Published on November 16, 2000
As Stanford steps up its focus on technology, two long-time rivals scramble to catch up.
By Andrew Heller
"Perhaps the first hints of an institutional rivalry with Stanford have emerged only because of boredom with Harvard's permanent status of victory over Yale University," the Harvard Crimson editorial read. Oddly, the antagonistic words appeared not in a pre-Game issue of Harvard's student newspaper, and not after the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings had been released. Instead, they were published in the Crimson's Commencement issue in early June—a time of reflection for thousands of Harvard graduates.
Was it possible, though, that after 117 years of tense football games and two centuries more of a storied Harvard-Yale rivalry, the Crimson viewed a school 3,000 miles away as Harvard's new rival, and vice-versa? According to Dana Mulhauser '01, editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily, it's certainly possible. "We've always said here that Harvard is the `Stanford of the East,'" she said. "Even though Yale is up there in the pool, we still look at Harvard as our main rival on a national level."
Clearly, Stanford has made significant gains over the past 20 years in becoming a major competitor with Harvard—and, as many Administrators here have said—with Yale. As the Internet economy has charged ahead, Stanford is in the perfect location to enjoy the fruits of it, attracting more applicants and faculty to Silicon Valley. Students in Palo Alto certainly have grand notions of face-to-face competition with their Eastern counterparts, and it appears that, at least for Harvard and Yale, a new rivalry with Stanford may be more than just skin-deep.
Ahead of the curve
Perhaps the main reason Stanford has become such an important player in the competition between Harvard and Yale is, quite simply, its location. The university has capitalized on the biotech firms and Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley, forging a type of symbiosis with them. William Hewlett and David Packard, for example, got their start at Stanford, and just this year the university completed the $140 million Science and Engineering Quad (SEQ). Not coincidentally, one of the sleek new buildings on the SEQ—Stanford's equivalent of Science Hill—has Packard's name embossed over its entrance. Other recent graduates have gone on to found some of the country's most high-profile Internet firms, including Yahoo! and Excite.
Entrepreneurial graduates have always been a part of Stanford culture—that alone has never been a concern to other universities. What seems to have many colleges worried, however, is Stanford's relatively new Mayfield Program, a joint technology and entrepreneurship curriculum designed for seniors seeking a co-terminal B.S./M.S. degree. Mayfield students spend three quarters taking a specialized track of courses, in which they use case studies to learn about competitive analysis, strategy, financial analysis, and organizational structure. This series of classes is followed by summer internships with Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley, giving students a head start in obtaining post-graduation employment.
"As compared to other schools that don't have a program like [Mayfield], Stanford definitely gave me a leg up in getting a job," Steve Chou '99 said. "I interned with [tech firm] Excel during one summer and was paired up with a venture capitalist mentor. He had a whole portfolio of companies on his desk, so when I was looking through it, if I even saw a company I liked, he immediately forwarded an e-mail to the CEO and I would get a call within a week for an interview." Apparently, Chou was quite successful: he's currently employed as a hardware engineer at Tensilica, a microprocessor development firm in Santa Clara, Calif.
It is this close partnership with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that makes Mayfield unique from similar programs at schools like UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Barbara. "There are a lot of schools that have programs like Mayfield," Tina Seelig, co-director of the program, said. "Essentially, this is a work-study program on steroids. We've given each of these students three mentors—someone from the company they're working with, an alum of the program, and a venture capitalist. The model of work-study programs has been around for ages—we're just taking it to a different level."
And lately, so is Harvard. Administrators in Cambridge recently announced the creation of the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), which aims "to educate technology leaders and innovators," according to its mission statement. "TECH is both a real and virtual space for students, faculty, alumni, and industry leaders to learn together, collaborate, and innovate." Indeed, it seems as though the establishment of TECH is part of a continuing trend of encouraging entrepreneurship in Cambridge; the Center was announced just three weeks after Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis proposed relaxing a long-standing policy that prohibited students from running commercial businesses out of their dorm rooms. More important, however, is the question of whether these changes in Harvard's undergraduate regulations are in direct response to Stanford and the Mayfield program, and whether they constitute an effort to better compete with the California university.
