Harvard as a state

A view of Harvardistan, with its elaborate architecture and peaceful meadows. Note the savage wilderness beyond

Let’s do a little thought experiment. This thought experiment begins as follows: imagine Harvard as an independent state. A sovereign country with borders, a recognized government, the whole deal. Let us call this fictional country Harvardistan.

Let me begin by providing some comparative statistics about Harvardistan.

With nearly 37,000 inhabitants — including faculty, all ranks of staff, and students — Harvardistan ranks above Lichtenstein but below Saint Kitts and Nevis in terms of population.

Harvardistan would be the 90th state — out of 184 — by wealth in the world, with a Gross Domestic Product of slightly below $32 billion. This places Harvardistan just under Serbia and Yemen and just above Jordan and Bolivia. This gives Harvardistan a per capita GDP of nearly $865,000: more than the 13 wealthiest countries combined.

Harvardistan’s size — 2.4 square kilometers, or 0.9 square miles — surpasses only Monaco and the Vatican City. The country has twice the population density of Hong Kong.

Next, let us talk a bit about the structure of this country.

There have been many discussions on the nature of Harvardistan’s government. However, most scholars who focus on the comparative politics of New England would agree that it could be classified as “competitive authoritarian.” This means that there is a regime that maintains a semblance of democracy, yet exercises its quasi-absolute power in ways sometimes overt, sometimes not.

Harvardistan is ruled from its capital, Yard City. The executive consists of a president with no term limits. Two councils of elders, the Board of Overseers and the President and Fellows of Harvardistan College, constitute the legislative branch. Few inhabitants, however, have ever understood what these councils actually do. The judicial branch is formed by the Administrative Board, an institution whose name is whispered in terror by Harvardistanians.

As a response to the regime and its policies, in the fall of 2011 there was a semi-revolutionary attempt to increase the transparency of the state. The opposition to the government, named Occupy Harvardistan, resulted in minor reforms and carries on to this day under different names from the rebel planets of River IV and Quadth.

Order in Harvardistan is kept by several regiments of graduate students, who provide what in political science is known as “the government’s monopoly on the use of grading.”

The technical and engineering expertise found among Harvardistan’s population has been rumored to be capable of producing a nuclear weapon within three weeks’ time, a figure which accounts for procrastination and all-nighters. So far, though, the Harvardistanian government has opted to remain non-nuclear, in fear of starting an arms race with the cunning humanoids of the Technocratic Republic of MIT. Nonetheless, Harvardistan is a regional hegemon, though it remains embroiled in a long-term conflict with the pariah state of Yaleandia.

Lastly, I will discuss a sub-population of Harvardistan with whom I have become very acquainted. This group — the so-called undergraduates — constitutes slightly less than 20% of Harvardistan’s total population.

This important mass of inhabitants is given a say in local politics through the Undergraduate Council. A microcosm of electoral democracy, the Undergraduate Council is to Harvardistan what the Third Estate was to the Estates General of the French monarchy: a powerless union of commoners in a feeble, pseudo-representative body the true rulers did not have to pay attention to.

Learning from this lesson, Harvardistan undergraduates have realized that the only leadership you can trust to be effective is the one you administer yourself, preferably with ruthless determination. It may be for this reason that the course Engineering 1789: Building the Guillotine was removed from the course catalog.

Undergraduates apply for Harvardistanian citizenship around the young age of 17. To obtain citizenship, they must submit paperwork certifying that they have attempted to save the world during high school and that they shall certainly achieve this — while singing in a chorus, playing a sport, taking part in a cultural organization, and maybe doing their schoolwork — within four years’ time.

The four years over, undergraduates must choose their next destination. Many move out to Harvardistan’s colonial establishments on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Capitol Hill. Others will try for the third time in their lives to save the world, from the rainforests of the Amazon to the shambles of the European Union.

Undergraduates are skilled artisans. They are virtually unrivalled for their ability in producing startups, one of the country’s primary exports. Lesser known manufactured goods include papers, senior theses, and amazing scientific discoveries.

They are a hard-working crowd, toiling out of passion, curiosity, ambition. Although rather lawless during the weekend, they are largely well-behaved and well-mannered. Knowing the population and its habits, it is also probable that many of them have already dozed off, logged on to Facebook, or just purchased a new pair of shoes from their cell phones.

Although the thought experiment must come to an end and we realize Harvard isn’t really a nation-state, we can probably agree that Harvard is a state of mind. Sometimes, it can be like a meat-grinder, squeezing you until what comes out from the other side is very different. Other times it is like a jetpack: it thrills you and allows you to do impossible things and see the world from a new perspective.

As we leave, we know that we will always be able to return to these red brick walls and feel at home, and recognize the familiar paths and buildings, nooks and corners, aspiring statists, and mice and cockroaches we once knew.


This piece was originally written in April 2013 as candidate for the Ivy Oration at Harvard College’s Class Day. The Ivy Orations are humorous speeches given by graduating students of the College. This version of the speech was edited for written form and abridged of parts less relevant to the satire.

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