CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - In a couple of weeks, roughly 2,000 of the country's most accomplished high school students will receive acceptance letters from Harvard. It will be, to some, a postmarked invitation to the ranks of the ruling class.
But with a faculty fight over Harvard's leadership resulting in the largest faculty group's no-confidence vote against President Lawrence H. Summers last week, as well as two new tell-all books offering an unflattering glimpse behind Harvard's red-brick walls, the university with a seemingly unassailable brand name is finding itself on the defensive.
A school so aware of its role in the universe that it has even offered a course on itself ("Harvard: Five Centuries and Eight Presidents"), Harvard clearly thrives on attention from the outside world. All those tourists snapping pictures of their children by the statue of John Harvard keep the dream alive: Their kids, too, might one day belong here.
But as dependent on its star quality as it is, the nation's oldest university doesn't always do well under scrutiny. News stories about campus troubles have some students worried about the school's image. On campus, many students are too swamped by midterms to care about the Summers flap, but some still find time to denounce Privilege, a memoir about Harvard elitism, or Harvard Rules, about the Summers reign, calling the books unfair attacks.
The books - written by two Ivy-Leaguers - are equally prone to complaint, unleashing a load of angst about Harvard's foibles and failings.
The world listens
All this hand-wringing about Harvard comes from a small sliver of society. But then, when the privileged class whines, the rest of the world listens.
"Anything that happens at Harvard is much more magnified than events at other American universities, because Harvard is so famous and so wealthy and so powerful," says Ross Gregory Douthat, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly who got a contract for Privilege soon after his graduation from Harvard in 2002. "Harvard is to universities what, say, Walt Disney would be to film studios."
There's usually good reason to pay attention to Harvard, of course. Its vast intellectual empire attracts brilliant scholars, produces standout graduates and gleams with Ivied history. To join this tradition is as close as it gets to getting an American stamp of approval.
Even Douthat, as he rants against Harvard as status-hungry and career-obsessed, seems to love the insider it makes him. The campus conservative writes dreamily of skinny-dipping with his idol, William F. Buckley Jr., one drunken night during his summer internship at the National Review.
Douthat saves room to complain about not getting accepted by Harvard's exclusive, frat-like "finals clubs," but it's hard to feel sorry for this former Harvard Crimson columnist with powerful friends. After all, what students from no-name schools get their books published by age 25?
Sense of entitlement
The Harvard ethos is built around a meritocracy, but some students admit to feeling a sense of entitlement in the atmosphere as well.
"You kind of start to expect people to treat you differently, which really bothers me - but I do," says Mary Thomas, 20, a sophomore from Washington, D.C. "When you say you go to Harvard, you expect someone to react to it, and when they don't, I'm surprised."
Students here know all the tour guide statistics - the ones too lofty to check, like how the statue of John Harvard is one of the most photographed statues in the United States, or how the word "Harvard" appears in The New York Times more than the names of all other universities combined. Even so, some students don't like feeling that because they go here, they always must live up to the legacy.
"It's almost like you're expected to be this kind of icon if you're here," says Chi-Chi Esimai, a bespectacled freshman from Arlington, Texas, shoving her uneaten breakfast into her knapsack as she hurries to class. "It's not always easy to be perfection all the time."
Even as the children of the elite choose other schools - Chelsea Clinton went to Stanford, President Bush's daughters went to Yale and the University of Texas - Harvard is still a magnet for musings about privilege.
Harvard invites much of this attention. Its search for a president four years ago led to Summers, a formidable economist who served as President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary. Though hardly a huge star, he was more famous than other contenders for the post.
But Harvard's celebrity president brought conflict. Summers soon clashed with Cornel West, a distinguished professor in the African-American studies department, who swiftly left for Princeton. After Summers' controversial comments in January suggesting that "intrinsic aptitude" might help explain the scarcity of women in the sciences, professors have become emboldened to attack his leadership in general. He is, they argue, an autocrat who alienates the faculty - women and blacks in particular.