’s capital. When the dot-com bubble boomed in the ’90s, the young university flourished.
“Stanford is unique in the country in that it really has moved into the same niche as Harvard, whereas 50 years ago, I think Yale and Princeton would have been there,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard E. Gardner ’65.
But some Stanford affiliates would argue that their university has surpassed Harvard.
“When I joined the faculty at Stanford in 1975, the feeling was, ‘it is a great place to be, but it sure ain’t Harvard,’” says David Spiegel, a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1971. “I don’t feel that way anymore. Nobody does.”
Nestled in golden foothills just south of the San Francisco Bay and inland of the Pacific Ocean, Stanford feels a world away from the red-brick, wind-bitten Cambridge, Mass. But what makes Stanford’s location unique is its intimate relationship with Silicon Valley, both a product of and a feeder for the school.
The relationship is at times visible, but is mostly intangible, manifested in the entrepreneurial mentality of many Stanford students and faculty. The school, which famously offered a course called “Startup,” taught by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, touts itself as the starting point of major companies like Google, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, and even Instagram.
“You’ll see a lot of companies coming in, doing workshops, scouting, having big career fairs,” says Simar S. Mangat, a sophomore computer science major at Stanford. “You co-create this entrepreneurship culture.”
That culture seems to have found its way into students’ wardrobes. Bright t-shirts with iconic tech logos, like those of Google, Dropbox, or Facebook, are a common sight on campus, as are Macbook laptops masked by collages of company stickers.
Years of media coverage focusing on Stanford’s relationship with the tech industry has eclipsed the school’s other fields of study, some administrators say.
“I think the problem is that the reputation of Silicon Valley can cast a very long shadow,” says Richard Saller, dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. “That can be a challenge.”
Stanford has sought to gain visibility for its humanities and arts programs, many of which saw increased support from Stanford’s recent $6.2 billion capital campaign, an amount Harvard is hoping to beat in its own ongoing campaign. Outsiders to Stanford may only see the technology and computer science side of the school, which in the current educational and economic climate makes it alluring.
“Let’s face it, if you’re in Silicon Valley, you are a sexy school,” says Harvard English professor Louis Menand. “That’s where exciting things are happening, not just intellectually, but also in terms of making money.”
Menand, a New Yorker staff writer who teaches a new framework humanities course at the College, says that while Stanford is a high-caliber institution on its own, no one can deny that part of Stanford’s strength comes from “being associated with a part of the economy that has been incredibly attractive for the last ten years.”
“Stanford benefits from being right in the center of where all those things are happening,” Menand says. “Boston doesn’t have that exactly.”
Late one breezy Friday afternoon, hundreds of students file into the sleek, silver Hewlett Teaching Center at the heart of campus, which today houses one of Stanford’s most popular courses: Cs106A.
The course, Introduction to Computer Science: Programming Methodology, is offered every quarter. This fall, as many as 645 students fill a large auditorium three times a week to listen to one of the course’s professors, Mehran Sahami, deliver his lectures, which often involve candy prizes thrown into the depths of the lecture hall for students who participate and ask questions. Today, students have just completed one of their first programming projects—to create a brick breaker game—and now spend a portion of class reviewing how to animate a graphic.
Sahami’s course focuses on “the engineering of computer applications,” among other practical skills, which speaks to the university’s educational mission. Stanford’s objective to “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life,” as stated in its founding grant, differs greatly than that of Harvard, which according to University literature, focuses primarily on the advancement of knowledge.
Stanford’s mission statement has only been perpetuated by the Silicon Valley and successful tech-industry graduates, constant reminders of the direct practicality and application of a Stanford education.
James T. Campbell, a History professor at Stanford, says that unlike at Harvard, Stanford’s culture emphasizes such practical application immediately, not just after students graduate.
“From its founding, the university has taken a rather instrumentalist approach to learning, and has been much less prone to thinking of itself as an ivory tower,” Campbell says.
Stanford German and Comparative Literature professor Russell A. Berman, who also chairs the university’s Faculty Senate, agreed that Stanford students are trained from the outset to apply their knowledge and skills.
“There’s a strong attention to the value of education in making practical improvements in society and the world,” he says.
