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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Summa What?

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

By Rebecca D. Robbins, Crimson Staff Writer

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.”

STANDARDIZING AN ARBITRARY SYSTEM

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.

Harris’s first proposal reformed the selection process by lowering the threshold for summa cum laude candidates from a rate that varied annually between the top four and five percent of students recommended by their concentrations to a fixed rate of five percent.

The change was motivated by what he saw as the “arbitrary feel” of the existing selection system, in which a committee analyzes the GPA data each year to set a minimum threshold within the allocated range.

“If it’s shifting from one year to the next based on where we think we see a gap, it just didn’t feel right to a number of us,” he says.

While Harris admits that the new threshold of five percent is also somewhat arbitrary, he says he thinks the fixed percentage is “clean” and “doesn’t require negotiation.”

Harris also proposed that the distribution requirement—which mandates that students receive at least two A-level grades each in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences—be eliminated.

Harris says that the change was prompted by the difficulty of classifying courses within the three categories—a challenge that has been exacerbated by the influx of interdisciplinary courses in the new General Education program.

The reforms come as the latest in a series of minor alterations to a Latin honors system that has stayed largely consistent since its inception after the Civil War. The College has awarded its graduates the highest honor of summa cum laude, followed by magna cum laude, and finally cum laude since the late 19th century.

OPENING UP THE CONVERSATION

In its present incarnation, the honors system has been critiqued by those who say that it fails to reflect the spirit of academic exploration that the College hopes to encourage.

While the changes Harris proposed aim to standardize the system, they do not address the larger question of educational philosophy that Professor of computer science Harry R. Lewis ’68—a former Dean of the College—believes should be raised.

Lewis has criticized the attention paid to GPA and Latin honors on campus, which he says inspires “profoundly anti-educational” behavior among students.

“[The system] incentivizes people when they have a choice between a course they know something about and a course they know nothing about to take the course they already know something about,” he says. “It completely defeats the point of going to college and getting an education.”

Harris echoes Lewis’s sentiment, saying he does not think Latin honors serve a “truly positive purpose.”

“It’s not clear to me that any honors systems actually provide incentives or the ones we’d want,” Harris says.

To solve this problem, Lewis says he believes a campus-wide conversation needs to be launched.

“It kills me to see people compromising, just loafing through their senior year, taking half their courses pass-fail,” he says. “There’s a discourse that’s missing in the air here about what the purpose of an education is.”

He recalls suggesting at a recent Faculty meeting that the College could post a list of three books for students to read over winter break and follow-up with faculty panel discussions of the texts during January Term.

In a program like this, he says, “You’re not going to get any gold stars. It’s not going to go on a special certificate that you did it. You just did it because reading books is a good thing to do.”

EMBRACING INERTIA

But even with initiatives like the one Lewis suggested, some believe that the problems created by the intense focus on grades and GPA will persist.

Though Harris says he would support eliminating Latin honors entirely, he has no intention of bringing the issue forward because he says it is low priority and acknowledges that tradition-steeped systems like Latin honors tend to “run on inertia.”

Despite his criticism of Latin honors, Lewis—who describes himself as a “traditionalist”—says he thinks the system should stay in place.

While he says there is implicit unfairness in a system that can reward students for avoiding risks, he thinks this drawback is mitigated by the fact that a summa degree “isn’t actually worth anything.”

Daniel E. Lieberman, who as chair of the Human Evolutionary Biology department, usually recommends about half of his fifty graduating HEB concentrators for summa cum laude, agrees.

“This is Harvard. We don’t get rid of things,” he says. “We’re always going to try to celebrate students who achieve academically. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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FASAcademicsYear in ReviewCommencement 2011