375 years and still No. 1


  • Business
  • Saturday, 02 Jun 2012

IN 1636, the first liberal arts college was founded in the British American Colonies, known simply as the College at Cambridge.

It was renamed Harvard College three years later after a young puritan minister endowed it with one-half of his estate and all his 400 books. The college was already 140 years old when they became the United States. It commenced 375 years ago with just a dozen young scholars.

Today, Harvard has been transformed into a world-class research-based university, with a full-time enrolment of close to 20,000, where more than 13,000 attend its 12 world-famous branded graduate schools. Harvard has a very large global presence: about 25% of its 320,000 alumni are overseas.

I was just there to participate at the close of a year of commemorating Harvard's 375th birthday. It ended with commencement (or what the British calls, convocation) on May 24, when 7,500 were conferred degrees for academic excellence.

I also attended the traditional summer meeting of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Alumni Council (a member since 1993 and its chairman, 2003-2005), at the end of which the 2012 centennial medals were presented to four distinguished alumni scholars “for contributions to society as they have emerged from one's graduate education at Harvard.”

Rites of passage

To celebrate commencement, Harvard reaches back through the centuries to re-call some of its time-honoured and quaintly curious, graduation rituals. According to Harvard Magazine, among them (i) Here comes the Sheriff: “Sheriff, pray give us order!” With this cry, the city of Cambridge's own sheriff clad in top hat and morning coat, pounds his staff three times and declares, “This meeting will be in order,” to officially begin commencement.

According to lore, the sheriffs were invited in the 17th century to control rowdy students and alumni who had overindulged in punch and ale.

(ii) The happy committee: members of the Committee for the Happy Observance of Commencement escort dignitaries, guests, alumni and students at commencement, assist in managing the alumni “spreads” (or lunches), and marshal the procession. They are (even today) recognised by their regalia: top hat and tails for men, and all-black outfits adorned with crimson cockades for women, and batons for both; (iii) 3 legs are better than 4: during graduation, the president of Harvard reposes in a 3-legged richly carved chair, crafted from European ash and US oak in the 18th century.

In 2011, a college graduate mused that its lack of a 4th leg signifies “our learning opportunities are not over;”

(iv) Badges of Honour: graduation gowns are adorned with a feature unique to Harvard-embroidered “crow's feet” emblem. Graduands wear two, while honorary degree recipients get three. Different colours signify the graduands' faculty or school: purple for law, light blue for education, etc; (v) Bona fortuna: reflecting its classical roots, one graduand is chosen to deliver the Latin oration (only graduating seniors are provided with a translation).

Quandocumque officium vocat! (whenever duty calls, listen!); and (vi) Bells: at just past 11.30am, the tintinnabulation of bells from nearby churches and institutions celebrate the end of commencement.

Harvard through the years

Great universities endure none more so than Harvard. Indeed, Harvard is consistently ranked No. 1 among world universities. Its alumni included 45 Nobel laureates, some 50 Pulitzer prize winners, scores of other just as reputable prize winners in science and liberal arts, bear testimony to this. At its heart is Harvard College.

Today, it has some 7,000 male and female students from all 50 US states and six continents 10% are international, 5% Asian. They represent a spectrum of socio-economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds that is unsurpassed by any other global institutions. To become truly global, Harvard partnered MIT to create edX, an online learning platform that will allow students around the world to take virtual courses from the two institutions for free. The programme has had 120,000 students enrolled since its debut in February 2012. It represented a “college education revolution,” T. Friedman wrote in the New York Times. It will democratise education, technology and teaching, supported by the influential Harvard and MIT brands.

Over the past 25 years, one to three Malaysians were admitted annually to the college. Unfortunately, there was none in 2011, and none again in 2012 worse, this year, none of the Malaysian applications were deemed fit by Harvard to be even interviewed.

This is sad and reflects, I am afraid, the poor state of our education system. Sure, admission remains very competitive. In 2011, 35,000 applied but only 6.3% was admitted. All told, as of today, Singapore has 18 students studying at the college, Thailand seven, Vietnam six, Malaysia five and Indonesia two. Make no mistake, studying in Harvard is expensive. But Harvard still offers the best deal there is anywhere tuition charged finances only 25% of the cost of a Harvard education.

It receives no government money. The rest the university subsidises: 60% of its students are granted scholarships worth a total of US$172mil this year, which are blind need-based. But, Harvard is now accessible and affordable. If the family income is less than US$60,000 a year, you pay nothing. If it's less than US$160,000 a year, you pay only 10%. You can't get a better deal than that. Of course, students are also expected to contribute to the cost of their education through part-time and summer work. Harvard just looks for the best and the brightest to admit. That's how we remain the world's No. 1.

Too selective?

For its graduating class of '16, Harvard will admit 2,032 students this fall, or 5.9% of the applicant pool of 34,302, dipping below 6% for the first time. It expects an 81% yield (percentage of acceptance), the best turnout since '71 and the highest among the Ivys. Harvard remains heavily demanded is it getting too exclusive?