To be fair, TECH is markedly different from Mayfield. As of right now, it only offers students a chance to listen to guest speakers from the biotech industry and the Internet world; there is no set curriculum and no internship outreach program. Paul Bottino, the Executive Director of TECH, denied that his program was modeled after Mayfield. "There are certainly some similar features," he said. "But we haven't really planned having the scores of interns or hardcore engineering courses they have." Seelig, the Mayfield director, also refused to explicitly state that TECH is an effort to "catch up" to Stanford. But, she said, "If we can come up with an innovative program, we're flattered that someone wants to try to do something similar. We measure our success by how many other people think it's a cool idea. We're not competing with Harvard or Yale, but we're thrilled when other people decide to create programs based on models we've developed." In addition, according to a Crimson interview in April with the founder of TECH, Harvard's Dean of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences Venkatesh Narayanamurti, the Cantabs may indeed be trying to catch up to Stanford. "In some ways, obviously, Harvard's had some very entrepreneurial students over the years, but on the other hand, emphasizing technology and entrepreneurship is not one of the things Harvard did," he told the Crimson. "As an institution or a division, we did not nurture it the way Stanford did."
Perhaps another indication of Harvard's attempt to catch up with Stanford—and its effort to advance its entrepreneurship programs—are recent rumors about the university's search for a new president; its current head, Neil Rudenstine, is set to leave at the end of this school year. The search committee in charge of nominating the next university head told The New York Times on Mon., Nov. 6 that "the new president did not have to be a scientist, but had to be good at addressing issues of science and technology." Dr. Hanna Gray, former president of the University of Chicago and a member of the search committee, told the Times that Harvard needs a leader who can tackle "the assimilation of new information technologies, the questions that come out of the very rapid growth of scientific discovery, and the new ways in which various disciplines inform each other." TECH is certainly a move in that direction. As Bottino said, "We're interested in educating high-tech leaders of the future, and in order to do that, they need to understand not just the technology, but the world in which it's going to be applied. I think what you see happening out there—technologists being integrated into other fields—bears out our mission."
One of these "technologists" is John Hennessy, the newly-appointed president of Stanford—and the university's first head with an engineering background. In addition, he is co-founder of MIPS Computer Systems, a microprocessor company in Silicon Valley. Though no one at Harvard would comment definitively about whether their choice for a new leader would reflect Stanford's decision, it certainly seems as though administrators in Cambridge are moving in that direction—and in the direction of competing with Stanford even more.
On the chaseSo, where does that leave Yale? Are we also in the game of "catching up" to and competing with Stanford? According to President Richard Levin, GRD '74, who is himself a Stanford graduate—yes. "Certainly in terms of infusion of technology and Internet culture in undergraduate life, there's no doubt Stanford is uniquely situated, due in part to its location and also to the fact that such a large proportion of their graduates are engineering or science majors," he said. Levin added, "In today's world, the reputation of great universities depends increasingly on their excellence across a wide range of fields. I have seen that to be the best among universities, Yale would need to be among the best in the sciences. So that's the essential goal of Science Hill—to make our science programs competitive with the very best in the world." When asked if those "very best" included Stanford, Levin replied, without hesitating, "Of course, yes."
And two recent developments—the appointment of Gerhard Casper, LAW '62, the former president of Stanford, to the Yale Corporation, and the Corporation's trip to Palo Alto in September 1999—point to the fact that Yale may be attempting to model some of its programs after Stanford's, or at the very least, that the Administration is actively trying to collaborate with the California school.
"We thought it would be interesting to get a close-up look at an institution that was high quality, but quite dissimilar from our own," Levin said of the Corporation's trip. "So we focused our attention on areas where we thought Stanford was quite innovative and out in front, and some areas where frankly, we were looking at things Stanford was doing to emulate Yale. In general, though, I think we can learn a lot from each other."
One of these areas is online education, and Stanford and Yale have already joined hands—along with Oxford and Princeton—in a learning alliance aimed at "setting the standard of online education at the highest level," according to Levin. As a result of the consortium, some have suggested that Yale and Stanford have formed a permanent partnership aimed at bettering each institution. The Crimson, for one, reported in April that "the [online] alliance was only the surface of a larger trend: Yale and Stanford collaborating and exchanging information to better round out their curricula." Levin's response to such speculation? "Maybe [Harvard] is just afraid," he said half-jokingly.
