UPDATED: December 4, 2013, at 1:15 a.m.
The median grade at Harvard College is an A-, and the most frequently awarded mark is an A, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said on Tuesday afternoon, supporting suspicions that the College employs a softer grading standard than many of its peer institutions.
Harris delivered the information in response to a question from government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 at the monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“A little bird has told me that the most frequently given grade at Harvard College right now is an A-,” Mansfield said during the meeting’s question period. “If this is true or nearly true, it represents a failure on the part of this faculty and its leadership to maintain our academic standards.”
Harris then stood and looked towards FAS Dean Michael D. Smith in hesitation.
“I can answer the question, if you want me to.” Harris said. “The median grade in Harvard College is indeed an A-. The most frequently awarded grade in Harvard College is actually a straight A.”
Harris said after the meeting that the data on grading standards is from fall 2012 and several previous semesters.
In an email to The Crimson after the meeting, Mansfield wrote that he was “not surprised but rather further depressed” by Harris’s answer.
“Nor was I surprised at the embarrassed silence in the whole room and especially at the polished table (as I call it),” Mansfield added, referencing the table at the front of the room where top administrators sit. “The present grading practice is indefensible.”
On the other hand, Classics Department chair Mark J. Schiefsky, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting, said he was surprised by how high the median grade was.
“I don’t know what should be done about it, but it seems to me troubling,” Schiefsky said. “One has a range of grades to give and one would presumably expect a wider distribution.”
Schiefsky said Harris’s comment raised a number of questions about the distribution of grades and that he would appreciate more discussion about the topic.
Classics professor Richard F. Thomas, a member of the Faculty Council who was also in attendance at the monthly meeting, said he expects FAS will discuss grade inflation at some point in the future.
Such a discussion, if initiated, would not be without precedent at Harvard. In 2001, FAS’s Educational Policy Committee labeled grade inflation “a serious problem” at the College after a report in the Boston Globe labeled the College’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League.” Despite disagreements on the nature of the problem, the faculty responded in 2002 by moving the College from a 15-point grading system to a more conventional 4.0 scale grading system and capping the number of honors graduate at 60 percent of the class. The Globe had reported that in 2001, 91 percent of Harvard students graduated with honors, and that about half of all awarded grades were in the A-range.
The issue of grade inflation has taken center stage at some of Harvard’s peer institutions as well. In 2004, Princeton substantially restructured its grading system, instructing professors to award grades in the A-range to no more than 35 percent of their students in undergraduate coursework and no more than 55 percent of students in junior and senior year independent study.
The change has been frequently referred to as a policy of “grade deflation,” and since the shift, some have speculated that the tough standards have hurt Princeton’s admissions yield. This fall, Princeton President Charles Eisgruber announced that the school will review its grading policy.
Yale has initiated its own discussion about grading policies in the last year, forming an ad hoc committee on the subject. In a review last spring, that committee found that 62 percent of grades awarded at Yale College from 2010 to 2012 were in the A-range.
—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.
—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @npfandos.