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Faculty Tries To Combat Grade Inflation

By Jessica E. Vascellaro, Crimson Staff Writer

Though the problem of grade inflation has been a perennial one for Harvard, it dominated the Faculty’s agenda this year, resulting in unprecedented changes that many hope will buttress the integrity of Harvard’s name.

The effort to curb grade inflation gained sweeping momentum this past November, a month after a feature in the Boston Globe called Harvard’s grading practices “the laughing stock of the Ivy League.”

The Globe story—which was picked up by news media nationwide—focused on the 91 percent of Harvard students who graduated with honors in 2001 compared to 51 percent of Yale and 44 percent of Princeton graduates. It also noted that half the grades awarded at Harvard last year were A-range grades.

After seven months filled with scores of reports and negotiations, on May 21 the Harvard Faculty did what seemed unlikely only a few months earlier—agreed.

By reserving honors for, at most, the top 60 percent of students, switching to a 4.0 grading scale and making a formal commitment to better regulate and inform professors about their grading habits, they may have muted those critics who questioned the distinction of a Harvard degree.

Movin’ On Up

The May conclusion to the year-long drama was anything but assured months earlier. In Faculty meetings throughout the spring, it looked like the fight—led by Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82—would be in vain as faculty members kept invoking their autonomy and resisting unilateral actions by administrators.

“At every step of this I felt open to things turning out different because Faculty input was always the most important thing,” Pedersen said. “I never thought that we could wrap this up.”

The Educational Policy Committee (EPC), a Faculty committee that advises the Dean of the Faculty on issues of undergraduate education, began its most recent review of Harvard’s grading procedures last spring.

But discussions began in earnest in November, when Pedersen sent a comprehensive report of grading practices from the past 16 years to all Faculty, requesting that they discuss them within their departments and submit a review of their department’s procedures by Feb. 1.

In her cover letter, Pedersen cited several causes for concern such as the fact that over the past 15 years mean grade point averages had risen a full point from 11.7 to 12.7 on Harvard’s 15-point scale.

But the report said that what was equally disconcerting was that the rise was inconsistent between academic fields.

Humanities courses tended to award higher grades than those in the natural sciences, and students in the social sciences received the lowest percentage of A-range grades.

Such discrepancies raised pedagogical concern among the EPC that student motivation suffered from grading ambiguities and the compression of the grading scale.

The Fourth Estate

While the Faculty on paper listed concerns about students’ motivation as the reason for addressing grade inflation, in discussions they were influenced by the press.

“I have never found it so difficult to deal with the press. I am not such an elitist that I think we merit coverage to this degree,” Pedersen said.

And while faculty such as Margaret E. Law, a senior lecturer on physics, said there had been concern among the Faculty about the issues prior to the Globe’s article, others say the extensive press coverage was a major impetus behind the reform effort.

“I and a few of the other head tutors have been trying to push for changes in these things for years, and we were scoffed at [until] this national exposure that the case got this year, ” said Associate Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux.

Rohit Chopra ’04, a student representative on the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE), agreed that the role of the press could not be ignored.

“[The Boston Globe] put this issue on the fast track,” he said.

What Is To Be Done?

In the months that followed, discussion swirled but consensus failed to emerge. In fact, individual faculty members were confused about the direction reform could take.

“I’ve heard of [grade inflation] of course, but I’ll be damned if I know what to do about it,” said Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology William M. Gelbart in February.

Myriad proposals emerged from all the buzz.

One proposal—which was recommended by the EPC but not adopted by the Faculty Council, the body that discusses policy changes before they go to a vote before the full Faculty—was for an “enhanced transcript” that would allow students and the outside world to better interpret Harvard grades.

One type of enhanced transcript shows the median grade in a class next to the grade earned by the student.

Many Faculty were opposed to this idea, arguing that grades are not intended to communicate a student’s performance to the outside world, while others argued an enhanced transcript would be a good first step.

“When an individual [professor’s] mean grade becomes public knowledge, it might be incentive to prevent that average from becoming too high,” said Mark J. Schiefsky, director of undergraduate studies for the classics department, in February.

While Faculty were—and still are—split on the transcript question, which the EPC will review again next year, they were universally opposed to instituting a College-wide quota limiting the number of A-range grades. Many argued that a uniform solution made little sense given the variety of classes offered.

“In a class of six people it isn’t rare to have three students with As,” said Shattuck Professor of Irish Studies Tomas O. Cathasaigh in February.

Based on the lack of consensus, Pedersen said in mid-February that the likely result of all the debate would be a clarification of the meaning of grades, but no actual legislation.

“The complexity of the problem comes from the fact that we desire this to be a science and it’s not a science,” she said.