What is no joke—and what is very telling of Stanford's potential rivalry with Harvard and Yale—is the California university's history of competitive faculty recruitment in New Haven and Cambridge. In another Crimson article, Roderick MacFarquhar, a professor of history and political science at Harvard, said that "Stanford has been trying to make big raids [on our department]...We have to guard against those sorts of moves." In the '60s, for example, Stanford virtually rebuilt its history department by snatching away faculty from elite East Coast schools. Even as recently as last year, Stanford lured away Allen Wood, a popular professor of philosophy at Yale.
According to a professor in Yale's history department who wished to remain anonymous, "Even though Stanford doesn't make `raids' here anymore, it's become more of a rival to Harvard and Yale over the past few years." He added that "[Stanford] is a university that's made big strides in many fields and has developed its incredible relationship with Silicon Valley and technology in general. And, of course, [Stanford] pays very well." He also said that the Harvard-Yale rivalry, at least with regard to faculty recruitment, "isn't so binary anymore—that is, Harvard doesn't just look at Yale, and Yale doesn't just look at Harvard. Stanford has certainly come into the fold."
For Levin, though, competition for faculty is welcome. "Stanford, in many fields, and especially in the sciences, has been a formidable competitor for faculty for a long time," he said. "But it's competition for faculty that's the driving force behind [the $500 million Science Hill initiative]. You build a stronger faculty, the reputation of the program rises, and the students follow."
Gold rushLately, however, it seems that many students have not followed and are instead flocking to California. This month's Yale Alumni Magazine (YAM) reports that "in addition to its traditional rivals Harvard and Princeton, Yale must now battle Stanford for the top students from the West." Indeed, as Stanford's reputation has risen over the past few decades, so have its admission numbers. This year, Stanford's acceptance rate was slightly lower than Yale's, and its yield—the number of admitted students who actually matriculate—was one percentage point higher. Though such small differences indicate little about the relative quality of each school, one thing is clear: Stanford is a much bigger competitor with Harvard and Yale for students than it ever used to be.
As the YAM reported, Yale has recently "begun to lose more Stanford common admits than it wins." In the past, Harvard has typically won most students admitted to both Yale and Harvard, but Yale has historically won common admit battles with other colleges like Princeton and MIT. As Shaw told the magazine, "the dot-com world is a big part of the draw for Stanford."
But Adam Fingerhut, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Stanford, disagreed with Shaw on that point. "We continue to see students who are interested in coming to Stanford to pursue a variety of things, including the liberal arts," he said. If there's one thing he can agree on, though, it's that Stanford has become a major rival to Harvard and Yale over the past few years, especially with regard to luring prospective students to California. "I think from an admissions standpoint, we've certainly become a major competitor to both Harvard and [Yale]," he said.
Still in the runningLevin, though, remains unfazed. "There's no doubt that Stanford is a serious, serious, very serious contender for faculty and students," he said. "There's no question about that. But let them focus on wherever they want. Yale wants to be the best Yale it can be, and I think we have some distinctive assets, especially with regard to undergraduate life and culture, that I think would be hard for Harvard—and especially Stanford—to replicate."
And, even though Levin has admitted that Stanford is, at this point, superior to many universities with regard to science, technology, and entrepreneurship, he remains adamant that, despite programs like the Mayfield at Stanford and TECH at Harvard, Yale is on equal footing with both schools. "We actually have a program just like those," he said, referring to the Select Program in Engineering, which allows undergraduates to obtain a joint B.S./M.S. degree.
Defending Yale, the anonymous history professor said, "I don't think you can teach entrepreneurship. A lot of it is taught informally, and just because you have a program that says `we do this' doesn't make you superior." Levin agreed, saying, "Rather than start a top-down program like other schools have, we've watched [groups like the Yale Entrepreneurial Society (YES)] with interest. If students take initiative, we should step back and let it happen. Yale students are going to be leaders. Let them lead. It's all the better that way."
Though Levin may ward off suggestions that Yale is falling behind Stanford—at least with respect to technology—with mentions of YES and the Science Hill renovations, it's clear that Yale still has a lot of catching up to do. After all, Stanford has already completed its new ultramodern science quad, and the Science Hill renovations are years from completion. The Mayfield Program attracts well over 100 applicants per year for only 12 available spots, and according to Levin, "if [Select Engineering] has had five students in three years, that would be a lot."
Still, despite Stanford's rise to prominence over the past three decades, does that really mean it's supplanted Yale as Harvard's main rival, as that Crimson editorial said? Are Harvard students really bored with us? "I'm not so sure about that," Levin said, laughing. "I certainly wouldn't concede The Game."