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Princeton Grade Deflation Reversal Disappoints Some Here

By Meg P. Bernhard, Crimson Staff Writer

Three days after Princeton struck down its 10-year-old grade deflation policy, some Harvard professors expressed disappointment with the school’s decision, saying that the policy reversal may discourage future attempts to formally combat grade inflation.

Princeton’s faculty voted Monday to immediately terminate the policy, which, in an attempt to curb rising grades, mandated that no more than 35 percent of grades awarded by each department could fall in the A range, according to The Daily Princetonian.

The vote came two months after an ad hoc committee of faculty members convened by Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber last year called for an end to the controversial grading policy. The committee’s report found that the policy failed to meet one of its initial goals: to maintain “fair and consistent” grading standards across Princeton.

“We have come to feel strongly that departments should spend their time developing clear and meaningful evaluative rubrics for work within their disciplines rather than aligning grades to meet specific numeric targets,” the report reads.

At Harvard, which has been under scrutiny since Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris announced at a faculty meeting last December that the median grade awarded at the College is an A-, some professors said they felt disheartened that Princeton rescinded its policy.

“I feel dismay and disgust,” said Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield '53, who asked the question that prompted Harris’s announcement at the meeting last year. “Princeton seems to have given into faculty unrest and a kind of lack of ambition and a failure to maintain academic standards.”

History Department Chair Daniel L. Smail said that while he believes formal grading policies can be problematic and endanger the autonomy of instructors, he was disappointed by the Princeton vote.

“Speaking as a professor and not as a department chair, I was hoping it might work,” he said. “Grade inflation is a problem for all of us.”

Similarly, Economics professor Jeffrey A. Miron said that the policy’s reversal was “unfortunate,” though he added that he was not surprised.

“I thought [the policy] put Princeton in a tough position because some students concerned about their grades would tend to choose other schools over Princeton,” he said. “Unless other schools followed suit, it was a competitive mistake.”

The fate of Princeton’s attempt to address grade inflation, in turn, may shape the way Harvard approaches grading.

Mansfield said that Princeton’s policy reversal might discourage Harvard from adopting a similar policy or taking administrative action to regulate grading practices.

“It’s upsetting that a place like Princeton that made such a good start should now withdraw from it,” he said, adding that “if somebody brought it up again...the answer would be ‘well Princeton tried it but it fell through.’”

Philosophy professor Edward J. Hall argued that after Princeton “took bold steps” with its grading policy, Harvard may be less likely to adopt “heavy-handed,” rules-based regulations to address grading.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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