Summa What?

Faculty and administrators question the way in which the College determines its highest Latin honor

A few minutes after waking up on Commencement Day, Gerald C. Tiu ’10 went online to look at his transcript.

Tiu had only an hour left before he was expected to line up for the ceremony, and he still had not checked whether he had earned Latin honors—the College’s recognition of academic excellence in the top fifty percent of the graduating class.

Although Tiu had received good grades as a chemical and physical biology concentrator in his four years at Harvard, he had not heard anything about Latin Honors from his resident dean or even given the matter much thought.

But when his transcript loaded, Tiu discovered that he had been named summa cum laude, the highest Latin honor at the College, reserved for the very top of the graduating class—a total of 76 students in the Class of 2010.

For Tiu, the moment was far from remarkable.


Although he was proud of the hard work he had put into his courses and extracurricular activities at Harvard, he was “not necessarily proud” of being summa cum laude.

When Tiu applied to M.D.-Ph.D. programs during his post-graduate year, he did not talk about receiving summa in his interviews.

He did not even tell his parents about the honor—it only came up when they noticed it on his degree.

According to a joking Tiu, it was only on the day of Commencement, just a few hours after learning that he had received the distinction, that summa cum laude paid off in the form of front row seats at the ceremony.

For Tiu and many other students who receive the accolade, Latin honors are often no more than an intangible recognition of their hard work at Harvard.

But among many students who actively strive to attain the stellar grades necessary to graduate summa cum laude, the competition is fierce—leading some students to take easy courses to keep their grade point averages high rather than challenging themselves with difficult courses in which they might not earn an ‘A.’

After several changes to Latin honors designed to standardize the process, some faculty members are advocating further reform of what they say is a flawed system.

“If it was up to me, we’d get rid of [Latin honors],” Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris says. “I don’t think they accomplish anything.”


This past February at a Faculty meeting, Harris made two proposals to reform Latin honors that were approved in a vote by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences later that month and will be implemented beginning with the Class of 2012.