Med Students Protest New Grade System

The Medical School officially entombed two reforms of the late-60s this year, retrenching to conservative positions on its curriculum and grading plan.

Last year the Medical Faculty replaced a five-year experiment in pass/fail grading with a four-point system for the pre-clinical years. First-year students this past fall, however, protested the change by refusing to sign exam books in key tests.

The students claimed that a comprehensive grading system only induced competition and ranking at a time when they had all made the grade--they would all be doctors if they passed their courses.

Their administration, on the other hand, was upset by recent performance by Harvard students on the National Boards. Harvard, usually number one nationally in almost every category of these exams, had fallen badly. The administrators blamed the showing on the pass-fail system.

Ninety per cent of the first year class executed the protest, though, numbering blue books for three November exams. When the faculty released the results, the students would surrender the numbers of only those who failed, forcing the faculty to record simply "pass" for all the rest.


In a December confrontation, Dr. Robert H. Ebert, dean of the Med faculty, threatened the students with failures if they numbered their exams again. He told them that there were many other students, almost as eligible as they were, who would give their eye-teeth just to be at Harvard.

So the class gave in. Students said they would continue to number blue-books at final exams, but that they would turn the sealed number lists over to Dean Ebert, "out of good faith." The administration didn't waste any time with good faith, but promptly accepted the concession and formed a committee to resolve the pass/fail issue.

The committee, equally composed of students and faculty, conferred for nearly 30 hours before delivering what most claimed was the inevitable compromise. Instead of an excellent-pass-marginal-fail system, pre-clinical students would now be graded on an excellent-pass-fail plan. The marginal mark was changed to a "Satisfactory," and is only temporary.

Student spokesmen said later that most of the class--60 per cent--was not satisfied by the new measures, but that they didn't want to take on the administration again.

The other crisis of the year was revision of the curriculum. In 1968, a group headed by Alexander Leaf, Jackson Professor of Clinical Medicine, had originally changed the curriculum. Under that plan clinicians were called in to teach first-year courses ordinarily left to "Basic Sciences" departments.

Most Basic Sciences faculty did not like the new system. The first-year schedule had been sliced into small blocks, students were rushed through subjects at break-neck speed, before a startlingly-large cast of instructors who came on for brief stints. Control of the Basic Sciences curriculum had been wrested from the Basic Sciences faculty.

Nor was the administration pleased. Board results (again) showed, administrators said, that the curriculum change had undone Harvard's grip on first place. In two fields, Harvard students had slipped to 10th and 15th place in the country on the boards--much to the administration's embarrassment. The only first-year course that had not been diluted by the influx of clinicians after the 1968 curriculum change was Biochemistry. Student scores there stayed on top.

The overwhelming decision by the Medical faculty in March to restore pre-clinical training to the Basic Scientists wiped out what most considered a five-year blunder.