Harvard Mafia Blogging, or, The Ivy Comes Out of the Woodwork

12 May

Originally posted at Iqra’i.

While my fellow Mafiosi and I have been wrapped up in term papers and final exams, it seems the alumni and affiliates of that other school have launched a stealth attack to take the lead in self-conscious Ivy League blogging. But given how ambivalent they seem to be about the place (Yugoslavia? Really? Really?), I can’t say that I mind.

Of the various “save Harvard” proposals, Reihan’s is easily the most intriguing, namely because it straddles the patently absurd and the amusingly familiar. Compare this:

What if Harvard cloned itself in India, China, and elsewhere, perhaps through deep partnerships with existing, cash-poor universities in those regions? Something like this happens on a very small scale. Harvard can do better, by farming out faculty and by handing out healthy heaps of cash. Perhaps Harvard could also partner with HBCUs in the American South that focus on, for example, on training teachers and healthcare professionals.

with this:

Yale professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Tian Xu directs a research center focused on the genetics of human disease at his alma mater, Shanghai’s Fudan University…Yale faculty, postdocs and graduate students visit regularly and attend videoconference seminars with scientists from both campuses. The arrangement benefits both countries; Xu’s Yale lab is more productive, thanks to the lower costs of conducting research in China, and Chinese graduate students, postdocs and faculty get on-the-job training from a world-class scientist and his U.S. team.

The latter is from a Newsweek cover story in 2006 written by…oh, that’s right, Yale President Richard Levin.

All of which is to say: five steps ahead of you, Reihan.

To be honest, though, I have to say I’m not sold on why a “global university” built on this model is necessarily a good idea. The best argument I can think of for expanding an American university beyond its natural base — “campus” as an area shapes the university experience so thoroughly, after all — is that which urges a more holistic kind of globalization than that in which we currently engage, exporting not only our most powerful brands (McDonald’s, Harvard) but also our most powerful ideas (democracy, liberal arts education).

Perhaps it’s just my undergraduate social-science major bias, but I worry enough that the ever-increasing emphasis on research and pre-professionalism will ultimately choke the training of “would-be change agents” rather than stoke it. An explicit commitment to producing leaders should of necessity teach doing good as well as doing well. (My favorite illustration of this is a story a friend of mine tells about a junior studying Ethics, Politics and Economics, Yale’s elite policy program, who couldn’t answer the question “What do you value?”)

Besides, branding is most effective when it’s about more than franchising, but about actively building an integrated community.

At the end of the day, though, this whole “how do we save Harvard?” trope is just so…Harvard. I’ll be the first to admit that the Harvard-Yale rivalry casts Harvard as the champion and Yale as the underdog, but I think that recently that’s worked out in our favor: one of the sociological fruits of underdoggery is finding a reason to be fiercely loyal, while one of those of championship is an irrational terror over losing ground in any way. So the value added is imperfect! So it can’t singlehandedly save global education! Around here, we’d just burrow happily into the Social Science building (or something else that inspired comparable affection – this comes to mind), treat that as the University we knew and cheer just as hard for it as anyone else. It’s only when your dominance leads you to feel you need to make a claim for universality that people are too busy trying to stay on top to remember how to have fun doing it.

Secret Ivy League message: 11.22.2008, Cambridge. Game weekend blogger rumble. Choose your weapons, Cantabs.

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