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The Harvard Humblebrag

June 12, 2013
by David Tuller, MPH '06
A person carrying books holding a Cal flag

The lovely young woman has been admitted to the master’s program at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and she is seeking my advice. She’s also been accepted to Harvard and several other top schools, she says, and is weighing her options.

I make the appropriate comments. I have nothing negative to say about Harvard, or any other of the schools of public health she is considering, I tell her. Each has its pluses and minuses and so forth and blah blah blah.

Then, in the spirit of full disclosure, I add this: If she goes to Harvard, an inevitable and hard-to-define “Harvardness” will settle over her. And whatever else she accomplishes in life, some of it will stick to her like dental plaque—hard to scrape off no matter how vigorously she brushes.

And I close with this: As a graduate of both universities—I received a B.A. from Harvard in 1978 (any other former Dunster House residents out there?) and an MPH from Berkeley in 2006—I value my “Berkeleyness” a great deal more. I’m not sure if my words have any effect, but the young woman—to my delight—chooses Berkeley.

In my own case, time-of-life certainly influenced my preferences. During college, I needed to devote way too much time to being depressed and stoned to fully concentrate on academics; much of that struggle involved recovering from a troubled childhood and wrestling with my sexual orientation. By the time I entered Berkeley at the age of 47, those issues were long behind me. I knew why I was back in school and what I wanted to accomplish. It also helped that many of my professors were ten years younger than me and the other students could have been my kids; let’s just say no one had plans to ground me or take away the car keys based on my academic results.

But there was more to it than that. In the tenth year after I graduated from Harvard, I received a letter that went like this, more or less: “We’re writing from the Princeton 10th Reunion Class Committee—and unless you Harvard 10th Reunion people give more than you’ve already given, we’re gonna beat you!” This letter was part of what someone must have believed was a brilliant cross-promotion strategy—the Princeton 10th-ers received a similarly dire warning from the Harvard 10th Reunion folks.

I remember reading the letter, holding it, eyeing it with wonder. Who, I wondered, were the freaks for whom this threat would offer a challenge so stirring that they’d smack their foreheads and whip out a check? Would I be getting letters from the Yale and Columbia tenth-reunion classes as well? (No, as it turned out.)

I have never given money to Harvard—not for my tenth reunion, and not since. Harvard’s endowment topped $32 billion at the close of the 2011 fiscal year—billions more than its nearest rival, Yale. Berkeley’s endowment, in contrast, is about a tenth as big. Any money I can spare, Berkeley clearly needs a lot more—especially given how the state has over time shamelessly decimated the UC system’s budget.

Many Harvard people understand why other Harvard people, when asked where they went to college, sometimes cringe and answer “in Boston,” hoping no one presses the matter further. Dealing with people’s preconceptions, reactions, and questions can be irritating, embarrassing, and time-consuming. And I’d rather not be associated with some of the attitudes that seem to infect Harvard graduates. A few years ago, on, a 59-year-old guy pinged me for a date (never mind that, in the Internet dating world, 59 really means 64, or even 74).

His profile headline proclaimed: Harvard Man.

The opening of his self-description: “As a Harvard man, I …”

I wanted to scream. He’s 59 years old (or 64), and having attended Harvard remained his proudest moment? And wouldn’t a single mention of this youthful achievement have sufficed?

So is it disingenuous of me to have attended Harvard, to have benefitted from the association and to now earn extra points from the appearance of dissing it? Of course! Even this little essay raises questions. Did I write it solely to champion public vs. private education and encourage donations to alma mater number two? Or am I actually more interested in making sure that all my Berkeley colleagues know that I also went to Harvard? Even I’m not quite sure of the answer.

See what I mean about Harvard? Who needs these kinds of emotional complications? Life’s too short. That’s why, as a Harvard man, I prefer Berkeley.

David Tuller, MPH ’06, is the academic coordinator for Berkeley’s dual masters program in public health and journalism and a contributor to The New York Times, California Magazine, Mother Jones and other publications.
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