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  Harvard needs more "self-scrutiny" by its own professors about their grading habits, says Susan Pedersen, the school's dean of undergraduate education. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)


Harvard's honors fall to the merely average

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 10/8/2001

Second of two parts


Percentage of college seniors graduating with honors in 2001.
See graphic

At Harvard, it's honors all around
Harvard University has a dirty little secret: a grade inflation culture that allows 91 percent of students to graduate with honors, rendering the distinction virtually meaningless.


Oct. 23, 2001
Harvard asks faculty to justify grading methods

Nov. 21, 2001
Harvard figures show most grades are A's, B's

Jan. 31, 2002
Harvard looks to raise bar for graduating with honors

The new freshmen who arrived at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton University last month share a pedigree of academic success and driving ambition, yet those at Harvard enjoy special advantages for achieving the Ivy League's premiere status symbol - honors.

Helped along by grade inflation and lax requirements not usually associated with top universities, a record 91 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with honors last June, eclipsing peers at 13 other elite US colleges, a Globe study has found.

Harvard's honor roll stunned rival universities, many of whom make exacting, often brutal choices to distinguish outstanding student work from the merely excellent. ''Hilarious,'' the dean of Yale College said of Harvard's 91 percent. ''Can't believe it,'' a Cornell vice provost concurred. ''It wouldn't ever happen at Dartmouth,'' said the dean of faculty at that Ivy, which is sometimes derided as Harvard's academically lesser peer.

Yale, Brown, and many other elites now limit honors as a way to preserve its value. Yale caps universitywide honors at 30 percent of graduating seniors, - though, when comparing various types of honors with Harvard's, a total of 51 percent of Yale seniors earned some form of honors last spring.

Behind Harvard and Yale is Princeton, where the honors rate this year was 44 percent; Brown, 42 percent; Dartmouth, 40 percent; Columbia, 25 percent; and Cornell, 8 percent. The University of Pennsylvania denied requests for the data, saying furnishing it would violate student privacy.

Elsewhere, 28 percent of Duke University seniors received honors last spring, while the rate was 20 percent at Stanford and 35 percent at Johns Hopkins. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology doesn't award honors, saying the sheer value of its degree is distinctive.

Experts on undergraduate education say Harvard's high honors rate indicates a problem with grade inflation, achievement expectations, or both. Even if students are stronger today than when rates were lower in the past, as Harvard argues, academic integrity requires honors to change with the times, experts say.

''The Harvard students simply aren't that different from the Princeton student and the Yale student,'' said Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teachers College. ''Honors has clearly taken on a new definition at Harvard. They should be much more candid about that.''

Honors is a widely coveted prize among the nation's student elite, a credential that helps open doors to graduate schools and the power suites of business and government. It's also a faculty's most piercing tool for judging students and tracking their intellectual development.

But concerns about grade inflation trends have led some schools to cap honors so it does not reward puffed-up grades.

The Globe study found that unchecked grade inflation has long been Harvard's worst-kept secret, but officials have done little to stop it. They've also done little to slow honors rates, which are based on grades, casting doubt on whether honors from Harvard has much meaning any longer.

''Harvard has a problem with what honors signifies. At 91 percent, it doesn't signify anything,'' said William Chafe, dean of the faculty at Duke University and a magna cum laude from Harvard in 1962. ''Honors has to be reserved for distinction. It is a very strong credential if it's not seen as something accessible to everybody.''

But Harvard officials say that they and all universities award honors differently, and its faculty gives honors only to students who meet strict requirements.

Most Harvard departments require high grades, research papers, and a senior thesis for honors. In 1996, the faculty took its one and only step toward joining the trend toward honors limits, capping summa cum laude at 5 percent of graduates after a bulge in the highest honor category. Yet the college worries less about the growth in magna cum laude, which requires at least a B-plus average, and was given to 580 students graduating in June (40 percent of those receiving honors). Cum laude, which requires either a B-minus in the major or a B average overall, was given to more than half of those earning honors.

''I don't think 91 percent honors is a problem,'' said Susan Pedersen, Harvard's dean for undergraduate education. ''The faculty decides what is appropriate honors work in each field. I wouldn't want a system where students aspire to honors work, and then are told they don't make some arbitrary, internal cut.''

Yet that is exactly how honors works at Princeton, and to some extent at Yale and most other schools. Harvard's system, meanwhile, guarantees honors to almost any student who receives at least a B.

`'The Harvard undergraduates I'm grading are excellent students,'' said Professor Theda Skocpol, who is renowned both as a political sociologist and a relatively tough grader. ''I don't hesitate to give C's and D's, but there are not all that many students who deserve it.''

Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said his students produce exemplary research papers and probing lab experiments as well, often reflecting the young genius that Harvard sees. Yet Yale makes sharper distinctions among accomplishments.

''It certainly isn't true that fewer Yale students do honors work than Harvard students,'' Brodhead said. ''Harvard simply chooses to reward 91 percent of them.''

In the late 1980s, Yale faced a burst of cum laude diplomas ''that gave us concern, though it wasn't as egregious as what Harvard sees,'' Brodhead recalled. Yale had been awarding honors based on grade-point averages; in 1988, it switched to capping summa cum laude at the top 5 percent of seniors, and limiting magna and cum laude to the next 10 and 15 percent, respectively.

With these caps in place, Yale officials say, grade inflation is far less likely to end up boosting honors rates. Yale, like most schools, doesn't tell professors how to grade, though it urges them to give A's only for outstanding work.

Brodhead was skeptical that a small minority of Harvard students are performing at a notably lesser pitch than the vast majority. ''One does wonder about that 9 percent at Harvard not doing honors work,'' he said. ''I mean, really. Really.''

At Princeton, all students must complete a thesis and perform research to graduate. Each academic department, meanwhile, sets a formula and cutoff for honors, and may require extra for it - high grades and good marks on comprehensive exams, for example.

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, Princeton's dean of the college, said she and some professors have tried to rein in grade inflation and ''make plain what it takes to get an A, a B, and so on.'' Her research found that at Princeton grades began to rise in the early 1970s; the honors rate, however, has been fairly constant, in part because departments shift the formula as grading trends change.

''Not every excellent student does his or her best work all the time,'' she said. ''We need to make more discriminating judgments about that work - about the difference between very good, and outstanding, work.''

Here is how Professor Lee Mitchell judges: He takes all the papers by his Princeton literature students, lays them on the floor, re-arranges them from strongest to weakest, and grades accordingly. Visualizing a spectrum of grades, rather than grading in a pile, helps him give honest grades, he says.

Cornell's Isaac Kramnick, holding his undergraduate summa cum laude degree from Harvard. "Honors is our prize in higher education, and we need to be very, very careful with it."
(Globe Photo / Christian Fuchs)

Mitchell probed the grade inflation issue a few years ago when he was chair of the English Department. Among other things, he noticed that some teachers, especially young ones, felt their tenure and salary prospects would rise if they received high marks from students on class evaluations. High grades have just become routine, he says, disputing the idea that students are simply better today than they were decades ago.

''We all like to think we're getting better,'' he said, ''but I've been teaching for 15 years. There was no golden age.''

Every spring, about 25 Princeton English professors sit in their conference room and debate exactly where to draw the honors line. The results can be brutal: A 92.07 grade point qualifies students one year, and it may be higher or lower the next, depending in part on grading trends and inflation. ''Although students may have an A average, they still might not get honors,'' Mitchell said.

Harvard's high honors rate is an offshoot of grade inflation, he contends, and won't abate until the administration acts.

''There has to be a collective solution within a campus,'' he said. ''I don't see anything short of university legislation and leadership that can solve this.''

Mahalia Gayle has seen both the Harvard and Princeton honors system in action, and says Princeton's is more rigorous by far. Like almost all Princeton undergraduates, Gayle was required to write a thesis. She earned mostly A's and A-minuses and won a few academic prizes as well - and then had to go up against other students in her department for honors. She got it.

Now, as a Harvard graduate student in French, she says some undergraduates have come to expect grade inflation, while others are simply cut more slack for the work they do.

''At Princeton, if you write a bad thesis, it's noted,'' she said. ''Here, you get points for anything.''

Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor, recalls higher stakes at Harvard in the early 1970s, when he was consumed with writing his thesis as a student.

''I have to confess that I was on the cusp of summa, and some of my teachers were very disappointed that I didn't get it,'' said Sunstein, the author, most recently, of Republic.com. ''I felt a little embarrassed, actually.''

A leading Harvard literature scholar, Stephen Greenblatt, says many students today turn in work so exceptional that it's worthy of publication. He recalls one thesis last year on how Russian writers maneuvered around censorship rules during the past two centuries. Another recent thesis drew on unpublished Suffolk County probate records from the 18th and 19th centuries to tell the story of two slaves who fought for their own emancipation.

''There are lots and lots of people like this who are very gifted,'' Greenblatt said.

Yet even in the highly selective Ivy League, a nearly universal honors system is wrongheaded to some.

