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Columns

Harvard, Yale: Tooth and Nail

The Academia Nut

By Zachary S. Podolsky

Let’s just get it out of the way immediately: Harvard is not as good as Yale, and to claim otherwise would be hubris in the extreme. But since being a columnist is all about taking risks, I’m going to go out on a limb and try to illustrate that the rivalry is a lot closer than most people realize.

Do you think, for example, that it’s just a coincidence that the endowments of both Harvard ($17.5 billion) and Yale ($10.5 billion) begin with ‘1’ and have twelve total digits? I, for one, certainly do not.

In spite of these important similarities, some pettifoggers will surely complain that the $7 billion disparity between the endowments would make Harvard, as compared with Yale, a much “wealthier” or “more financially sound” or “more able to pay for top-notch faculty, facilities, and student financial aid” type of institution.

This quibbling, though, misses a crucial point: just as a dollar will buy much more property in, say, Wyoming than it will in Manhattan, so too with New Haven and Cambridge. New Haven has long been considered—correctly—to be one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan and “happening” cities on the East Coast, if not the country. Cambridge simply can’t measure up.

The admissions game is another area where people often vastly overestimate the disparity between the two schools. In their Pharisaic attempts to misrepresent reality, some might point to the fact that Harvard has drawn in the range of 370 to 380 National Merit Scholars each year, while Yale generally attracts “only” about 150. They might stress that Harvard generally triples or quadruples Yale in most other such programs, including Presidential Scholars, USA Today high school All- Academic Team members, and National Achievement Scholars, etc. They might mention that close to 80 percent of the students that Harvard admits choose to enroll, while 65 percent of students accepted by Yale choose to go there, or that three out of every four students that are admitted to both institutions choose Harvard.

What these people miss, though, is that the Yale admissions office compensates for this apparent discrepancy in achievement by the fact it far exceeds Harvard in its yield on early admits. Brace yourself for this unbelievable statistic: last year Yale enrolled 100 percent, yes, 100 percent, of the students it admits in its early decision program, compared with Harvard’s paltry 90 percent early yield. And I have no doubt that next year when Yale stops forcing its early admits to attend, all of them will still choose Yale as their first choice—I mean, who wouldn’t?

And what about the teachers who are, after all, the lifeblood of any institution of learning? This is one area where the nearness between Harvard and Yale is particularly apparent. For instance, although it is very difficult to quantify in any objective manner how “good” or “distinguished” a school’s faculty is, one very telling measure is how many of its members are in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, arguably America’s most distinguished learned society.

According to the list of members posted on the Academy’s website, Harvard has upwards of 350 members, while Yale has about 150. However, one of Yale’s members is lit-crit luminary Harold Bloom, who is worth about 200, thereby evening the score—and giving Yale a huge advantage in the humanities.

Still, Yale’s gargantuan, Harold Bloom-induced edge in things like English does not change that the two schools have such similarly talented people in the sciences. Look, for instance, at the historical results of the Putnam mathematics competition. The Putnam is rare, even unique, in how directly and objectively it pits students at various colleges against each other in a subject that every college teaches. Harvard has won 23 times in the competition’s 62-year history. Yale has yet to win. Harvard also has more second-, third- and fourth-place finishes than the Elis. But—and this is a very big but indeed—in terms of fifth-place finishes, Yale has the upper hand, besting Harvard three to one.

And lastly, let’s not forget about the telling results of Rhodes, Marshall and Glamour competitions. In recent years, Harvardians have tended to win about twice or three times as many of the former two much-touted fellowships as Yalies. This just about compensates for Yale’s having, this year, twice as many lucky ladies in Glamour Magazine’s top ten college women—surely the most prestigious contest of them all.

In this beautiful month of November, people are often in a Thanksgiving mood. This is only too appropriate. All of us here at Harvard should thank whatever gods may be that the November Harvard-Yale football rivalry is such a prominent one.

Why? Because as long as The Game is alive and well, we can play up the Harvard-Yale rivalry and act as if we truly are the second best school in the nation. We can blithely ignore that there are a number of schools—such as Stanford, Princeton, MIT and Cal Tech—which we “Cantabs” would have to surpass in quality of students, faculty, location and facilities to even be second to Yale.

So if on Nov. 23 you find yourself looking across Harvard Stadium at a screaming mass of Dark Blue and feeling somewhat inferior, take heart in the fact that we are—or for at least one weekend can pretend we are—almost on a par with the Elis.

After all, a little bit of greatness by association never hurt anyone.

Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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