NEWS

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July 21, 2009

The anti-Harvard of the Midwest

It is a well-established fact that people at the University of Chicago love to hate Harvard. Our Cambridge counterparts have a (much) glitzier name than we do, they steal our professors, they endear the U.S. News & World Report, their paper has its own press just because it can - and they're just so common. (A 1994 editorial in The Harvard Crimson refers to the adoption of the Common App as a development of "plebeian proclivities" and a ploy by the administration to collect extra application fees. It seems that pre-Common App Harvard was less "uncommon" than it was paranoid and verbose.)I spent my first year at the U of C living in Wallace House, the house responsible for producing T-shirts bearing the phrase "If I wanted an A, I would have gone to Harvard." As former Viewpoints editor Matt Barnum once pointed out in a column, "the underlying insecurity in the statement is embarrassingly obvious: The vast majority of U of C students wouldn’t have been admitted to Harvard."So seeing them hurt is a fine point of schadenfreude in Hyde Park. Nina Munk has written a detailed account of the current state of fiscal desperation at Harvard, and it's really worth reading (even if not out of bitter defensiveness). It reads like a recession whodunit and is filled with high-ranking administrators blaming one another for the disastrous collapse of the largest university endowment in the nation, with the ultimate conclusion being, in the words of a hedge-fund manager, “They are completely fucked.”What's worrisome, as far as the U of C is concerned, is talk of how much Harvard's recent building boom figured into its current situation. In particular, the article draws attention to the folly of constructing a building without having the support of a donor securely lined up - something that is reminiscent of the new South Campus dormitory, for which several small (as in $2-5 million for a project with an intial budget price tag of $165 million) donations have been announced, leaving the expected main gift up in the air. President Zimmer has hinted in meetings with the Maroon that the primary donor (whose name the dorm will likely take on) has been pinned down, but it's strange that nothing has been announced even as the University prepares to open the building's doors in September. And the U of C's own building boom - see the new dorm, the Man, the Logan Performing Arts Center, the various hospital projects, plus the buildings that have only been finished within the last few years (Max Palevsky, Ratner, the BSB) - was the subject of a recent article in the University of Chicago Magazine that I was interviewed for. (My sole architectural qualification is hatred of the Mansueto Library.)Not a lot about Harvard is loved at the U of C, and painful lessons would certainly not be an exception. But then again, Harvard's mistakes extended far past a breackneck building boom - and what Zimmer has up his sleeve is anyone's guess.