Harvard, which was officially chartered in 1650, probably existed as a real institution of higher education for centuries. That reality is no longer.
The Harvard that everyone -- be it Harvard president Larry Summers, SLATE's Daniel Gross or "Harvard Rules" author Richard Bradley -- is arguing about is a myth, brand, fantasy, investment strategy, symbol to be loved/hated.
Harvard went out of existence sometime after World War II when the GI bill opened all higher education, including Harvard, to the masses. Attending it as a student, working in it as faculty/administration, not attending it or working in it when given the opportunity became issues of strategy. The actual education, tradition, values became increasingly irrelevant to anyone thinking about Harvard.
That's what I explain to those who ask me if they should go for a professional degree at Harvard, if their offspring should shoot for Harvard College, should they sacrifice their lifestyle and current earning power to work at Harvard, and should they hire someone just because he/she has a Harvard degree.
Of course, you're wondering how I became an expert on Harvard. Well, I went there and then left. Just as with Bill Gates, that makes me uniquely sought after as an oracle on the Harvard brand (even though I have not yet achieved anything on the level of Mr. Gates who was recently TIME'S Person of the Year.)
All decisions about Harvard demand that we drill down ruthlessly to what we want/expect from the deal. Education, qualifications, ethos, grooming, even connections have little to do with those decisions.
If, for example, we want to join the C-level at a large US corporation, a 2004 study by Peter Cappelli and Monika Hamori documents that we don't need Harvard for that. Some of what a Harvard degree can get us is discussed at length in "Who Needs Harvard?" by Daniel Gross.
But all decisions, particularly those involving Harvard which doesn't exist, involve ambiguity. For example, should I push to become an adjunct communications instructor at Harvard B or Law School? Is it worth the schlep from Seymour, CT to Boston, MA, preparing top-flight lectures, and being challenged by highly aggressive students?
That depends on a lot of things. How much confidence do I have in my ability to leverage that experience for increased influence and earnings? And that depends on how much energy I will be willing to invest in that experience to make it deliver big. And that depends on what other kinds of experiences I would be taking on simultaneously or passing up at the time (opportunity cost) to do the Harvard teaching.
When struggling with these decisions, we've got to keep straight one thing: There is no Harvard any more.