With the average grade at Harvard rising for the third consecutive year, Harvey C. “C-Minus” Mansfield ’53 is adding a few more A’s to the mix of marks in his notoriously difficult courses.
The Kenan professor of government has reinstituted his famous two-grade system. Students in Government 1059, “Topics in Political Philosophy: Natural Right,” and Government 1061, “The History of Modern Political Philosophy,” will receive two marks—one in private and one officially submitted to the Office of the Registrar.
In Mansfield’s “true and serious” grading system, 5 percent of students will receive A’s, and 15 percent will receive A-minuses. But Mansfield won’t share those marks with anyone other than his teaching fellows and students.
By contrast, Mansfield’s “ironic” grade—the only one that will appear on official transcripts—will follow average grade distribution in the College, with about a quarter of students receiving A’s and another quarter receiving A-minues.
Last month, Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 sent a letter to Faculty members detailing the distribution of undergraduates’ grades over the past two decades.
According to that letter, A’s accounted for 23.7 percent of all grades given to undergrads last academic year—the highest level since 1999-2000, and the second-highest level over the past 20 years.
The most common grade at Harvard since 1989-1990 has been an A-minus. Those almost-stellar marks accounted for 25.0% of all grades last year.
And the fraction of failures among all undergraduate grades remained at a two-decade low of 0.4 percent.
Gross wrote that “grade compression continues to be a concern,” and he urged Faculty members to discuss the trend “at the departmental level.”
But Mansfield is going public with his concerns.
UNDOING THE RIGHT-SKEW
Mansfield’s C-minus moniker and his outspoken opposition to grade inflation may have deterred some undergrads from taking his courses in the past. “The ironic grade is meant to solve the problem of students who are scared off,” he said.
Brian S. Gillis ’08 was relieved to learn that he would receive two grades in Government 1061.
“I was very delighted that I would find out what he thinks of my true performance while not hurting my transcript,” Gillis said.
Students in Mansfield’s fall semester class Government 1060, “The History of Ancient and Medieval Political Philosophy,” were less delighted.
Daniel P. Krauthammer ’07 is circulating a petition requesting that Mansfield also apply the two-grade system to Government 1060.
“I doubt I can change grades retroactively,” Mansfield said.
Mansfield first instituted his two-grade system for Government 1061, in spring of 2001, the same year that the Boston Globe published an award-winning series on grade inflation at Harvard.
At the end of the 2000-2001 academic year, the average grade across the College was between a B+ and an A-, and “ironic” grades in Mansfield’s class were just slightly higher.
But when Mansfield returned to teaching in 2003-2004 after a one-year leave, he dropped the two-grade system, and average marks in his classes fell close to a B.
Mansfield said that, at the time, he thought “the University administration was interested and worried about the problem.”
Now, he said, “I think it is still interested, but there’s been absolutely no action by the Faculty,”
COMPRESSING THE PROBLEM
Mansfield doesn’t think that Gross’ January letter went far enough in addressing the issue of grade inflation.
The letter’s reference to “grade compression,” according to Mansfield, “is their way of trying not to insult anybody.”
Mansfield said that grade inflation is “bad for students because it flatters them and doesn’t tell them what they’re really good at.”
He said that grade inflation “leads to a loss of morale in the Faculty” as well.
“If you’re saying that 50 percent of your students do excellent work, you can’t have a very high opinion of the subject you’re teaching,” he said.
‘EXCELLENCE WITHOUT A SOUL’?
Harry R. Lewis ’68, the former dean of the College, devotes two chapters to grade inflation in his book, “Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education,” slated to be published this June.
Lewis’ views on grade inflation came to the fore in 2001, after the Globe reprinted part of an e-mail that Lewis sent to Mansfield in which the then-dean said part of the blame for grade inflation lay on a “collapse of critical judgment” among humanities professors.” Lewis later told The Crimson that his e-mail had been taken out of context.
In a phone interview Friday, Lewis said, “Faculty aren’t particularly interested in grading. Even to the extent they’re interested in evaluation, they’re more interested in making comments than deciding whether one person is a B+ or a straight B.”
As a sign of the lack of faculty interest in the issue, Lewis cited the absence of grade inflation as part of the ongoing Harvard College Curricular Review.
“We’ve just come through with a three-year holistic review of the undergraduate curriculum, and I don’t think grade inflation has been mentioned once,” Lewis said.
NOT ALL SMILES
In the eyes of some students, the Faculty’s inattention to grade inflation brings a sigh of relief.
“I don’t think there’s enough grade inflation,” said Gillis, who has wanted to take a Mansfield course since the first semester of his freshman year. “Geez Louise, Al Gore comes here, the former secretary of defense comes here, Bono comes here—students don’t have enough time to see them speak because they’re stuck in a room doing work for their classes,” Gillis said.
Gillis added that if Harvard students attended state schools, they would “ace all the classes.”
“People who get A’s do A-level work, it just happens they go to Harvard where everyone else does A-level work,” he said.
But Mansfield said that “one of our main jobs here is to discriminate the best students from the next best.”
“You’re not really doing your job if you’re all the time smiling,” Mansfield added.
Does the 44-year veteran of the Harvard government department faculty smile himself?
“I do smile a lot, but I’m not always trying to keep from hurting students’ self-esteem,” Mansfield answered.
“The difficulty with doing something about grade inflation is that it has no constituency—only a few grouches like myself,” he said.
Mansfield said his own undergraduate grades were “okay,” and when he was at the College, grades averaged between a B and a C.
“I took Russian and I got a C, which was a tremendous shock,” said Mansfield. “But it was typical at that time.”
And while the Russian grade might have been a scar on the future political theorist’s transcript, it fits his middle initial just fine.
—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.