How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World

And why Harvard—Harvard!—is scrambling to catch up.

MIT has long been the home of the nerd whose idea of fun is staying up late solving equations and writing code. But that’s changing fast. Droves of energetic young rebels, risk takers, and mavericks are now arriving at the university, hoping to make it big as tech entrepreneurs, and they’re transforming the spirit of the place. As improbable as it might seem, MIT has gone from geek to chic. “I lecture all around at different schools, like Babson, Emerson, BU, BC, Harvard, and MIT,” says Brian Patrick Halligan, a graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the CEO and founder of the successful Cambridge-based marketing-software business HubSpot. “And MIT kids are by far the best. They’re smart, articulate, covered in tattoos—they’re cool and hip and very different. Their clothes are edgy. And they’re all starting companies.”

Ash Martin, in his second year at Sloan, is exactly the kind of student Halligan is talking about. A cofounder of Viztu Technologies, which creates software that allows anyone to take and print digital 3-D images, Martin is blonde and brawny, with chiseled movie-star looks—and yes, he has tattoos. He plays water polo. He looks like a rock-star surfer, not someone who’s been hunkered down for the past year in the technological trenches, making breakthroughs in 3-D technology.

Martin is at the vanguard of change. Traditional careers in banking, medicine, and the law, which once promised lavish salaries and long-term sustainability, no longer provide a guaranteed route to success. The American Bar Association announced in June, for instance, that in 2011 only 55 percent of the nation’s law school graduates had landed full-time jobs within nine months of graduation. Overall, there are fewer “forever” jobs. Thousands of talented young students who might previously have considered these traditional careers are now deciding to go it on their own as entrepreneurs—and they’re choosing colleges and universities accordingly.

Martin shatters the geek stereotype, yet he feels right at home at MIT. “It’s full of my people,” he says, “the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done people. This is where it’s at, and where I want to be.” Martin certainly never considered Harvard. Why would he? In his view, Harvard spits out CEOs, bankers, lawyers, and moneymen. That’s so 1990s. Like so many others in his generation, he doesn’t want to be just a businessman, or a tech geek who makes things work behind the scenes. He wants to be like Steve Jobs, an iconoclastic master of the universe, a tech wizard with culture-changing powers. He chose MIT specifically because, in the new global economy, it offered him the best chance to realize his dreams: to start a business and make a difference in the world, not to mention earn some serious cash. On all of those fronts, he’s well on his way. A few months ago, he and his partner sold Viztu Technologies for an undisclosed sum to an international outfit called 3D Systems.

“Tech entrepreneurship is becoming a profession akin to law or architecture,” says Noubar Afeyan, the CEO of the Cambridge-based venture capital firm Flagship Ventures. “And that’s increasingly causing people to say, ‘How do I prepare for this and arm myself to tip the odds in my favor?’” These days, for those lucky enough to get in, there’s a simple answer to that question.

Go to MIT.

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  • omair

    “active companies created by its (MIT) alumni bring in a combined revenue today of as much as $2 trillion. That would make those companies the equivalent of the 11th-largest economy in the world” sums up the entire debate!!!

  • Adrian Meli

    It is pretty incredible how few schools have focused on entrepreneurship while so many have been focused on creating a well rounded liberal arts education. Maybe it is a sign of the times but I would guess these entrepreneurship programs will be long lasting. Working on creative enterprises can be incredible learning experience so nice to see the innovation in higher education.

  • Kwame

    I wish you showcase some hardworking and smart young ladies participating in this program.

    • http://www.brennanzelener.com Brennan Zelener

      Abso-freaking-lutely.

