Matt Yglesias and I both went to Harvard as undergrads, and I liked it a lot more than he did. In part, this is because I was a transfer student — my three years at Harvard were, for a lot of reasons, a lot more fun than my one year at Cornell. And I happened to make a lot of really good friends, mostly due to happenstance. Also, like Brad DeLong, I liked Social Studies. But a couple of things have soured me in the years since I left: the Summers incident, which was painful to watch; the (temporary) end of transfer admissions, which is a scandal, particularly as we see Harvard draw on its alternate list; and Brad DeLong’s minor masterpiece on Harvard-as-socialist-Yugoslavia.
So how can Harvard redeem itself?
There is no way that Harvard will pick up and move, sad to say. I’d be stoked if Harvard moved to Palm Springs or Monterey. But it also can’t scale itself up enough to effectively use its resources to improve the quality of education around the world while tethered to Cambridge. Yes, there is something to be said for providing a small, elite cadre of international students with a top-notch education and sending them home to spark fruitful change. In reality, a large swathe of these would-be change agents will assimilate into US elite culture, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is a good, natural development.
But 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.