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HLS Clarifies Grading Changes

Law School gives details on honors criteria, distribution of grades

By Elias J. Groll, Crimson Staff Writer

Clarifying the Law School’s move to a pass/fail grading system last October, Acting Dean of Harvard Law School Howell E. Jackson announced in an e-mail to students late last week that the school will make its grade distribution public and change the criteria for awarding coveted Latin honors.

The newly released details reveal that the Law school will now award its Latin honors—cum, magna cum, and summa cum laude distinctions—on a proportional basis, with the summas going to the top one percent, magnas to the next 10 percent, and cum laudes awarded to the final thirty percent of graduates.

The new policy guarantees that each class will contain a handful of summas—a departure from previous policy in which the Law school only awarded its highest honor to students meeting the astronomical benchmark of a 7.2 minimum GPA. Because the benchmark was absolute, the Law School had routinely graduated consecutive classes without awarding a single student the summa cum laude.

But by assuring the presence of summas in each graduating class, some students say that the administration has eliminated the rarity that had historically distinguished the award.

“This clearly changes the meaning of the summa,” said Nikhil V. Gore, a first year student.

The new disclosures come months after the school shifted from traditional letter-based grading to a four-tiered pass/fail system, leaving open the question of how precisely the tiers would be distinguished.

That question was resolved in Jackson’s disclosures last week. Next year’s student handbook will include a recommended grade distribution that encourages professors to award Honors to 37 percent of the class, Pass to 55 percent, and Low Pass to the remaining 8 percent.

Since the departure of former Law School Dean Elena Kagan for the Obama Administration, the school has moved forward with its grading reforms under Jackson, the acting dean.

A number of students praised the clarifications to the grading policy yesterday, citing the increased transparency as a welcome departure from Kagan, who had been resistant to releasing the grading curve.

Still, concerns remain that the new grading policy may not achieve its stated goal of tempering the grade-focused culture at the law school.

Encouraging professors to award a surprisingly large number of Honors grades may actually increase the pressure to attain Honors, according to Brian T. Aune, a second-year student and the president of the school’s student government.

He said that he is concerned that the change will place a renewed emphasis on grades as student seek to avoid the stigma of losing out to over a third of their classmates.

The switch has caused anxiety among some top achievers who fear that employers will be unable to distinguish their academic record from that of other top students.

In response, the Law School announced that professors who teach classes with more than 30 students will be allowed to award Dean’s Scholar Prizes—a distinction that is intended to replace the A+ in the previous grading system.

—Staff Writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at

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