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West Vs. East: How Stanford Will Beat Harvard in 50 Years

In Misc. on January 3, 2011 by David Tagged: , , , , ,

To a first approximation, the quality of a university trends with economic power of the surrounding region. I think this is makes sense as the quality of a university is a product of the quality of students and faculty it can attract. Universities naturally tackle problems that are of interest to the community near them. Businesses actively recruit graduates from universities that are close and familiar to them. If these questions and these businesses are inherently important, prestigious, or high-impact, the university’s importance, prestige, and impact would go along with it. Silicon Valley is definitely a boon to Stanford, and being in the heart of colonial America was definitely beneficial to Harvard – but this says nothing about the lasting power of such quality.

One example could the relative respect and ranking of European universities and American universities. Going back to the 19th century, Europe, particularly England, was the center of the world – there is no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge were the undisputed centers of education and learning. Harvard would seem like a backward backwater professional school. As we progress to the 20th and 21st century, America’s relative standing in the world improved, and I think this coincided with a rise in names such at Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. This might be due to my America-centric background, but I think these schools can hold their own against most others throughout the world.

Much more than educational models and philosophies of teaching, the relative importance of the region that a university encompasses is the leading indicator of future success. That is not to say the educational mission is unimportant, but I think other factors pale in comparison to the irresistible attraction of proximity. Choosing a college a few years back, I had no idea what is really important. Apart from an ambiguous idea for “prestige” and the spectrum of unique but equally impressive architecture, I remained ultimately ignorant of the different characteristics of each institution – and I get the impression that I was not alone. With all else equal, I would imagine being close to family and friends would a significant pull to the empty vessels we call students. The law of large numbers would suggest regions that can attract intelligent adults will inevitably attract intelligent students.

The real question is: Where is this going? What implications does this have for the future? I think it is particularly telling that one of the major movies of the past year chronicles the journey of bright young student moving from the more traditional prestigious halls of education and power to a new area of excitement and potential. The Social Network, in part, described Mark Zuckerberg’s move from Boston, Massachusetts to Palo Alto, California, and foreshadows the gradual shift of America’s center of gravity towards the West.

It is difficult to predict the fall of hegemony – and Harvard is undoubtedly an educational hegemon. But just as we are transitioning into a multi-polar world and Facebook is challenging the internet dominance of Google, such shifts seem natural, almost inevitable, in hindsight. And that is my guess for the improvement of Stanford over Harvard in the near future. As the United States moves ever more towards an information-based economy and the traditional powers of finance and trading is seen as a pyramid of misaligned incentives, the center of gravity shifts towards the West. The importance of Silicon Valley will only increase and in turn, the significance of Stanford, UCSF, Caltech, Berkeley, and other schools in the west will continue to grow.

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One Response to “West Vs. East: How Stanford Will Beat Harvard in 50 Years”

  1. […] story goes that Mark Zuckerberg moved Facebook from the cradle of American education, Boston, to Palo Alto. How will regions of advanced learning adapt and change to the local […]

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