Ivy League names lend 'instant credibility' to ideas, research

Copyright 1998 Associated Press
October 10, 1998

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - "According to a Harvard study ..."

That phrase was appearing in the news media so often that the university this year instituted a new policy restricting the use of its name.

"Anybody who ever walked through Harvard was using it," Assistant Provost Sarah Wald said.

Under Harvard's revised rules, faculty members cannot label their work as sponsored or endorsed by Harvard without the express permission of the dean or provost.

Wald refused to give specific examples of abuses. But many Ivy League institutions have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being linked to controversial data or research.

Does American society place too much trust in Ivy League institutions?

"We might, but societies are always seeking authoritative figures," said Alfred W. Zaher of the Philadelphia law firm of Dann, Dorfman, Herrell and Skillman. "The Ivy League schools tend to be an objective standard in their integrity and honesty."

Reputation is everything, and the value of names like Columbia, Brown and Dartmouth is almost incalculable, said Zaher, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property.

"If you invoke the Harvard name ... you're adding to the prestige and cache of your statement," he said. "It could make fortunes for people. Essentially, it could be worth millions of dollars."

More than 2,000 patents have been issued to the eight Ivy League schools since 1976, according to records at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And those don't count patents held by individual alumni of those schools.

Facing frequent questions about the use of Yale's name, the school last year hired a full-time specialist to deal with the problem. Under university bylaws, anyone who wants to use the phrase "Yale University study" must get permission.

While saying she did not know of specific instances where the name was used inappropriately, Yale spokeswoman Cynthia Atwood said the new director of university licensing has her work cut out for her.

"Having that as a bylaw and enforcing it are two different things," she said.

One reason for that: the line between traditional and nontraditional research has become blurred.

Earlier this year, Yale actively promoted a book about trashy TV talk shows written by sociologist Joshua Gamson.

In "Freaks Talk Back," Gamson says programs featuring brawling guests with bizarre sex lives make an important contribution to American culture.

Dr. Jerome Kassirer, editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, insists that Ivy League names bear no special weight when a scientific study is submitted for peer review and possible publication.

Many studies come from Cornell, Harvard and Yale, he says, but that's because those institutions have more research money and top-flight faculty.

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