How MIT Became the Most Important University in the World

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

That kind of talk doesn’t go over well at Harvard, which likes to be a leader in everything it does. That’s why the university has invested so much money in its Innovation Lab. The facility hosts classes taught by visiting entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and offers students the chance to work with leading figures from all sectors of the business world. Teams of students can apply for workspace inside the facility to develop ideas and plan startups, and demand has been high. This fall the I-Lab is home to more than 60 teams, composed of 150 students—most of them, not surprisingly, from the business school. One of those students is Levi Belnap, who’s already founded a company with the help of the initiative. Belnap believes a promising new era of tech entrepreneurship is dawning at Harvard. “I think you’re going to see more Harvard companies coming out of here,” he says.

The odds that the I-Lab will help Harvard catch up to MIT, however, seem impossibly long. That’s partly a reflection of cultural differences between the two schools. According to Christine Marcus, an MIT grad who recently spent time working at both the Trust Center and the I-Lab, something is just a bit off about the I-Lab. The atmosphere feels rigid, cloistered, sterile. Unlike the Trust Center, which is open to MIT students at all hours, the I-Lab closes at 1 a.m. during the week, is manned by a security guard, and requires students to sign in before entering. This kind of formality may seem normal to anyone who works in a conventional office, but to the up-and-coming generation of rebel innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s just a buzzkill. “I got to see both worlds,” Marcus says, “and they are definitely different cultures. At MIT, there’s no pretense, and everyone is very humble and lets the work speak for itself. At Harvard, it’s much more structured and formal. They try to help you and answer questions, they bring in speakers and mentors, but that same level of energy just isn’t there.”

Partly, that’s deliberate. Harvard isn’t out to create businesses with its students, not even those at the I-Lab. Its primary concern, as always, is giving them a well-rounded education. “We don’t push,” says Joe Lassiter, the I-Lab’s faculty chair. “We help.”

MIT, on the other hand, keeps pushing—and that is why it’s leaving Harvard behind. The world is changing dramatically, and MIT has decided to change with it. According to Sal Khan, a young Silicon Valley entrepreneur who went to MIT as an undergrad and earned an MBA from Harvard, the result is a new kind of MIT graduate, an entrepreneurial go-getter fully prepared to meet the challenges of the modern age. It’s Khan’s job to make bets on which young entrepreneurs will be the most successful, and he has no doubts about where to put his money. The modern MIT student, he believes, is battle-tested and ready to go. “It’s analogous,” he says, “to someone being in Special Forces, or a Navy SEAL.”