For sure, it casts its net wider and wider each year to attract ever-more qualified applicants.

This year's pool is remarkable:

(i) 3,800 were ranked first in their class. (ii) 14,000 scored 700 or more on the SAT critical reading test, with 17,000 scoring 700 or above on the SAT math test. (iii) extra-curricular interests cited by students were outstanding (e.g. 41% with music and performing arts). (iv) minority representation remained strong (21% Asian Americans, 10% Afro-US, 10% foreign - but including US dual citizenship and permanent residents, 19%). (v) 53% men. With applicants getting perfect SAT scores far exceeding the number of places available, personal qualities and character remain central in the final decision to admit. In the end, those admitted reflect Harvard's commitment to diversity and excellence.

Divergent global presence

According to the Harvard Crimson, two years ago, Yale University caused a stir by co-sponsoring a new campus in Singapore with National University of Singapore (Yale-NUS) the first by an Ivy-league school overseas.

Harvard, however, remains committed to keeping its student body firmly rooted in Cambridge. Yale's decision is controversial even today. “We don't want to just focus on one area of the world & put a disproportionate part of our attention on one location in which we invest a huge amount of our effort,” said Harvard's President Faust.

“If you take Harvard out of Cambridge, it's no longer Harvard,” observed an education expert. The Crimson reported Faust believes that Harvard's goals are best achieved by connecting the Harvard community with programs, collaborations and partnerships abroad.

She launched edX (with MIT) to use technology to cross borders. At the same time, she is an advocate of tempered expansion overseas, e.g. setting up international offices to serve as a “home base” for students and faculty.

For example, its venerable Renaissance research at Villa I Tatti (outside Florence) is complemented by the Business School (HBS) centres in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires (with branches in Sao Paulo & Mexico City), Tokyo, Paris & Mumbai.

The vast Shanghai Centre is the first to have teaching facilities to conduct HBS executive education. Its other outposts devoted to Hellenic studies, AIDs care and training programs are scattered from Greece to Botswana to Ho Chi Minh City.

The Crimson concluded that questions continue to remain over the benefits of physical expansion abroad. Many at Harvard remain convinced that such a step would diminish the meaning of brand “Harvard.”

Indeed, Harvard Yard is already regarded as a global hub.”

The Harvard Crimson article can be found here

Constancy of change

Harvard has constantly been changing over a generation of its now 375 years, and promises more change. Through five presidents, Harvard stressed inter-disciplinary scholarship, championed diversity and launched an imaginative international initiative. In the process, it used its vast resources to underlay investments in facilities, faculty growth, financial aid and the sciences. With the severe financial downturn, it refocused attention on teaching & learning, and brought university governance into the 21st century, & set in motion an imaginative capital campaign to advance its academic agenda.

Throughout this period, the presence of international students probably quadrupled, to more than 4,100 of its total 19,200 in '09. Foreign students' presence became far more common in the professional schools as the University population got more global.

A foreign born is now the university's vice-provost for international affairs, and three top schools have foreign-born deans (Public Health, Design and Business). At these three schools, 32% of students come from abroad. Only the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (36%) and the Kennedy School (42%) have a higher foreign presence. Even as the college opened itself to more foreign students and a more diverse slice of America, it has since become more selective. There is now almost gender parity at the undergraduate level.

This year's graduating class's job choices are also changing as much a reflection of the changing economy as of their own changing priorities. The college's 2012 seniors survey estimated that 68% already have jobs (73% in 2007), still far better than at the height of the financial crisis. Just over 20% will head for consulting (12%) and finance (9%); in 2007 it was 47% i.e. in the two sectors synonymous with big-bucks Wall Street. Fewer will enter law or health & medicine. This reflects the enduring legacy of the recent financial crisis.

What, then, are we to do?

Harvard has changed and flourished it emerged as a research institution in the late 19th century; then transformed into a national university; and developed after WWII into an engine of innovation to power rapid economic growth and became a force for human development. During the past generation, it had evolved in the context of globalisation and immense technological change to emerge as a champion of innovation in the sciences and bio-technology, & to renew itself to help students and faculty bring new ideas to life to raise a better world. It also began to re-invent itself, reform its curriculum to reflect the deepening of global inquiries and modernised its governance to make it more outcome oriented, providing opportunities for more coherent strategic thinking about the future. Its students have developed into global citizens, able to appreciate the international dimensions of whatever problem they seek to focus-on in their lives.

Harvard already has a large global footprint. It opens up lots of opportunities to its students & faculty to enable them to be challenged enough to bring new perspectives to their scientific enterprise. It makes sense for Malaysia to be a part of this endeavour. “This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure of the life of ease” (Robert Kennedy). Our youth must be back on Harvard's radar screen next year.

For a start, the Harvard Club now helps to sponsor “Teach for Malaysia” to encourage young professionals to take time off to teach, and share in the passion for education excellence.

Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard-educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who speaks, writes and consults on economic and financial issues. Feedback is most welcome; email: starbizweek@thestar.com.my.

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