Such an opinion was based partially on the fact that the Faculty didn’t seem to want to be told what to do.

“Even department chairs never get involved [in grading]—no one wants to be a policeman,” said Richard A. Wrangham, Moore professor of biological anthropology and head tutor of the anthropology department, in February.

Dishonorable Honors?

As the Faculty waited for the EPC to review the departmental reports submitted in February and to formulate legislation to combat grade inflation, the Faculty began to shift their attention to the awarding of honors.

The discussion primarily focused on eliminating cum laude in general studies (CLGS), a category of honors that allows students who are not recommended for honors by their departments to receive the distinction if they meet a minimum GPA requirement.

Many faculty, including Pedersen, have been pushing for the complete elimination of this category of honors. CLGS dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when students were not required to concentrate in a field.

“It seems odd to award this honor to students who have not earned honors in their concentrations, given that work in the concentration is the most important component of undergraduates’ work here,” Pedersen wrote in a January e-mail.

But students and many faculty members staunchly opposed eliminating CLGS, expressing concern that the University recognize students who have A-range grade-point averages but choose not to write a thesis.

Based on the impending EPC proposal to address grade inflation, Pedersen said in April that the CLGS discussion had been proposed indefinitely.

“Before we [take a closer look at honors] it makes sense to define the grading standards since [the new grades] might translate into different standards of honors,” she said.

Ultimately, this category of honors was retained in the proposal recently approved by the Faculty, but will be limited to 10 percent of the class. Last year it was earned by just over a quarter of the class.

Additionally, the Faculty voted to limit the percentage of magna degrees to 15 percent, 36 percent of those who graduated in 2001 were awarded magna degrees. The Faculty also capped at 30 percent the number of cum laude degrees awarded. Last year, 24 percent graduated with that distinction. And the Faculty upheld an older proposal capping summas at 5 percent.

Altogether, the percentage of honors awarded would not exceed 60 percent of the graduating class. The changes will go into effect with the Class of 2005.

A Simple Solution

The long-awaited EPC proposal made a secretive and short-lived appearance at a closed-door CUE meeting on April 17.

Among its recommendations were a switch from a 15- to an eight-point grading scale to eliminate the numerical gap between a B-plus and an A-minus, and thus reduce pressure on professors to award A-range grades.

But after heated debate within the CUE, the proposal met even more resistance in the Faculty Council, where nearly all its specific proposals were discarded.

“We were satisfied with the spirit but not the mechanism of the EPC report,” said Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies Jay M. Harris after the Faculty Council meeting.

But the disagreement was in no way a dead end.

“There was a rapid turnaround when the proposal went to Faculty Council—but that is not to say that the mood had changed,” Pedersen said.

According to Harris, the Faculty Council endorsed the idea of eliminating the gap, but thought they might as well take the change one step further.

The Faculty voted in favor of adopting the 4.0 scale used by most colleges, which will be placed on transcripts as of the 2003-2004 academic year.

“We realized that there is a perfectly good scale already out there that everyone uses,” Harris said. “It is simple and elegant.”

But even though the new report had the support of Faculty Council and the EPC, Pedersen said it was hard to predict the outcome of the vote of the full Faculty.

“I was surprised that it passed [unanimously]. I thought it would be much more controversial,” she said.

‘Unintended Consequences’

But Pedersen said that more remains to be heard about grade inflation.

“It’s over and it’s not over,” she said. “The change is going to give people a big shake and there will need to be some adjustments.”

And the new legislation mandates that the system be formally reviewed again in five years.

One of the greatest potential problems both students and Faculty foresee is the effect the change will have on thesis writers.

While the current system does not guarantee a student honors just because they write a thesis, Pedersen said that under the new system the number of thesis writer who do not receive honors will increase dramatically.

But she said she hopes that students will not be deterred and realize the importance of theses to their education.

“Students should want to write a thesis because they are interested,” Pedersen said.

Chopra agreed that the number of thesis writer will decline, but predicted another major problem—that departments will inflate their own grades in order to assure that their honors candidates make the percentage cutoffs.

“They should be worried about the unintended consequences of the proposal. What passed in terms of honors might very well be inflationary,” he said.

No data is available about the effect of the discussion of grades on this past semester’s transcripts.

But Pedersen said the more abstract effects of the discussion on students are apparent.

“I have worried from the start the effect this has had on student morale. It is hard to adjust being in the spotlight,” she said.

And the legacy of months of press coverage is still stinging.

“If Harvard is going to be a leader, it can’t worry about following what everyone else is saying,” Chopra said. “There are so many students here that do deserve As, not the demoralization that accompanies the suspicion of the world.”

—Staff writer Jessica E. Vascellaro can be reached at

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