Harvard focuses not so much on the application of education, but, as Harvard President Drew G. Faust wrote in an official capital campaign message, on the discovery of knowledge and the education of future leaders. The University remains true to its founding charter from 1650, part of which emphasizes the “advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences.”
Mangat says he has encountered this dichotomy between Stanford and Harvard in his own experiences.
“We see Harvard as more focused on theory, the softer side,” he says. “Even in computer science, there’s a lot more focus on how you do things as opposed to Stanford, which focuses a lot more on the practicality.”
Stephanie H. Kenen, administrative director of Harvard’s Program in General Education, says that she believes universities should not focus on practicality.
“I have this romantic vision that a university is a really unique cultural institution whose purpose is to produce and conserve and disseminate knowledge,” she says. “It doesn’t build roads.”
Kenen paraphrases an inscription above Harvard’s Dexter Gate, which reads “Enter to grow in wisdom” on the outside, while the inside reads “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”
“It’s right,” Kenen says. “Enter to grow in wisdom. When you leave you can go serve, but there is actually something that is supposed to happen while you are here, which is the gaining of wisdom.”
Bundled in a thick, dark coat and scarf, William C. Orman ’15-’16 clatters as he walks across the marble floors of Robinson Hall, finding temporary refuge from the strong gusts of wind that rattle through the trees of Harvard Yard. Orman attended Harvard in the 2011-2012 academic year before transferring to Stanford, only to return to Harvard the following year, for a mix of personal, athletic, and academic reasons.
He reflects on stereotypical images of Stanford and Harvard students, and the occupations most people might associate with both groups. For Stanford, he acknowledges the image of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. For Harvard, he talks about finance.
“[With] Stanford, you think of Teslas rolling down the hills,” Orman says. “When I was at Stanford, thinking about Harvard, I thought about cold weather, and people in peacoats, and [investment] banking, and going off to New York.”
He laughs, and then shrugs.
“Of course I realize that is unfair, and an oversimplification, but that’s the image.”
To some extent, these images ring true. According to The Crimson’s 2014 Senior Survey, 31 percent of the seniors who immediately entered the workforce pursued employment in the finance and consulting industries.
Conversely, students and professors say that at Stanford, graduates largely matriculate to jobs in the technology and engineering sector. But the presence of these industries are not just felt as seniors search for jobs—they are an integral part of the on-campus culture.
“You walk around campus and you hear names like Gates, Hewlett, and Packard,” says Alex Alifimoff, a senior studying management science and engineering at Stanford. “The fact that the names of the buildings are in honor of some of the most important people in the history of computing is pretty intimidating.”
This is also true at Harvard, but arguably at a lesser scale. Lloyd C. Blankfein ’75 of Goldman Sachs and Kenneth C. Griffin ’89 of Citadel LLC are just some of the Harvard-educated financiers whose names are nearly ubiquitous on campus; both have endowed scholarships and professorships.
To some, looking only toward a post-college future does a disservice to the university.
“Students nowadays, most of them don’t think they are going to go onto the academy, they want to do something of significance,” says Gardner. He adds, “If you’re just waiting out the clock until you get to Goldman Sachs, then the university isn’t showing what it is we are good at.”
But at Stanford, the culture of looking forward is amplified by the successes of current students, not just graduates.
“Every time a Stanford student reads that someone he met at a frat party just sold a startup for $1 million—and that happens a lot here—it dribbles a few more toxic drops into the water,” says Campbell. “It shapes students’ aspirations.”
Robert A. Lue, a professor of the practice of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, says that atmosphere was palpable when he spoke with a group of students while attending a conference at Stanford earlier this year.
“I was just exhausted by the, ‘we’re going to form a startup, form a startup, form a startup, if we do this really well, we will capitalize it and sell it in two years, and sort of make a fortune,’” he says.
The different career paths that students pursue at each school are echoed in their popular areas of study. In 2013, Harvard’s largest concentration was economics, with 577 concentrators. Stanford’s largest major is computer science, which as of last Friday had 574 students.
That number, however, is dwarfed by the total number of students who study at Stanford’s School of Engineering, which, including computer science, amounts to 1,444 majors. About 33 percent of Stanford undergraduates are pursuing degrees at the engineering school, according to Janice Pang, a reporting and data analyst in Stanford’s engineering school.