  • Tom Weingeist

    Copying is the strongest form of flattery. Good to have two such great institutions competing for the best – MIT and Harvard whatever the order…among the academic “swimsuit” competitions in ranking. Go Cambridge

  • SC

    I was an undergraduate at Harvard and I agree with this article’s claim that MIT is more culturally suited to and has a better track record in tech entrepreneurship than Harvard (and probably will hold this lead for the near future). However, the claim that this implies MIT is a more important university than Harvard represents a serious misunderstanding of these two universities. First, this article has essentially reduced the entire purpose and goal of a university to churning out new tech companies. Nowhere does it mention that the humanities, social sciences, arts, and professional schools have any bearing on the quality of a university. Unlike MIT, Harvard is not a technical institute and should not be judged as one. Second, this article mistakenly uses the number of new tech companies founded to gauge success in tech entrepreneurship. Given that Harvard students are far more likely than MIT students to pursue careers in government, law, business, and basically any non-engineering field, of course Harvard students will create fewer tech start-ups than their MIT peers. Nevertheless, Microsoft and Facebook attest to the success of those who do choose this route. Third, the article implies that Harvard’s inferior status in tech entrepreneurship relative to MIT represents a failed attempt to compete on this front. In truth, Harvard has historically made conscious decisions not to focus its endeavors on tech entrepreneurship, instead cultivating an incredible intellectual atmosphere where knowledge is sought for its own sake, not because it will lead to new companies. As someone familiar with the more pragmatic cultures at MIT and my current institution, Stanford, I can attest to the presence a far more vibrant, diverse, intellectually driven culture at Harvard. Given that Harvard’s endowment is more than triple that of MIT, if Harvard’s goal were to become an engineering and entrepreneurial university, it could, but this has never been and will never be its direction.

    • Bobyscus

      MIT – best in engineering. Harvard – best in medicine.

      Together – the sky is the limit.

  • Sid K

    This article is misguided on several fronts:
    First of all, an article about tech entrepreneurship with no mention of Stanford? I get the impression that far from researching the real “story” here, the author wanted to tell a particular MIT vs. Harvard story of his own, and that’s the one he told come rain or shine.

    Second: If you’re going to talk about competitors in high tech entrepreneurship, you should be comparing MIT to the leader in this area, Stanford ( http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/october/innovation-economic-impact-102412.html ) — not to Harvard which barely even has an engineering program, as other commentators have pointed out. The author presents it as if, somehow, Harvard and MIT are the only universities in the world and are therefore automatically competitors in all areas. The scope of human knowledge is vast — and certainly individual universities don’t focus on all aspects of it. That’s why you have Tech schools, liberal arts schools, law schools.

    And finally, the bottom line — do your research.

    • Ken K.

      I agree with you Sid. I am an MIT Alum but I’m quite shocked that Stanford was not mentioned at all in such an article about tech entrepreneurship. An article comparing MIT and Stanford on this topic would have been the best.

      • http://www.olivernewthgraphics.com/ Oliver

        It’s Boston magazine, of course it’s going to just discuss Harvard and MIT. They’re discussing the global position of these two local universities, which it is fair to say is top-of-the-league for both establishments. Of course you’re right – Stanford too is a leader – but in the context of this article’s audience it’s pretty much (though admittedly not completely) irrelevant.

        • Bradmeister007

          Let’s not forget the headline of the article, “How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World.” If we’re talking about “the world,” then it makes no sense for the article to have only compared two universities based in Cambridge, MA.

  • Adi Mittal

    I agree with Sid above, Stanford is totally leading both MIT and Harvard in terms of tech entrepreneurship.

    For Omair above, yes and Stanford alumni companies create a combined revenue of $3 trillion. Check out: http://www.stanford.edu/group/wellspring/ for companies started around Stanford in the Valley from Google, HP, Yahoo, to Cisco.

    Make a list of all your top tech companies and you’ll see.

  • peckave

    Sounds like some jealous people above. Get over it. MIT now is the place to be for the new century!

    No need to believe me or this article. Check out another link:
    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2012/qs-rankings-names-mit-number-one-0911.html

    • Sid K

      Us “jealous people” need no convincing — MIT has been an unbelievable place to be and will continue to be so in the future. But it’s misleading for the article to portray MIT and Harvard as apparently the only universities that matter, especially when it is a fact that Stanford leads both of these universities in the specific area being discussed. And that’s really the issue — universities aren’t just black and white better/not better than each other. Most universities tend to specialize in certain areas. No one would claim Georgia Tech or Michigan are the best liberal arts schools, for example, but they’re easily among the top engineering schools in the world. Similarly, making the case that MIT is “better” than Harvard should involve a lot more than a discussion about only tech entrepreneurship (which, certainly, is important. but it’s not all there is). And the case for MIT being the “most important university in the world” should involve more than tech entrepreneurship, where in that area alone it is indeed not the leader. I’m sure the case can be made — just not like this.

