Is Harvard University worth a visit

Cambridge , in January - An angular skull, shaved bald. A miserable mustache curls under the crooked, crumpled nose, and you don't know from the packages that are stuck in the jacket that is stretched to bursting whether it is still muscle or already a pad of fat. A showman at the fair looks like this or a bouncer in a seedy harbor bar, and although Jesse Ventura has never sunk that deep, in the course of his life he has often enough earned his living in semi-silly milieus.

Before the voters in his home state of Minnesota elected him governor for a single and rather unsuccessful term five years ago, he had climbed into the ring under the stage name "The Body" and - half clown, half catcher - tinged the whole country. Ventura didn't have much more to offer than a well-toned body after he returned from Vietnam. Because at his college, a kind of community college called North Hennepin Community College in a suburb of Minneapolis, the young Jesse distinguished himself by taking as many courses as possible without attaching importance to a degree.

A catcher as a professor

But now Jesse is going to Harvard - to teach, not to study. Ironically, Harvard, America's best, best-known and most famous university, invited the brawny ex-governor. From the coming semester, Ventura will be in the lecture hall instead of the ring for a year and teach as a visiting professor in the venerable halls of the school - politics, not sports.

With his background, the daily student newspaper The Harvard Crimson noted without the slightest hint of irony, he could make a unique contribution to political education. The only strange thing about Ventura's calling is that nobody at Harvard finds it in the least strange - not the students Ventura invited, not the professors who will be his colleagues for the next twelve months, and not even Richard Hunt, Harvard has been connected for almost half a century and is something like the living memory of the school.

As Marshall of Harvard, Hunt was a kind of foreign minister of the university who maintained contacts with other educational institutions for decades. With his snow-white hair, horn-rimmed glasses and bright orange corduroy trousers under the inconspicuous jacket, he is a little reminiscent of a wise hobbit. When asked about Ventura, he puts on a mysteriously mischievous smile, as if to say that maybe the appointment of a strength athlete as a visiting professor is part of the magic that has made Harvard what it is: a synonym for higher education Top class. "Forming round classes out of angular characters is one of our maxims," ​​says Hunt, and that means that not only exceptional students are welcome, but also teachers who are out of the ordinary.

Perpetual motion of the multiplication of money

Wherever in the world one speaks of elite universities, like now in Germany, the name of America's oldest college, which was held in 1636 by the General Court of the Massachussetts Bay Colony here in Cambridge on the north side of the Charles River, across from Boston, is the first to come up , Founded. It got its name from the Puritan theologian John Harvard, who bequeathed his fortune to it in 1638. For more than three and a half centuries, the ten different faculties have taught and researched.

Harvard achieved its undisputed top position a hundred years ago. Since then, America’s academic, economic and political elite have been given their finishing touches in the rather nondescript brick buildings around Harvard Yard: Seven presidents, from John Adams to George W. Bush, studied here, 40 Nobel Prize winners did research at Harvard, and even those who did theirs Quitting studies usually led to something - as a certain Bill Gates, who was also enrolled here once, can confirm.

Actually, it is easy to list what makes Harvard, with its 18,000 students and 2,500 teachers, an outstanding institution, and Richard Hunt has often prayed the list down: "The long history, the money, the geographical location, puritanical thrift, and a portion of luck the selection of students, professors and administrators. " Money, yes money is important. With an endowment of $ 19 billion, Harvard is the richest university in the world. For comparison: Munich's Ludwig Maximilians University had a budget of 353 million euros in 2002. In the past, relatively bad year, the two "money managers" from Harvard alone earned more than two billion dollars on the stock market.

A third flows into the current budget, the rest is reinvested - a perpetual motion machine for increasing money. There are also 100 to 150 permanent fundraisers whose only job is to find new sources of money and donations.

But money alone is not enough, as Bernd Wittig has recognized, although it certainly creates a good feeling of independence from state influence. The German has been working at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is Harvard's younger, technical sister, for more than ten years. He recently had three German education ministers visiting, and over lunch with MIT professors they curiously inquired about the secret of the American elite universities: "The Americans answered as if from one mouth: The students. Good students mean good professors. Good students mean good research. "

Student today, world famous tomorrow

Another delegation of German university deans found out how important it is to select good students during a conversation with Nobel laureate in Physics, Wolfgang Ketterle, who teaches in Boston. "They were stunned when they heard that the big man was reading all the application documents himself," remembers Wittig. "That is one of my most important tasks", Ketterle had explained to them, he could not leave that to a secretary.

The principle that the student should be at the center of education runs through the entire American educational system in a more or less pronounced form, and of course it also applies at Harvard. "We don't want students who are just plain smart," says James Cooney, making a slightly dismissive gesture. "That would be boring. We want young people with a variety of talents and inclinations."

As director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cooney also looks after the 30 or so German McCloy scholarship holders who are studying at Harvard, and because he studied in Berlin himself, he is intimately familiar with the differences between the two systems. "Look, when I graduated from Harvard there was a freshman who played the cello pretty well and sometimes gave concerts," says Cooney. "His name was Yo Yo Ma and today he is world famous."