''If almost 100 percent of the population gets honors, it may suggest it doesn't mean anything,'' said Jamshed Bharucha, dean of the faculty at Dartmouth.

In Bharucha's Psychological and Brain Sciences department, the worthiness of an honors project or thesis depends on methodology: Can the student's scientific hypothesis be measured and proven? Are the measures valid and relevant? Honors-quality work, he says, comes from close working relationships between professors and students - which not all enjoy - and requires support from a broad array of the department's faculty.

Dartmouth students can also earn general honors based on grades, though this is limited to the top one-third of seniors.

As one redress for grade inflation, Dartmouth employs an unusual strategy: Each student receives two grades per course on the transcript, the earned one and the median grade in the class. If a student receives an A in a class with a median A average, people can note that the A stands for average.

''That cuts right to the chase of grade inflation,'' Bharucha said. ''Anyone reading a transcript can gain a greater sense of what grades and honors mean.''

Susan Pedersen, the Harvard dean, said she thinks Dartmouth's grading approach is ''a reasonable thing to do,'' but it may serve to sink the transcript in a sea of letter grades rather than preserve its integrity. Harvard faculty members considered a plan like Dartmouth's, but it floundered in academic committees.

More than a technique like Dartmouth's, Harvard needs ''self-scrutiny'' by its own professors about their grading habits, Pedersen believes. ''We need more discussion within departments, working with students, about what professors consider grades to mean,'' she said.

Indeed, academic insiders like Bharucha have a much more sophisticated understanding of honors than many corporate recruiters. Both sets of people place a high value on honors, yet admissions officers in higher education - who realize the depths of grade inflation - know that the credential can sometimes represent easy A's rather than distinguished work.

''To be able to say that I graduate from Harvard magna cum laude certainly doesn't hurt,'' said Columbia's Levine, ''but it doesn't mean as much to graduate schools - because every student we get from Harvard graduated with honors.''

Yet M.J. Wheble, head of campus recruiting for Deloitte & Touche, said that honors is one example of excellence that she and her colleagues expect from applicants.

''We want to be sure we're hiring the best candidates, and honors are a first cut for us,'' Wheble said. ''We won't talk to people with GPA's lower than an A in some groups, or A-minus in others.''

Especially in a tough economy, honors remains an easy, dependable way for recruiters to separate the wheat from the chaff, Wheble added. `We like to look at the Ivy League and top liberal arts schools,'' she said, ''and honors is a way to be sure that we're hiring the very best candidates.''

Wheble said she was surprised to learn Harvard had such a high honors rate, but assumed that by their mere presence at the university, students were capable of honors work.

Among professors, views about grades and honors have changed over time. When Tufts Provost Sol Gittleman was a baseball-obsessed freshman at Drew University in 1952, he received two grades on his first paper: an A, for content, and an F, because he misspelled ''eight'' and ''negroes.'' Last spring, the students in his Writing About Baseball class were allowed to re-write papers several times. Gittleman graded the final products.

''It's a sign of better teaching - do you know how much time kids have to take rewriting papers?'' Gittleman said. He ended up giving six A's and eight B's. ''No one did less than B work. We get kids today with 1450 SATs. Why does that kid have to get a C as part of a bell-shaped curve?''

Cornell may stand apart as an Ivy where students are less driven by honors. Only 8 percent graduated with distinction last spring. Officials say many seniors had grades that were in the honors ballpark, but chose not to undertake meeting the requirements for honors.

''Some feel it consumes too much of their class time and energy, while others want to take a last stab at courses they haven't explored,'' said Isaac Kramnick, Cornell's vice-provost for undergraduate education. He added that one-third of students attend Cornell's land-grant agricultural college, and fewer of them seek honors than other Cornell undergraduates.

The Cornell government department has about 150 seniors majoring each year, about 15 of whom are honors students. A student must have a B-plus/A-minus average at the start of senior year to qualify as an honors candidate. Each writes a thesis, and three professors each assign scores for originality, research, quality of argument, style, and writing. Scores range from 1 to 10: low means no honors, while high can mean summa.

Then, the fighting begins.

''Sometimes the average thesis score of one reader is a 4.5, and another is 8.2,'' said Kramnick, a government professor, who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1959 and is critical of his alma mater's high honors rate today.

''There can be real, very long debates, especially when deciding what's a summa versus a magna. But this is the diploma we're talking about. Honors is our prize in higher education, and we need to be very, very careful with it.''

Patrick Healy can be reached by e-mail at phealy@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/8/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

© Copyright 2002 Boston Globe Electronic Publishing Inc.
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