"A place in Boston"

Have you ever noticed that when you meet someone who went to undergrad or law school or business school or medical school at Harvard University, and you ask that person where they went to school, the usual response is, “A place in Boston.”

Because this answer is so common, I’ve put some thought into it. At first blush, it seems to show a good deal of modesty. Folks at most other universities consider Harvard to be the pinnacle of education in the United States. Instead of announcing it to the world, these alumni show a bit of discretion.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s false modesty. “A place in Boston” certainly begs the question, “Which place in Boston?” Besides, it’s not even Boston. Harvard is in Cambridge, which, owing to the nominal connection to that renowned English university, might add an air of haughtiness. “Oh, a place in Cambridge.” Then again, “A place in Cambridge” could be MIT for that matter, but–sorry Louisa–we’re just not that impressed. So naming “Boston” rather than “Cambridge” or “Harvard” adds a sense of vagueness which could be argued to be dismissive.

In further support of my false modesty theory, I wonder what these people would say if they were talking to a known Stanford or Duke or Vanderbilt grad? Would they just go ahead and say “Harvard”? If so, does that mean they are simply shielding those of us who went to State U from encountering the devastating transcendence of belonging to such an alma mater? There’s nothing condescending about, “I went to Ohio State.” But, “Oh, a place in Boston”… Well, to that I say, “Sorry that I had no interest in majoring in gender studies, and–oh dear–I never signed up for the lacrosse club team, but really, it’s okay to tell me that you went to Harvard!”

On a different note, I recently read an article in The Economist about the financial strains of Oxford University. Most interesting was the bar graph which showed top university endowments from around the world. I wish I would take the effort to scan this, because the visual compilation of data is impressive. I’ll simply list the wealthiest universities and their respective estimated endowments (in British pounds, converted at $1.9 to 1 pound). Imagine the bar graph, if you will. Or plot it on a spreadsheet.

  1. Harvard 13+ billion
  2. Yale 8 billion
  3. Stanford 6+ billion
  4. University of Texas (!) 6 billion
  5. Princeton 5.9 billion
  6. MIT 3.5 billion
  7. Cambridge 3.3 billion
  8. Oxford 3 billion
  9. University of California 2.7 billion
  10. Columbia 2.7 billion

I was surprised that the University of Texas is so wealthy. Also surprised that the sum of the ancient giants’ endowments (Oxford and Cambridge) is barely more than Stanford’s or Princeton’s.

And one final thought; a corollary of sorts: Are all “Ivy Leaguers” created equal, or are there various levels of credibility to membership? In my mind, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are the triumvirate of American university education. Then there are schools like Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania which, though venerable, just don’t quite have that zippy instant name recognition shared by the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey institutions. And finally, those other Ivy League schools everyone has trouble remembering. Let’s see, Brown, and…I’m going to have to think…Dartmouth! Oh yeah, Cornell. Is that it?

Well, enough said this evening. Enough toes stepped on. Good night, and study hard!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “"A place in Boston"

  1. Luke Evans

    The only problem w/Princeton is that it is in Jersey.
    I have actually heard that Princeton Seminary has a larger endowment than any university in the world. But I don’t think that is true after seeing these stats. I think the Seminary has lika 1 billion dollar endowment..which is nevertheless amazing for a once-great seminary that is now just a bunch of Barthians.

  2. Anonymous

    Interesting post, for a couple of reasons.

    First, I don’t think it is false modesty. I think it is classic effete arrogance in one of its cruder forms. The question may be somewhat inane or mindless when posed, and providing an answer may not move the conversation (much less society) forward to any great degree, but failing to provide a simple, accurate answer is more than dismissive, it smacks of arrogance. Of the type Chevy Chase beautifully sent up with his newscaster’s smarmy “and I’m Chevy Chase and your not.” The older I get, the lest patience I have with that kind of response, as it represents as aspect of the move towards regular occurences of jarring bits of in-civility that our culture just accepts. It is much worse than the cutesy but ultimately ridiculous response of many graduates of the subject of the second item, The University of Texas, who, when asked where they went to the school, respond “The University.” Pardon me while I puke.

    Second, the endowment number for UT is amazing, and, especially as we see daily examples of political incompetence and political cowardice (especially at the Federal Exectutive Branch and Congressional level), we should not fail to credit the truly statesmanlike and prescient actions of a Texas Legislature, I think in the late 1800’s. Since Texas came into the Union by Treaty (since it had been an independent country between 1836 and 1845), it was able to negotiate some things in its favor. One of the most important items was that all land still owned by the “government” would thereafter be owned by the State, not the Federal, Government. A particular Texas Legislature determined–in the interest of higher public education, a prime goal of the populace at that time–to then transfer title to all vacant State property from the State itself to a permanent trust established for the benefit only of higher education. Brilliant, and something I can’t imagine the greedy and cowardly politicians of today would ever do. (Just look at the political games played with Lottery incomes if you have any doubt.) Much of the oil and gas discoveries in Texas were subsequently made on that land, under leases taken with the Trust. So, the royalties flowed directly into the endowment, for the benefit of untold thousands of students, and for generations.

  3. Philip

    I’m not sure how much endowments matter when you don’t normalize for the size of the university and how that money might be split up between different departments, undergrad vs. graduate school, etc.

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