AFTER YEARS of debate and deadlock, the Faculty last week approved a series of sweeping reform to the legislation governing honors degrees. The final decision a voice vote with only one dissension--belied the unlikely differences of opinion that had stood in the way of common sense since 1982, which the subject of reform first surfaced.
Many professors continued to harbor minor objections to the proposed changes last Tuesday, as the brief debate in the University Hall faculty chamber revealed. But in the end they swallowed their objections to endorse a long over due package of improvements.
The new honors regulations, which will become binding beginning with the Class of 1989, replace a system fraught with loopholes and complications. Where confusion and inequity once reigned, the revised code institutionalizes simplicity and fairness.
The critical difference is that the new system uses a straightforward scale of grade point averages and counts all letter-graded courses toward a student's GPA. In order to receive college-wide honor under the new regulations a student will have to attain a minimum overall GPA in addition to meeting separate departmental requirements. The college-wide standards agreed upon are an 11.0 GPA for cum laude in General Studies, 10.5 for cum laude and 2.0 for magna cum laude. Requirements for summa cum Laude are subject to annual adjustments by the Faculty.
GIVEN UP current system's conspicuous shortcomings, one can only wonder why reform took so long in the making. Three years ago, a proposal by then-Dean for Undergraduate Education Sidney Verba '53 was blocked on the floor of a Faculty meeting. The Faculty returned the proposal to the CUF for further study. The issue of reform seemed destined to languish in a bureaucratic twilight zone until Ozment entered University Hall in September and revived the cause.
In 1982, and again this year, most of the debate centered on the debate centered on the merits of a so called mercy clause allowing students to discard a few of their lowest grades. Neither the Verba plan not the successful Ozment plan included such a provision.
Proponents of the controversial argued that it would encourage students to enroll in more challenging courses while forgiving the errors of freshman inexperience.
The problem with the mercy provision is its inherent blindness--it forgives the guilty along with the innocent, discounting legitimately deserved bad grades and making the entire system less discriminating.
Defending his proposal before the faculty. Ozment observed rightly that the Administrative Board has the power to compensate for low marks "when circumstances rather than ability" influence a student's performance. Mistakes are part of life, and a consistently solid record will balance a few blemishes, the dean added. His arguments were apparently convincing.
A second sticking point was Harvard's preponderance of honors degrees. Approximately 70 percent of Harvard students graduate with honors--more than at any other Ivy League college. Some professors called for measures to reduce the proportion of honors degrees and bolster the prestige of Harvard laudes.
Although the new regulations raise the minimum standard for cum laude in General Studies from a B-to a B, they were not designed to curtail the number of honors degrees awarded annually. Through some statistical mystery, the slight lightening of requirements is expected to translate into several more honors degrees each year.
More Harvard undergraduates receive honors partly because 80 percent choose to undertake the tutorials and theses required of honors candidates, Ozment said. Maybe more are honors caliber to begin with. "Students who come to us as the pick of the crop across the nation tend to remain such after four years at Harvard's," the dean observed, Somewhat more dubiously. Ozment also argued that raising standards could be self-defeating become it, would increase the already substantial pressure on professors and teaching fellows to inflate undergraduates grades.
Three years after an almost indistinguishable proposal met overwhelming opposition in the faculty chamber, only half a dozen professors rose to challenge Ozment's logic. His idea's time had come.