Harvey Mudd College students are among the country's brightest, but that did not make it any easier for a group of incoming freshman to break the ice at a recent orientation breakfast.
The thaw finally came when one student complained that people thought he was saying "Harvard Med" when he told them where he was going to college. Others chimed in with "Harvey Who?" They had all heard that one dozens of times. Even "Elmer Who?" had a familiar ring.
But Harvey Mudd, occupying an enviable pinnacle in higher education these days, finds the perennial ribbing easy to take. According to a 1986 study, the small science and engineering college ranks first in the nation in the percentage of graduates who earn doctorates.
Ranking With Meaning
"That's a ranking that really means something," said Harvey Mudd President D. Kenneth Baker, who calls the 540-student college "a well-kept secret."
Besides being able to attract more grants and foundation money, Baker said, achieving such national recognition means "we gain status among our peers. That's important because we don't have other usual measures of success, such as a basketball team."
According to the study reported in Change, a national scholastic magazine about higher education, Harvey Mudd also topped the nation in the percentage of graduates who earn doctorates in physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry.
In both areas, Mudd ranked just ahead of Caltech.
The study found that 40.7% of Mudd's graduates earn doctoral degrees, compared to 40% at Caltech. In the physical sciences, the study found that 34.4% of Mudd's graduates earn doctorates, compared to 33.7% at Caltech.
Both schools ranked far above all others. Ranking third in the percentage of Ph.D.s in all fields was Reed College in Oregon, with 25.3% receiving doctorates. In the physical sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked third, with 17.3% of its students getting such degrees.
(The study, done by the Great Lakes Colleges Assn. in Ann Arbor, Mich., covered all bachelor degrees conferred between 1946 and 1976 and all Ph.D. degrees conferred between 1951 and 1980. The data was subsequently updated to include figures through 1985, and the results did not change.)
Although Harvey Mudd offers majors only in engineering, math, chemistry and physics, the college ranked ninth in the country in percentage of graduates getting doctorates in life sciences, such as biology and botany.
A point of particular pride for Baker is that, in spite of its technical and scientific focus, Harvey Mudd ranked 41st among 61 top colleges in the percentage of graduates earning Ph.D.s in social sciences.
Baker says that shows the college is meeting its goal of producing "superior people who also understand science."
Founded in 1955 and receiving its first class of students in 1957, Harvey Mudd is one of the few privately supported science and engineering colleges to be started in this century, according to its founding president, Joseph B. Platt. It is the smallest of the Claremont colleges--the six institutions clustered 35 miles east of Los Angeles in a group patterned after the colleges that make up Oxford University in England.
Faculty Dean D. Samuel Tanenbaum, in explaining Mudd's success, likened the college to "a three-legged stool that holds together very, very well." The three legs, he said, are "small size, the best students in the country and the faculty who want these students."
"We're unabashedly elite," Tanenbaum said of Mudd's 8-1 student-teacher ratio. One result is that the faculty, many of whom are researchers of note, have undergraduates as partners in important projects. At most universities, only graduate students participate in research, but Mudd students often have their names on major research papers before they graduate.
"That gave me instant access to graduate schools," said David Fisher, a 1980 graduate who earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland and returned to teach applied math at Harvey Mudd.
10 Other Job Offers
"In grad school, I was the best prepared," said Fisher, 29, who had 10 other job offers.
Besides the close relationship to faculty, students laud the independence they are given. They form their own government and construct and enforce their own honor code.
They are allowed to take many examinations outside the classrooms, even those where they are not allowed to use textbooks and which must be completed within a specific time period. Many students have keys to laboratories, where they are permitted to work at any hour, often with expensive equipment.
"The privileges we get are incredible," said Marjorie Solomon, a junior majoring in math.
According to Platt, the founding president, Harvey Mudd was conceived as a small, residential engineering school that "was to contribute as fully as one can to the technical leadership of the next generation."