  • Janice

    @SC
    Despite its name, MIT is not merely a technical institute. It incidentally ranks #1 in overall social sciences in THE, has a top 5 business program, and excels in many areas outside of STEM. Of course, they do have a science oriented slant to them, cuz it’s you know MIT.

    Yeah, the article is narrow-minded. Seems like it’s saying that if you top Harvard in one way, you’re suddenly better than every other university in the world in every which way.

  • Jeanne Martin

    It seems like the Big New Thing is actually the Same Old Thing, but with better PR — a bunch of men pursuing technological innovation to line their own pockets. Though I commend the field for diversifying into men of color, I would bet good money that these new entrepreneurs are for the most part the children of privilege, who have the financial support and connections to attend MIT, make nice with VCs (usually white men).

    Show me a subset of these bright young things who are trying to recast the same old paradigm into something new, and I’ll eat my hat.

    • Jessica

      As a female alumna of MIT, I am very proud to say that its undergrad ratio of men to women is pretty much 50-50. The other good thing about MIT is that it has no preference for people with connections or “people of privilege”. There was a joke in my high school that anybody who applied to Stanford as a legacy got in (and in my three years at that high school, that was true); I don’t mean to bash Stanford, but that’s not the case at all at MIT. Granted, it’s an expensive school just like any other private institution, but the bulk of my friends there are from lower-income families.

      Also, MIT may not have as many social science programs as Harvard, but it does have some really excellent ones, especially philosophy, linguistics, and creative writing.

      Finally, there’s probably a simple explanation for leaving out Stanford. This article was written by Boston Magazine, so the author was likely just looking at the two local giants as they vy for the top spot on numerous rankings lists. No injury to remote giant Stanford intended.

    • http://mitcrimeclub.org James Herms, MIT ’87

      % Black or Hispanic:
      Stanford 23; MIT 22; Yale 16; Princeton 15; Harvard 14; Chicago 11.
      % Female:
      Harvard–Yale–Princeton–Stanford–Chicago 51–50–49–48–48; MIT 45.
      US Dept of Education (2012)

    • CKTC

      Having gone to MIT both undergrad and PhD, I can tell you that the vast majority of people come from poor and middle-class backgrounds. 90% of undergrads get financial aid (60-70% institutional, others federal/outside).

      Also, no child of privilege will do a science PhD.

  • Juris

    It is still to be seen whether MIT’s “push” strategy and “teaching” entrepreneurship is going to work (which world changing start-ups have come out of MIT as of late?) for something that is art more than science. As Paul Graham puts it here: http://paulgraham.com/startupideas.html “Entrepreneurship” is something you learn best by doing it.

    • John

      Nice article reference Juris. And to that point, Entrepreneurship is probably best taught by those that have been Entreprenuers (See Babson!).

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anne-Hunter/711262 Anne Hunter

      DropBox, just to mention one.

      • David

        There is nothing innovating or interesting about DropBox. This guy (Drew) will have to run this boring company for at least couple of years. Look at Youtube videos of their employees – in the videos they are doing all other things than sharing their passion to this boredom.

  • preferthetruth

    MIT is home to Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology Dr Richard Lindzen. He is a leading denier of global warming caused by man made effects. He is also a leading advocate promoting the idea that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer.

  • David

    Any idiot could be an entrepreneur. The best research occurs in Harvard. MIT is good, definitely better than Yale or Columbia University but not as good as Harvard.

  • Gurbachan

    I have regularly visited and interacted with Harvard and MIT but have no vested interest in either. MIT is open and interactive while Harvard is closed and aloof. Do a test yourself. Write to any professor in MIT and Harvard on any issue or idea and firstly see whether you get a reply and secondly judge on your experience you get in each case. The culture is so different.

  • AugustineThomas

    “And MIT kids are by far the best. They’re smart, articulate, covered in tattoos—they’re cool and hip and very different. Their clothes are edgy. And they’re all starting companies.”

    What a stupid line. This is exactly the type of attitude that makes you hate Harvard.

  • survivedyesterday

    And to hang out with people like you is the reason I go to Harvard. Right on!