By comparison, in 2013, 253 Harvard students concentrated in only computer science, while another 40 undergraduates chose to do a joint concentration in computer science and another field. Though the number of computer science concentrators has been steadily increasing since 2008, Harvard administrators acknowledge that there still is a large cultural divide between Harvard and Stanford.
“There is a huge number of students at Stanford now who concentrate in engineering, almost half,” says Faust. “That’s going to be a very different atmosphere from here.”
Yet Harry R. Lewis ’68, director of undergraduate studies for computer science at Harvard and former dean of the College, says that Harvard’s breadth and diversity of strengths adds to engineering and the applied sciences, rather than detracts from them.
“Harvard’s computer science program is embedded in the culture of arts and letters, and the social sciences, because we’re part of a university that is great in all of those areas, which Stanford is not,” says Lewis, noting that computer science is now the fifth largest concentration at the College. His own office, filled with books and polished rocks of various sorts and sizes, is a testament to that intermingling of disciplines.
“Would Facebook have started at Stanford? Maybe,” Lewis adds. “But Zuckerberg was taking half his courses in Psychology and Sociology, and I think it was the collision of the computer science and the social science experience that made him realize that there was a big opportunity there that no one else was doing.”
Since the early 2000s, Harvard has been scrambling to keep up in a higher education world increasingly shifting focus toward engineering and the applied sciences. In 2007, the Harvard Corporation and the Board of Overseers renamed SEAS from a division to a school, and today it represents $450 million of the FAS’s capital campaign. Even more, SEAS Dean Cheryl A. Murray announced last year that the school will increase its faculty by nearly 30 percent.
“Harvard made a decision in the last ten years to invest in what we call ‘STEM’ fields,” says Menand. “That was a pretty much necessary decision just from the point of view of Harvard’s competitiveness in the higher education world and in the U.S..”
Student interest in engineering and applied sciences has also increased with the expansion of the school. Since 2007, the number of concentrators has more than doubled, from 292 in 2007-2008 to 775 in 2013-2014. Additionally, in the wake of expansion, Harvard’s biosciences have topped charts worldwide, thanks in part to the accessibility of Boston hospitals. Such a robust area of science, in which Harvard boasts a strong program, would not succumb to boom and bust cycles typical of the technology industry, which may pose greater problems to Stanford in the future.
But some Stanford affiliates feel that Harvard is playing catch-up rather than truly innovating.
“I almost feel that they’re looking at Stanford and trying to do some of the stuff that Stanford was doing over the last five years,” says Elliot W. Hawkes ’09, who, after studying at Harvard, pursued a graduate degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford. “They’ve been putting a lot of money into it, hiring a ton of professors.”
In fact, according to former FAS Dean William C. Kirby, a History and Business School professor, when he visited Stanford’s campus during his administration, much of the inspiration for Harvard’s Northwest Labs came from Stanford’s “flexible” Clark Center, a massive complex of skylights, bridges, and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Paul Mitiguy, a professor from Stanford’s mechanical engineering department, says that this is a natural consequence of Harvard’s foundation as a liberal arts school. For his part, David Spiegel, the professor at Stanford’s medical school, says that one reason Stanford was able to surpass Harvard in terms of engineering was that it exploited the technology boom much earlier than Harvard did.
“Harvard was a little slow in taking advantage of, and growing with, the new digital technology,” says Spiegel. “Some of that may have had to do with the proximity to MIT,” he adds, positing that perhaps Harvard did not put much emphasis on developing its technologies when MIT was doing just that two T stops away.
While Harvard may be looking at Stanford as a model for the applied sciences, faculty and administrators from both schools say that Harvard’s Program in General Education and its approach to undergraduate teaching and learning has been foundational for Stanford as it reviews its own curriculum.
In May of 2007, Harvard faculty voted on a new set of general education requirements, which would replace the thirty-year old Core program. According to Kenen, the Core program was focused on “ways of knowing,” which introduced students to different methods of study and analysis unique to each discipline.
This new general education program, which is currently undergoing its first comprehensive review since it was introduced, does not focus on different methods of scholarly analysis. Instead, it includes eight broad categories intended to “prepare students for civic engagement,” teach students to think morally and ethically, and train students to be flexible academically.
