In Defense of the Ivies

The audience last fall at the New York Society for Ethical Culture included the usual collection of cerebral city-dwellers and self-indulgent intellectuals. Yet, for a room populated by the social and academic elite, the topic of debate—“Resolved: the Ivy League should be abolished”—was gratingly ironic.

Malcolm Gladwell, a contributor to The New Yorker and an avowed hater of the Ivy League, argued for abolishment to raucous applause. Aligning the Ivy League with the Bush administration’s abhorrent foreign policy, Gladwell impugned Harvard, Princeton, and Yale as an “axis of evil.” His recommendation for dealing with these “fetishized institutions of elitism that stifle social mobility and hurt the less fortunate”? Abolish the Ivy League wholesale, and appropriate their financial assets to purchase his homeland of Canada.

Although partly in jest, Gladwell’s argument is emblematic of a rising public backlash against the Ivy League. With the most recent admissions acceptance rate at a daunting 7.1 percent, it is now, more than ever, clear that a high GPA and strong standardized test scores alone cannot guarantee a place at Harvard. As the admissions game becomes harder and harder to win, many high schools are advising students to dismiss unhealthy infatuations with the Ivy League. The criticisms are not only on the student side: A recent article in BusinessWeek berated the Ivies for using their stratospheric spending to steal accomplished faculty from public universities.

Such malevolence and contempt is not only unwarranted, it is utterly baseless. The nature of intellectual discovery demands the concentration of society’s brightest minds and best resources. Synergistic cooperation, not fragmentation and isolation, are generative of academic discovery. To assail the Ivies for “stealing” teachers from their more minimally endowed peers is to imply that these professors are the dominion of public universities. Yet, these professors do not belong to public institutions any more than they do to the Ivies. Rather, they choose to teach at Harvards, Yales, and Princetons because of the intellectual opportunities that such positions afford. Indeed, the meritocratic sensibilities of American education dictate that the best educators should teach at the strongest schools and for the highest pay. It is this critical concentration of bright minds and prolific resources that both fosters and generates high levels of thought and discovery. Indeed, a study of America’s leading research universities, released this year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, showed that the research productivity of the so-called “Ivy Plus”—the eight Ivies plus Stanford and MIT— is nearly double that of its public peers.

Harvard’s spectacular resources do not simply benefit its own students. Harvard does not have a trademark on intellectual inquiry, nor does it hoard its discoveries. Relevant scientific abstracts can be viewed free of charge through an online database of the U.S. National Library of Medicine; the texts of such discoveries are readily accessible through scientific publications. Indeed, whether in journals, books, or online, nearly all of Harvard’s academic output—from graduate theses to economic policy papers—exist in the public domain. As a result, every dollar that Harvard pours into research is effectively a dollar contributed to the collective understanding of society. Rather than assailing Harvard for its enormous wealth, outsiders should laud the University for the beneficial purposes for which it utilizes its money: namely, the furthering of public knowledge.

Neither does Harvard exercise hegemonic authority over the direction of academic research. According to the 2007 report of the Harvard Management Company, the university received 80 percent of its sponsored research funding from the federal government and 12 percent from foundations. These statistics indicate that public—rather than private—discretion overwhelming dictates the areas toward which Harvard’s research budget is directed. Not only does federal funding often come with strings attached, but it also flows essentially from taxpayers; this makes Harvard theoretically more responsible to the public than if its funding were completely private. Harvard does not even exert control over the majority of its endowment: 85 percent of these funds are restricted, meaning that they are subject to legal and donor-imposed stipulations that prevent their unconditional use. Since every donation is inherently tied to the wishes of its donor, Harvard, as an academic institution, holds explicit sway over only a marginal percentage of its own wealth.

In light of the enormous contributions that Harvard and other Ivy League schools make to society, the fact that they must defend themselves so rigorously against public scorn is absurd. Far from serving as a bastion for the elite, the Ivy League has spearheaded the recent movement toward socioeconomic diversity in higher education. Rather than reinforcing social stratification, Harvard and its sister institutions promote social fluidity by generously subsidizing those students who could otherwise not afford a university education. Providing financial assistance to over two-thirds of all undergraduates, the University can no longer be accurately labeled as a club for the fiscally fortunate. Harvard, and the Ivy League at large, is one of the rare places where social mobility actually works. Despite the protestations of Mr. Gladwell, the educational policies of the Ivy League will continue to enrich society for decades to come.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a freshman in Wigglesworth Hall.