As a companion to my posting on Harvard Medical School, it may be worth mentioning that it is a fact that Harvard is a second rate research university - and I have the numbers to prove it!
Of course, being second rate is still a big deal - but it is contrary to what seems to be the near universal belief of Americans.
First, I should emphasize, that the only remotiely objective evaluations of research quality relate to science - therefore, when adopting an international perspective, the humanities, social science and law are simply elminated from the analysis. Harvard may excel at these other things, or it may not, but nobody really knows.
What Harvard is, in terms of science is a very high volume research university
Look at Table 2, citations - Harvard has more citations per unit time in the science research literature than any other university.
2 Johns Hopkins
4 U of Washington, Seattle
6 U Michigan, Ann Arbor
8 U Pennsylvania
9 U California, San Diego
10 U California, Berkeley
But you can see from the other Universities in this list, that citation volume is not a reliable guide to elite science - and is mostly a product of a university being very big - that is employing very large numbers of highly productive researchers.
When it comes to being excellent at the highest level of scientific research, Harvard is in the second rank and the premier university is without question MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
For example, analysis using a combined metric of Nobel prizes, Fields medals, Lasker awards and Turing awards for 1987-2006, we get:
Stanford University 10
Princeton University 10
Chicago University 8
University of California, Berkeley 7
Columbia University 7
Harvard University 6
UCSF (University of California San Fransico) 5
Cornell University 4
What is more, the trend for Harvard is downgoing - because it used to be the best (and MIT was not so special) - Looking just at Nobel prizes looking at 20 years segments from 1947:
Number of United States Nobel laureates by institution – 20 year segments from 1947 to 2006
Institution 1947–66; 1967–86; 1987–2006
Harvard University 9 - 13 - 5
University of California Berkeley 7 - 3 - 4
Stanford University 4 - 5 - 9
CalTech 4 - 4 - 5
Columbia University 4 - 1 - 7
Rockefeller Institute & University 3 - 6 - 3
Chicago University 2 - 4 - 7
Princeton University 1 - 2 - 6
MIT 1 - 5 - 11
Cornell University 1 - 4 - 2
Thus Harvard went from 9 Nobels via 13 down to 5, whereas MIT went up from 1 via 5 to 11.
Thus from the perspective of scientometrics Harvard looks like it is nowadays and increasingly geared-up for hiring highly productive but 'safe' researchers in very large numbers (what Kuhn termed 'normal science'); while the smaller and more truly research-elite modern Universities are doing a better job at recruiting more original/ creative 'revolutionary science' researchers.
[Note - in the above Nobel science prize analyses I included Economics, which I would not nowadays do; but since I discovered that nobody takes any notice whatsoever of this kind of evidence, I find that I cannot be bothered to re-do the numbers.]