No one calls Duke "the Stanford of the South," or the University of Michigan "the public Stanford," at least not yet. But, for now at least, there is reason to doubt the long-held wisdom that the consensus gold standard in American higher education is Harvard, founded 378 years ago, which held its commencement on Thursday.
"There's no question that right now, Stanford is seen as the place to be," said Robert Franek, who oversees the Princeton Review's college guidebooks and student surveys. Of course, that is more a measure of popularity than of quality, he said, and whether it will last is anyone's guess.
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Professors, administrators and students here insist that on the whole, they are not afraid that Harvard will be knocked off its perch, in substance or reputation. But some concede, now that you mention it, that in particularly contemporary measures, like excellence in computer science, engineering and technology, Harvard could find much to emulate in that place out in California.
"Harvard for a long time had sort of an ambiguous relationship to applied science and engineering," said Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor here and a former dean of Harvard College. "It wasn't considered the sort of thing gentlemen did."
People in academia tend to roll their eyes at the incessant effort to rank colleges and universities, insisting that they pay little attention to the ratings that their institutions spend so much time and energy chasing.
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Stanford's reputation is far more than buzz, of course — it is a recognized leader in many disciplines besides the applied sciences, and its sparkling facilities and entrepreneurial culture are widely envied. But in particular, it basks in its image as the hub of Silicon Valley, alma mater to a string of technology moguls and incubator of giants like Google, Yahoo and Cisco.
In fact, while the university declined to comment for this article, administrators and professors there have voiced concerns that too much of its appeal is based on students' hopes of striking it rich in Silicon Valley.
Other colleges would love to have such problems.
"There has been an explosion of interest in engineering and related areas," said Alan M. Garber, Harvard's provost. "We simply have had a hard time keeping up with that demand."
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At the same time, he said, Harvard has a number of joint projects with its neighbor the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and "it doesn't make sense for us to duplicate a lot of what M.I.T. does within Harvard."
Undergraduates here are aware of the contrasts with Stanford (and others), but they vary widely in how seriously they take the topic.
"I'm a bio major, and within that field at least, it's not spoken about at all, whether or not one school is superior to the other," said Michelle Choi, who just finished her second year. "I don't think Harvard students at all feel threatened."
But for students more attuned to technology, "there's a sense that they have a direct pipeline to Silicon Valley and money that doesn't exist here," said Nicholas P. Fandos, the managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, who just finished his junior year.
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Max Shayer, a senior from Alaska, graduated on Thursday after studying engineering and plans to work for a big oil company. But his younger brother has chosen Stanford over Harvard, and is likely to study engineering.
Mr. Shayer said that he was pleased with his own education, but that big industrial companies, like Boeing, recruited more heavily at Stanford. "I would like to see Harvard build relationships with these long-established industries," he said.
And, noting the incremental and inscrutable annual changes in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, others were skeptical about putting any particular university at the top.
"It really depends on what you're looking to do," said Patrick Galvin, a graduating Harvard senior from California. "The top 10 schools are so incredible — they're separated by very little."
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Last year, 26 percent of Stanford's undergraduate degrees were awarded in computer science or engineering, about three times as many as at Harvard. At Stanford, about 90 percent of undergraduates take at least one computer programming class, compared with about half at Harvard.
The disparity has deep cultural roots at many liberal arts institutions: Anything that looked like practical career preparation was seen as something less than real undergraduate education. Stanford was never like that. In fact, it has become one of many universities that worry about how far the pendulum has swung away from the humanities.
Harvard administrators have worked for years to expand offerings in computer science and engineering, but the going has been slow. It is planning a new campus in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, largely for those studies.
Harvard professors in a variety of fields said that a little fear of a competitor was healthy, and that the university was less complacent about its leadership than it once was.
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"I think there's a halo effect that doesn't do Harvard any good, because Harvard has, at times, had pockets of mediocrity that it could get away with," said Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology and a noted author on that field and linguistics.
Harvard also has an image, reinforced in college guides and student surveys, as a less-than-happy place for undergraduates, while people swoon over the quality of life at most of its peers. Its students have a reputation for being intensely competitive, working hard and getting by with little hand-holding, at least by today's standards.
Dr. Garber, the Harvard provost, said that "reputation lags reality" — the university has, among other things, recently beefed up undergraduate advising — and that people may not have a clear view of their college experiences until years later.
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Students interviewed here said they considered the sink-or-swim image overblown. The norm at Harvard, they said, is to tell everyone how hard you work and how intense the place is. Students at Stanford say the prevailing ethos there is the opposite: work hard, but in public appear utterly laid-back.
Jill Lepore, the noted historian and Harvard professor, said there has always been a gap between perceptions of Harvard and the reality, citing examples like Benjamin Franklin's lampooning of the school under the pseudonym Silence Dogood and the film "The Social Network," with its Stanford-like depiction of Facebook's origins.
"The Harvard in that film," she said "is utterly unfamiliar to me."
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