Similarly, members of a Committee on the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford recommended significant changes to the school’s undergraduate curriculum in 2012, most of which the university has since adopted.
The review recommended doing away with required humanities courses called “Introduction to Humanities,” colloquially known as “IHUM,” and instead introduced a new set of requirements called “Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing.” These new general education requirements, like those at Harvard, require students to take courses from eight interdisciplinary categories.
“The idea is to link the humanities experience with something that is a core part of your normal academic experience, but broadens it,” says Spiegel, who in the 2010-2011 school year chaired Stanford’s faculty senate—a body of elected faculty members that discusses and votes on university affairs and grants degrees.
“So rather than taking a kind of general western history or philosophical course, you would take philosophical ethics linked to problems in biology,” he said.
He adds: “We think that will be more interesting and relevant to the person taking it and will broaden their point of view.”
Campbell, who co-chaired the committee that reviewed Stanford’s undergraduate requirements, says that members of the committee visited other campuses to learn about peer undergraduate education programs, including that of Harvard, which at the time was a few years into its new Program in General Education.
Harvard’s program includes categories like Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding, Ethical Reasoning, and Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning. Stanford’s program, which its faculty passed in May of 2012 and implemented for the class of 2017 the next fall, includes categories like Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry, Ethical Reasoning, and Applied Quantitative Reasoning.
Harvard English professor Derek Miller, who earned his Ph.D. from Stanford in 2013, says Harvard has been a crucial model for Stanford as it reevaluated its undergraduate curriculum.
“I saw [Stanford] rethinking what an undergraduate education looked like, and Harvard had already done that,” says Miller. “So if you’re looking at Stanford and saying ‘what is it that they’re doing, how are they going into the 21st century?’ the answer is they’re looking at what Harvard’s doing.”
Part of the intentions of both schools’ undergraduate education reviews was to reevaluate the role and application of humanities in a liberal arts education, which both Harvard and Stanford claim to offer their students.
Stanford affiliates say that because of the media coverage and attention on Silicon Valley and the tech world, their arts and humanities are not as recognized in the shadow of prodigious science and engineering programs.
“We don’t fool ourselves,” Saller says. “When students out of high school are applying to college, Stanford probably isn’t the first place they think of when it comes to the humanities, especially if they’re on the East Coast.”
According to Saller, about 250 of about 1,700 degrees awarded last year were in the humanities and arts, though he says that this number may be misleading.
“The fraction of our students in the humanities looks low by comparison, but students who are doing interdepartmental programs are often studying a great deal in the humanities, it’s just not that that’s their formal nature,” he says.
In recent years, Stanford has pushed for greater visibility and student participation in the humanities. For example, this fall, the computer science department introduced a new joint major called “CS+X,” which will encourage students to pair computer science with a humanities discipline like classics, english, history, and music, among others.
But because Stanford disposed of its mandatory humanities courses, some say students can get away without ever studying the humanities.
“Stanford doesn’t force them on anybody,” says Rishi Bedi, a sophomore at Stanford studying computer science. “It’s very easy to graduate from Stanford without doing any in depth studies of the humanities.”
For example, students can take “The Public Life of Science and Technology,” a course that focuses on “social, cultural, and values issues raised by contemporary scientific and technological developments through STS interdisciplinary lens” for Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry credit.
Though Stanford students generally say that the humanities do have a voice on campus, student vernacular highlights the tensions that exist between the hard sciences and the humanities.
Students speak jokingly of a “techie-fuzzy” divide, with “techies” referring to those who study the hard sciences and “fuzzies” referring to those who study social studies and the humanities.
“I think that encapsulates the feeling on campus, that humanities students are these wishy-washy, artsy people who maybe don’t add anything to the campus,” says Orman, himself a history concentrator.
While both universities have reevaluated their respective undergraduate curriculums in recent years, Stanford administrators claim that their university balances its emphasis between undergraduates and graduate schools. By contrast, some, like Gardner, say that the balance of power between Harvard’s professional schools and the College is a pressing issue.