More than 20,000 applicants

Such non-study talents play a bigger role in the selection of students than the excellent grade point average, which almost all applicants can show anyway. 20,986 high school students have already applied for the 2007 academic year, but only 1,650 of them are accepted. And that is why one pays attention to qualities that have long had a twisted sound in Europe: leadership qualities, strength of character, social commitment, intellectual curiosity, integrity and maturity.

A rich family, on the other hand, is not a requirement for studying at Harvard, even though an academic year costs an average of $ 30,000. In fact, the admissions committee is initially not at all interested in the applicants' financial background. Those who are chosen will automatically receive a financing plan together with the congratulatory letter, which they may or may not accept. "Need-blind admissions" is the name of the system that is supposed to guarantee equal opportunities. Of course, it's not perfect: children of former students are generally preferred, and when one of Helmut Kohl's two sons applied, "it didn't hurt that his father was Chancellor," as Richard Hunt admits. A sounding name alone is of course not enough as long as the applicant does not meet the other criteria.

Swati Mylavarapu and Katja Zelljadt have neither a big name nor a rich family, and yet they both study at Harvard. They are among the 70 percent of students whose studies are financed - through a scholarship or loan, which is usually coupled with work on campus. Twenty-year-old Swati Mylavarapu, a third-year student of human rights and international development, comes from Gainesville, Florida, where her father runs a small engineering company. It's so good that half a dozen elite universities tried to get it. The financial package and the attractiveness of the metropolis Boston were decisive for Harvard.

Swati Mylavarapu has not regretted her decision, although Harvard is "built very hard on competition": "Swim or drown - this is especially true for the first semester." The American Zelljadt, who is doing her PhD in history, can only confirm this: "Harvard is definitely not a warm and cozy place." She has recognized that the principles of the Puritan founding fathers continue to work today: hard work under strict supervision. It is no wonder that Harvard's faculties call themselves proud and old-fashioned schools, and that the conversation is less about professors than about teachers.

Sorcerer's apprentices on campus

Another peculiarity that Harvard gives to a closed institution in the manner of a monastery or a barracks also appears Puritan: the obligatory communal experience. Among other things, this means that all 1,600 first-year students have to eat their meals together in the wood-paneled Annenberg Hall in the manner of the sorcerer's apprentices at Hogwarts. In addition, all freshmen, as the first semesters are called, have to live together in four-person shared apartments on campus - whether they like it or not. Later, higher semesters move to one of the so-called houses, as we already know from Harry Potter. The aim is to break up the anonymous atmosphere of the large university into manageable college sizes.

"You can't choose the people with whom you are thrown together, and the university administration tries to mix us up well," Swati Mylavarapu recognized. "There kids from problem areas in neglected inner cities can live together with millionaire children or European high nobility with medium-sized businesses." But doesn't that lead to tension, showing off and arrogance? Swati Mylavarapu just has to think twice. "No, snobbery is actually not a problem. We all know that we are among the best, otherwise we wouldn't be here. We don't have to prove anything to ourselves." As evidence, she cites her own shared apartment: a nationally known hockey player, a concert-ready Russian pianist and an award-winning documentary filmmaker from New England. "And we're all no more than twenty," she adds.

"These communities give rise to networks, friendships and experiences that last a lifetime," said Bernd Wittig from MIT. "The years of study should be the most intense years of life. What counts is not just the educational outcome, but the educational experience."

Patrons, donors, donors

Katja Zelljadt sees it the same way, and she draws another parallel: "The English elite universities of Oxford and Cambridge created an old boys network that was dominated by the upper class; Harvard creates a global network of elites, that of knowledge , Ability and performance is determined. " And these former students remain connected not only to each other but also to their university throughout their lives, not least as generous patrons and donors. Libraries, lecture halls, laboratories, museums and chairs are named after these donors, who throughout their lives have identified with their university in such an intense way that we only know from the fan clubs of a sports club elsewhere.

James Cooney, for example, is proud of his class, the "Class of 69", and not just because ex-Vice President Al Gore or the actor Tommy Lee Jones were his fellow students. In awe, he pulls a red-bound book from the shelf, which is reminiscent of a Bible in terms of size and format: it is the yearbook that contains all the information about all members of his year. It is revised and reissued every ten years. "Somehow you always stay in contact," he says.

Cooney knows the German course of studies and therefore he knows that the concept of American top universities cannot simply be transplanted. And the dream of a German Harvard cannot be realized overnight. Cooney remembers an anecdote about Leland Stanford, the 19th century California railroad baron. Before founding the college named after him, he asked then Harvard President Charles Eliot what it takes for a world-class university. "Twenty million dollars," replied Eliot. "Ok, no problem," said Stanford. "And about a hundred years," added Eliot. Cooney lets the words sink in before he mischievously presents the punch line: "Sometimes it can be done faster, of course. Stanford has done it in 70 years."