A Template of Excellence – Can We Replicate Harvard?


Greatness is notoriously slippery, sometimes numbingly cold. Yet it has courted others religiously, tagged them as objects of applause. Some claim that it can be aided by placing oneself at the gates of luck which may be what my parents meant by ‘education is the key to life’. One rarely attains greatness, at least in many cultures, without fumbling with different keys at the gates of education. We can safely assume that the gate matters just as much as the key, especially in today’s higher education crisis, where students and parents feel like a chess board on  universities expansion games.

What a better moment for us to interrogate why some universities like Harvard in the face of disruption still mean more than the credentials obtained from them. Yes, the world is not short of universities that dominate ranking tables but I picked Harvard University as a benchmark for two reasons: its firm grip as a model template of excellence and the clarity of historical decisions preceding its ascent to greatness.

Harvard’s Sacred Seat

But first, what places one university on top of another? Ranking tables such as QS World University Rankings would be a good place to start. It is estimated that research citations, academic reputation and staff-student ratios account for 80% of ranking decisions. Times Higher Education rankings add income per researcher, ratios of international staff and international researchers to the list. I admit that ranking challenges exist but I hold no objection to the significance and the attention they receive from stakeholders. Therefore, rankings are telling of an excellent university and, irrespective of the ranking source, Harvard maintains an almost sacred seat in the top 5 table.

Founded in 1636 Harvard was hardly the best. Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen argues that it is from 1870-1950s that the features of excellence took root. He credits three of its presidents, Charles Eliot, Lawrence Lowell, and James Conant for the re-engineering. Their decisions give us what I will refer to as the characteristics of a great institution of learning:

They improve on models that work: Beginning 1870S President Charles Elliot improved on the designs of the then existing European Universities. He established the Graduate schools that conferred PhDs and ensured you needed a bachelor’s to get in. He opened the flood gates of course specialization by creating an elective system. Later, Lawrence Lowell , Eliot’s successor introduced majors, the honors and a grading system

They pay to attract and keep the best: Elliot financed his expansion through fundraising and not fees increase and he willfully paid a football coach a near equivalent of his 40-years earnings at Harvard. In 1933 James Conant took over, his major concern being Harvard’s intellectual repute. He separated Harvard from others by assembling a faculty composed of leading thinkers in their respective fields. He tied tenure to productivity. He also set up a fund to cater for the financially challenged students but intellectually privileged.

They step into the world of practice: the three presidents were actively involved in public work. Conant had a lead role at the WWII Manhattan Project and leveraged on this to secure government financing. This contact with world of practice maintains a referral system which is still important in joining Harvard.

The Emulators’ Failure

Ceteris paribus, it would not be such a bad idea to replicate a Harvard across the African continent. There is only one problem with this – Harvard has been emulated since the 70’s with less than optimal outcomes. Clayton Christensen argues that its emulators did not transfer some of core aspects of Harvard’s DNA especially its prodigious fund and the elaborate graduate support system. In addition to the piecemeal emulation, some (nay, most) African universities overlooked continent specific contexts. They treated university expansion as an elixir to their woes forgetting that the expansion witnessed in the West was in response to the industrial revolution that we are yet to even sniff.

Like Clayton, I am cautiously optimistic. If anything, a good share of African economies’ GDPs are driven by the service industry. This means our economies can capture value from faculty expansions in social sciences, arts, STEM students if we invest in them. I believe Harvard’s Template of Excellence offers invaluable insights to the modern university. After all, haven’t they touted Makerere as the Harvard of Africa (though a misnomer to many)? In addition,  disruption in higher education will likely jar universities from their lethargy. Harvard’s of our time, driven by a combination of employer engagement, online and campus experience will emerge. Then greatness will open the gates and find us ready, court our children and run in our veins.

Photo credit to Harvard China.Simon NDIRANGU MWANGI (MS) is the Founder and CEO of TheBridgeAfrica – an enterprise that works with employers, professional associations and universities to ensure career ready status of graduates.





A consultant strategy and capability development - a trainer drawn to the magic that is the knowledge in people. I am an emmerging thought leader in the sphere of workorce development who uses my industry wide experience to prepare pools of talent

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