Many point to Harvard’s physical campus, which comprises 5,083 acres and stretches from Harvard Square to its Longwood Medical campus in Boston, as an indicator of the fragmented nature of the University. Most departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences—home to Harvard College—are housed in the Yard or on offshoots of nearby Oxford Street. From the Yard, students and faculty must cross the Charles River and walk 15 minutes to arrive at the Business School, between which highways, non-Harvard shops, and restaurants interrupt the campus. SEAS’s planned move to Allston will only add to this disjuncture.
“One real advantage that Stanford has is that we’re all on one campus,” says Spiegel. “[At Harvard] the administrative structure was like the geography. One nice thing about Stanford that I really like is that we are on one campus, and we are a part of the functioning of the university.”
Helen M. Blau, a professor at Stanford’s Baxter Institute for Stem Cell Biology, says that this has important ramifications for research.
“The whole campus is integrated, and proximity makes a huge difference,” Blau says. Blau, who received her Ph.D. in cellular and developmental biology from Harvard, remembers catching a bus to attend lectures at Harvard Medical School’s Longwood campus, located in Boston.
“I would go to lectures at the Medical School, but that would take so many hours out of your day just going back and forth,” she says. “Everything is close here. That makes a huge difference whether you will interact with people and collaborate with them.”
But more damning is Spiegel’s assertion that unlike Stanford, Harvard focuses its energies on its graduate and professional schools.
“Harvard tends not to emphasize undergraduate education,” he says. “Stanford used to be like that but about 20 years ago, we put more and more emphasis on the quality of undergraduate teaching, and we got senior faculty to participate in it.”
But Faust and those involved in Harvard’s capital campaign are committed to the idea of “One Harvard,” in which the 12 schools will collaborate through research and teaching.
Kenen, for her part, says the university should focus on how to bring the professional schools into the undergraduate environment.
“Students are very eager to be taught by somebody in the Business School,” she says. “But how can we bring what someone does at the Business School into a liberal arts education?”
With Stanford’s shifting focus on the humanities, existing strength in engineering, and steadily more-recognizable name brand, the higher education world at large seems to be questioning whether or not Harvard truly will be the leader in learning and research in the 21st century.
“Harvard has always been the gold standard,” says Damon. “Stanford and every place will always look to Harvard as being the pillar, the pinnacle.”
However, he says, “things are changing.”
“There are signs that Stanford is coming on pretty strong,” he says, mentioning the contagious energy Stanford manifests and its geographic location in California, at the “cutting edge.”
“It’s true that there is a kind of West Coast spirit about being able to do more and new things without necessarily losing the things that we’ve been doing from the past,” says Berman. “I find that really quite energizing.”
Blau points to college admissions as a sign of Stanford’s progress.
“It used to be that it was a no-brainer, you would go to Harvard,” Blau says. “But now it’s really a choice that people struggle to make when they get into both. We’re proud of the advances we’ve made, because Harvard was always number one.”
Lue, however, defends Harvard’s prominence, especially when it comes to its undergraduate yield. Though Stanford had a lower acceptance rate for the Class of 2018, 82 percent of incoming freshmen accepted to Harvard chose to attend, as compared to 78.9 percent for Stanford.
“Shouldn’t the Harvard students and the Stanford students be the same? [They] are not. We get eight out of ten of [them],” he says. “That means that there is only 20 percent of the people we chose distributed across all of the other leading schools.”
Faust also notes that students accepted to both schools generally choose to attend Harvard.
“I know what our cross admits are. We do much better,” Faust says. “More people who are cross-admitted come here than go to Stanford by a considerable margin.”
Though Stanford has exponentially risen the ranks in the past two decades, Miller says that Harvard’s storied past will always distinguish it from other American colleges.
“[Harvard] is used to being a leader on these fronts,” says Miller. “Stanford’s going to have to deal with the weight of that.”
Miller glances through the window of his bottom-floor Barker Center Office, in front of which, framed by red and gold leaves characteristic of a New England autumn, packs of students holding binders and backpacks shuffle to and from class.
“Stanford still thinks of itself in the process of becoming,” Miller says, chuckling quietly to himself. “Stanford’s still a startup.”
CORRECTION: October 30, 2014
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stanford has its own area code. In fact, Stanford has its own zip code, but shares an area code most of surrounding San Mateo County, as well as parts of Santa Clara and San Francisco counties.