The Decline of Harvard

In high school, I learned a lot from Martin Gardner‘s Mathematical Games column in Scientific American. I read it at the Chicago Public Library on my way home from school while transferring from one bus line to another — thank heavens transfers were good for two hours. In college, it was long fact articles in The New Yorker. Now it’s Marginal Revolution, where I recently learned:

Harvard has also declined as a revolutionary science university from being the top Nobel-prize-winning institution for 40 years, to currently joint sixth position.

The full paper is here.

What should we make of this? Clayton Christensen, the author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (excellent) and a professor at the Harvard Business School, has been skeptical of Harvard’s ability to maintain its position as a top business school. He believes, based on his research and the facts of the matter, that it will gradually lose its position due to down-market competitors such as Motorola University and the University of Phoenix, just as Digital Equipment Corporation, once considered one of the best-run companies in the world, lost its position. A few years ago, in a talk, he described asking 100 of his MBA students if they agreed with his analysis. Only three did.

How would we know if Harvard was losing its luster? Christensen asked a student who strongly disagreed with him. Harvard business students (except Christensen’s) are taught to base their decisions on data. So Christensen put the question like this: If you were dean of the business school, what evidence would convince you that this was happening and it was time to take corrective action?

When the percentage of Harvard graduates among CEO’s of the top 1000 international companies goes down, said the student.

But by then it will be too late, said Christensen. His students agreed: By then it would be too late to reverse the decline.

Christensen’s research is related to mine, oddly enough — we both study innovation. For explicit connections, see the Discussion section of this article and the Reply to Commentators section of this one.