Boston Globe Online:

The premier college town - a primer

By Alex Beam, Globe Staff

Yeah, we're smart.

We have more than 100 colleges and universities around here, and about 250,000 college students - the most intense infestation of academic wherewithal in the country. How blase are we about higher learning? We have a $300 million technical college being built in Needham, and hardly anyone knows about it.

Brains? We have them, pre-cradle to grave. A California company operates a sperm bank in Cambridge, harvesting high-octane DNA from the Harvard and MIT kids. Harvard itself operates the Brain Tissue Research Center, the largest "brain bank," or depository of brain specimens, in the country.

Latin? We know Latin. Not dead here. Boston Latin, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, Roxbury Latin. This is a town where not so long ago a columnist (George Frazier, 1968) wrote a front-page Globe story in Latin. This is a town where Harvard professor Stephen Jay Gould takes an occasional break from his theoretical critique of uniformitarianism to eke out a few thousand words on the fate of the Carmine Hose. (The Red Sox to you.)

We have so many Nobel Prize recipients here that we even have Nobel Prize recipients with a sense of humor! Next month, six Nobel laureates will oversee the traditional, tongue-in-cheek IgNobel Prize Ceremony at MIT, featuring a Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.

Here's all you really need to know about Boston-area universities in one handy package:

Boston College: Always in the ascendancy. Ten years ago, someone noticed that all the white men who run the city had attended either BC High School, BC, or BC Law School - in some cases, all three. Wants to be the East Coast Notre Dame, i.e., Catholic sports powerhouse, which is too bad because hardly anyone knows that Notre Dame is a fine academic university.

Little known fact: BC's superb Thomas P. O'Neill Library is open to the public.

Boston University: The "third great university on the Charles," as BU chancellor John Silber likes to call it, never gets the recognition it deserves, mainly because of ... Silber. Everything good (trophy collection of Nobel Prize academics; aggressive new building program; genuine concern for educational standards) and everything bad (headline-grabbing ideological confrontations with students, faculty, and media) has flowed from Silber's office. Silber-less BU hard to imagine.

Little known fact: Alexander Graham Bell was on sabbatical from BU when he invented the telephone.

Brandeis: Founded in 1948 as "the Harvard of the Jews," Brandeis's world was turned on its head when "Harvard became the Harvard of the Jews as did Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and the rest of elite American colleges," according to the New York Times. Got off track in the 1980s, back on track now.

Little known fact: Woody Allen says in "Annie Hall": "Must be smart; went to Brandeis."

Harvard: World's Greatest University (Self-Described). The richest university in America, most prestigious, and one of the most selective. Wellspring of all that arrogance: extremely high undergraduate admissions "yield," meaning that students accepted by Harvard and other elite colleges generally end up at Harvard.

Little known fact: Daily 8:45 a.m. prayer services, with interesting guest speakers, at Appleton chapel.

MIT: Then as now, the best engineering school in America. Tell an MIT "double E" (electrical engineering major) how great the much-praised Stanford University program is, and watch the grin slowly creep across his - possibly her - face. They don't flunk out one-third of the freshman class as in the old days, but the curriculum is still plenty tough.

Little known fact: Liberal arts are well taught, if underappreciated.

Northeastern: One of two Boston-area schools attended by real people - UMass-Boston is the other - rather than the children of well-to-do suburbanites. Founded by the YMCA, Northeastern is trying to grow beyond its roots as a "subway" school for the children of working Bostonians, and it is succeeding.

Little known fact: Shawn Fanning invented Napster here during his first semester. Which also happened to be his last semester.

Tufts University: A well-kept secret lurking far from Bostonians' gaze in Medfield - sorry, Medford - a city that few Bostonians could locate on a map. Superb graduate schools - medicine, foreign service, nutrition, veterinary medicine - and solid undergraduate education make Tufts better known to the world at large than to parochial Hubsters.

Little known fact: School mascot is Jumbo the elephant.

UMass-Boston: A true urban university, with all that that implies. Like Boston University, UMass is also ruled by a strongman - former Senate president William Bulger - but one less prone to running off at the mouth. Has plenty of budget and management woes, but here's the upside: actual students can afford to go there.

Little known fact: Good squash courts.

Wellesley: One of the last all-female colleges in the country. Fourth-best liberal arts college in America, according to US News & World's Report's spurious annual rankings - which in this rare case may have it right. Campus divided into Talbots-clad "Wendy Wellesley" traditionalists and fire-breathing "LUGs" (Lesbians Until Graduation), who bowdlerize the English language, e.g. "Womyns' Studies" to suit their ideological ends.

Little known fact: Globe reporters have been trying to attend nocturnal meetings of rumored Wellesley witches' coven, so far without success.

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 9/25/2000.
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