Faculty Revises Honors Degree System During Meeting

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences revised the Latin honors system for graduating seniors by Faculty vote at a meeting Tuesday.

The proposal, first introduced by Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris in the Feb. 1 Faculty meeting, lowers the threshold for summa cum laude candidates.

Instead of a subjective rate that oscillates between four and five percent, the revision stipulates that a flat five percent of the student body can become summa cum laude candidates, beginning with the Class of 2012.

Furthermore, the revision removes a requirement that students must receive an A-level grade in at least two classes in each of the humanities, social sciences, and sciences divisions to receive the highest Latin honor.

Harris said that this revision reflected an effort to clarify the “opaque” language regarding the honors criteria in the student handbooks.

For instance, according to the online student handbook, FAS has “recommended” between four and five percent of the May degree candidates with the highest academic achievements be considered for summa cum laude.

By fixing the percentage at five percent, FAS avoids potential subjective judgment when evaluating a student’s candidacy for summa cum laude.

The proposal stirred a larger debate on the value of the honors system and the emphasis on grades among faculty members when it was first presented at the Faculty meeting.

“In my experience high grades at Harvard don’t predict future success very well, (except success at being a professor, where academic achievement does continue, I think),” Computer Science Professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson after the meeting on February 1.

“I have been teaching at Harvard for 37 years now, and the two students I’ve taught who have had the biggest impact on the world didn’t even earn their degrees, much less with honors,” Lewis added in the e-mail.

The disconnect between grades and real-world achievements is one reason why Lewis said he hoped that the emphasis on the honors system should be “ratcheted down.”

—Staff writer Sirui Li can be reached at sli@college.harvard.edu.

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