It has often been said that if you stand in Harvard Yard long enough, you will eventually encounter everyone you have ever wanted to meet. It is, the saying goes (without so much as a pinprick of hubris), just one of the small pleasures of bestriding the intellectual theme park that is the world’s richest university: one that has produced six US presidents, countless foreign leaders and 37 Nobel laureates to date.
From the vantage point of her third-floor red-brick digs at the southern end of the Yard, Laura Spence has a bird’s-eye view of these peripatetic eggheads. Not that she has much time for such idle pastimes.
Since Oxford rejected the talented state-school Geordie, Harvard – in the age-old US tradition of expanding rather than narrowing an undergraduate’s scope – has kept her busy with classes in psychology, mathematics, French and Russian literature, as well as long runs and row- ing sessions along the River Charles. To boot, she writes a weekly column about her American experience for the Mail on Sunday, a chore that helps supplement her £65,000 scholarship (the vast majority of Harvard’s undergraduate body receives aid) and keeps her quiet. While the unassuming 18-year-old apologises, in her newly acquired American accent, for not being able to speak openly, the university’s admissions staff state frankly that they are beginning to see the “fruits” of the Spence effect.
For the first time since the pilgrims founded the college in 1636, Harvard has been besieged by record numbers of applicants from Olde England. Britons, often from the “tiniest of Welsh villages”, have written in, lured by the university’s broad education, superior facilities and staggering $19bn endowment – reserves which humble the £1.58 bn pile that Oxford has collected over 800 years, and which flagrantly nourish the non-stop flow of stars, showmen, spymasters, generals, politicians, literati and other luminaries who pass through Harvard on any given day.
“Some,” says Fred Jewett, who is in charge of overseeing British admissions, “have indicated directly that Laura played a role in their decision to apply. We’re very pleased with the standard of the entries. They’re very high.”
Along Harvard’s corridors of power, the Spence affair continues to dismay. Why, I am asked, would my compatriots think America’s oldest seat of learning is less elitist than Oxbridge, when around 3,000 of the 18,000 undergraduates who annually seek entry are either valedictorians, at the top of their class, or super athletes and musical virtuosos? (Last year, only 2,035 were offered a place.)
“The very idea,” says Peter Gomes, a professor of Chris-tian morals and the college’s preacher, “that Harvard is somehow less elitist [than Oxford] is silly. Harvard is in the business of creating elites, that’s why everyone wants to come here. Here, my dear, Laura Spence is a dime a dozen.”
The minister is seated before an array of oil paintings, some portraying “the devoted English intellectuals who, loyal to the king, founded Harvard as a way of perfecting Oxbridge”. The good reverend is warming to our real subject: Britain’s continuing brain-drain across the Atlantic. For Harvard, he tells me, the poaching of British professors amounts “to a form of triumph. There still exists a cultural deference here to an Englishman’s social style and accent. Cambridge intellectuals, for instance, just love To the Manor Born and Are You Being Served?. They can recite every line of those shows.”
For in this other Cambridge, you quickly learn that the real talk is neither of Spence, nor even the sudden surge in British undergraduate and graduate students. It is instead of the mind-deadening economic decline of British universities and of Britain’s inexorable propulsion of its brightest and best across the sea.
Harvard doesn’t mince its words: fuelled by its aim to create the world’s biggest old-boy network, it now sees its mission, in the tradition of most brand names, as grandiloquently global.
The prevailing view over here is that, give or take a few years, the rot produced by inadequate funding, sclerotic management and withering morale will have firmly set in at places such as Oxford.
Look at the kind of men and women being enticed to both Europe and America – not just the stars, but academics who are often at the peak of their careers – and you begin to see why it should seem so. Even those who never thought of leaving Britain are pulling up stakes, not for financial gain (a tenured Harvard professor earns around £80,000), but for the sake of better resources (Harvard has the biggest library system in the world) and their careers.
