Faculty Members Say Grade Distribution is Not a Big Concern

With Harvard College under national scrutiny after Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris revealed Tuesday that students at the College are more likely to receive an A than any other grade, faculty members told The Crimson that they do not have to meet a particular grade distribution and that they are not overly concerned about the potential consequences of high grading averages.

At Tuesday’s monthly meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harris said that the median grade at the College is an A- and the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The information cast Harvard into the national spotlight and prompted allegations of soft grading standards at the College.

Yet multiple professors defended their grading practices in interviews with The Crimson on Thursday.

“We use the evaluation process to promote learning. Unless there is a feeling among the faculty—and I don’t think there is—that students aren’t learning, than I don’t think we will be too concerned about grade distribution,” said Andrew D. Gordon, a professor of history and East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Gordon said that in the departments in which he teaches, professors are not instructed to grade to a certain distribution. Computer science professor Harry R. Lewis ’68 and chair of the mathematics department Benedict H. Gross ’71, two former deans of the College, said that their departments also do not mandate certain distributions.

“I try to give everyone the grade they deserve,” said Lewis, who is also the director of undergraduate studies in computer science. “The students vary from year to year, the assignments vary from year to year, sometimes there are exam questions that no one can solve. It wouldn’t make any sense to have a fixed correlation of raw scores to letter grades.”

When asked if he believed rising grades meant that Harvard was getting easier aca- demically, Lewis responded firmly.

“No. Not in my part of Harvard,” he said.

Since the news of the grade distribution broke, many have echoed a claim made in 2002 by former University President Larry Summers that inflated grades might hurt Harvard graduates when they search for employment or apply to graduate school.

Professors interviewed by The Crimson, however, said that grade point average, while sometimes important, is only one of many factors that influence post-Harvard opportunities.

“If the only thing that people looked at when our graduates went on to other things were the grades, then it might be a problem,” Gordon said, adding that employers and graduate schools consider standardized test scores, work experience, and faculty recommendations in their decisions as well.

Lewis expressed a similar sentiment.

“For applications to graduate school, what the faculty say about you is a lot more important than what the grades say,” he said. “Those things tend to be correlated, of course, but it’s not the grade, per se.”

Some of Harvard’s peer institutions, including Princeton University, order instructors to award A-range grades to only a certain percentage of students. Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, whose question at Tuesday’s FAS meeting compelled Harris to share the distribution data, told The Crimson on Wednesday that he believes Harvard should have a “firmer” grading system with caps similar to Princeton’s.

None of Harvard’s top administrators have commented publicly since news of the distribution broke.

—Amna H. Hashmi and Christine Y. Cahill contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at matthew.clarida@thecrimson. com. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.

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