“I was very happy at the London School of Economics [where he was a visiting professor] . . . the problem is it’s a great education system that is running on empty,” says Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian sage who, for many, was something of a British institution before his departure last autumn. “The question is not whether British academic life is world-class; it emphatically is. The question is whether anyone’s going to pay for it. Right now, the system is working on the exploitation of the good intentions and hard work of highly educated people.”
By contrast, America’s culture of capitalism reveres higher places of learning – and, even better, Washington regards academics with respect.
Ignatieff is a classic beneficiary of the way Harvard can depend on deep-pocketed donors rewarding their alma mater. His own sell-out course on human rights at the Kennedy School of Government was launched with the $18m largesse of an internet-era mogul.
The system is not without its critics. It sops to vanity – Harvard’s walls positively groan with the names of philanthropists etched in stone for all time – but academics say it keeps the cylinders fired.
Ignatieff makes it no secret that Whitehall’s strained relationship with academics also played a part in his decision to leave. “In Britain, there is this belief that the role of the professoriate is one simply of research and reflection, whereas at the Kennedy School you only have to look at the presidential seals of those who have held executive appointments to see how different things are. I certainly feel much closer to the policy-makers of the US than I would in Britain.”
It is telling that the most powerful post in American higher education is currently held by a Briton, a brilliant chemist who was poached from Oxford (with his 12-member research team) back in the 1970s. As dean of the faculty of arts and science, Jeremy Knowles is the man who lures, with irresistible offers, all those whom Harvard would like to see in its expanding empire. Invariably, new appointees receive a lump sum, in addition to research funds, to get them up and running.
“This is an institution that is blessed by its independence . . . it can be more nimble than many British universities,” he tells me. “Harvard is a place of great entrepreneurial bubbling. So, for instance, we can fund a centre of genomics research and if a group of colleagues comes to me passionate about a new idea, we might support that, too. It’s easier to respond to new intellectual excitement, and that lifts morale.”
When I say it is sad that academics such as he are here and not back in Britain, the dean does not disagree. He was an Oxford man through and through, and both his father and father-in-law had been professors there. He never thought that he would abandon the place.
“But,” he adds, “when I came here, my department was extraordinarily lively and it was wonderful to be among so many people who were so much smarter than oneself. And it was liberating in the sense of feeling that there need be no boundaries to one’s intellectual curiosity.”
By contrast, the British “have a disturbing tendency to affect a pose of sophisticated boredom in the face of anything that is perceived to be newfangled”, sighs Michael Herzfeld, Harvard’s British-born anthropologist whom Oxford would give gold nuggets to have. “And then there is this sense that if you openly criticise the powers that be [in a university], you might suffer recrimination.”
The issue of intellectual freedom is a constant refrain among Harvard’s English emigres. So are the topics of respect, the relief of being spared Britain’s Big Brother tactics – not least its mind-bogglingly bureaucratic research assessment exercises (RAEs) and other rigours of “accountability”- and the constant pressure to provide value for money.
“Here, it’s hard work without the frustrations of Britain,” says Harvard’s history department chair, David Blackbourn, who previously taught at Jesus College, Cambridge. “It’s time, not money, that we all grumble about.”
Not that America is the answer to all their woes – its academy is still riddled with political correctness. And British scholarship in the classics, ancient philosophy, ethics and English literature remains unrivalled. But, academics argue, there is no doubt that the increasingly international environment of Harvard, and other Ivy League schools, is beginning to make the likes of Oxbridge seem stiflingly provincial.
“I got here and it was like a breath of fresh air,” says Margaret Alexiou, Britain’s leading modern Greek studies expert. “The atmosphere was so different to the stagnation back in Britain, where you have your stock syllabus and even exam questions get tossed around from one university to the next.
“Here,” she says, “you’re encouraged to approach a subject, especially one that is as small as mine, from the perspective of other disciplines. So we had medievalists, anthropologists, Celticists, feminists, even a Chinese graduate student learning modern Greek . . . the sort of thing that would be unthinkable in the UK.”
Unthinkable, but not something that could not be experimented with. Britain should take a leaf out of America’s book if it wants to hold on to its brightest and best. The sad reality of the Harvard experience is that, once they uproot, they seldom look back.
Helena Smith is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University