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Boston Globe Online / City & Region

  Harvard University senior Trevor Cox says he has received far higher grades than he deserves. (Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)

MATTERS OF HONOR

Harvard's quiet secret: rampant grade inflation

By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 10/7/2001

First of two parts

    GRAPHIC
Harvard honors
The percentage of Harvard students graduating with honors has increased steadily since the 1940s.
See graphic


Low, high marks for grade inflation
Disgusted by grade inflation, one Harvard professor last spring gave his students two sets of marks: one pumped-up, "official" grade, and a second that reflected the actual quality of their work.


PART TWO
Harvard's honors fall to the merely average
A record 91 percent of Harvard University seniors graduated with honors last June, a figure that stunned rival universities, many of whom make exacting choices to distinguish outstanding student work from the merely excellent.


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


CAMBRIDGE - Trevor Cox is in the throes of his greatest challenge at Harvard University: A senior honors thesis about Abraham Lincoln's wartime attorney general. It's exciting and gut-churning, he says; it's also his first Harvard paper that doesn't feel like a sham.

''I've coasted on far higher grades than I deserve,'' said Cox, who has a B-plus average and leads Harvard's student volunteer group. ''It's scandalous. You can get very good grades, and earn honors, without ever producing quality work.''

This is Harvard's dirty little secret: Since the Vietnam era, rampant grade inflation has made its top prize for students - graduating with honors - virtually meaningless.

Last June, a record 91 percent of Harvard students graduated summa, magna, or cum laude, far more than at Yale (51 percent), Princeton (44 percent), and other elite universities, a Globe study has found.

While the world regards these students as the best of the best of America's 13 million undergraduates, Harvard honors has actually become the laughingstock of the Ivy League. The other Ivies see Harvard as the Lake Wobegon of higher education, where all the students, being above average, can take honors for granted. It takes just a B-minus average in the major subject to earn cum laude - no sweat at a school where 51 percent of the grades last year were A's and A-minuses.

''Honors at Harvard has just lost all meaning,'' said Henry Rosovsky, a top dean and acting president at Harvard in the 1970s and '80s. ''The bad honors is spoiling the good.''

With Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, focused on improving undergraduate studies and set to deliver his inaugural address this Friday, the Globe reviewed the university's academic records and internal memos over the last 50 years to analyze the rigors and rewards of a Harvard education.

The documents indicate that Vietnam and the protest movements of the '60s led to an increase in lax grading campuswide, and that the faculty never recovered. Harry Lewis, the current dean of Harvard College, wrote in one e-mail that humanities professors today can't tell an A paper from a B paper, partly because of a ''collapse of critical judgment.''

Many Ivy League schools now limit honors, but Harvard says that's unfair - today's seniors are better students than a generation ago, and those who do honors work deserve the distinction.

''After teaching them well, and after they perform well, would it really be fair to give them low grades or deny them honors?'' said Susan Pedersen, Harvard's dean of undergraduate education.

A Harvard College education is undoubtedly one of the best in the world, and at least some of those thousands of A's can be attributed to the fact that the campus is full of high-school valedictorians with perfect 1600 SAT scores who do superior work.

Yet Pedersen also admits that grade inflation is real. As at many schools, at Harvard, the A to F grading range has unofficially turned to an A to B-minus range. As a result, the university's current honors requirements make Harvard unique: It inevitably rewards grade inflation with honors.

''A Harvard graduating class with 91 percent honors is the most impressive indicator of grade inflation I've seen in a long time,'' said Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College and an authority on grading. ''Rather than singling out who performs best, they're singling the 9 percent who perform the worst. Harvard has done away with true honors.''

Besides the comparison with other elite universities, the Globe study of Harvard's honors and grading practices also found:

  • Undergraduate honors increased from 32 percent in 1946 to 91 percent in 2001, with the greatest growth in the 1960s and early '70s, and then again during the last 15 years;

  • Vietnam-era draft boards panicked Harvard students and teachers, so that inflated grades became the moral equivalent of opposition to the war, helping prevent all but 19 Harvard College men from dying in Southeast Asia;

  • 1969 was the defining moment in grade inflation: SAT scores for entering freshmen fell for the first time in years, yet the proportion of A's and B's shot up by 10 percent and the rate of honors continued climbing sharply;

  • The arrival of 120 black freshmen in 1969 - up from 60 the year before, because of aggressive affirmative action - was partly the result of lowered admissions standards, but was not a primary cause of grade inflation, as one Harvard professor contends;

  • Graduate-student teaching fellows have exacerbated grade inflation because of their power in the classroom and a lack of guidance from professors, who are often consumed with research.

    Yet no matter how much grade inflation drives honors at Harvard, the credential has retained real cachet in society. It adds luster to resumes and graduate school applications, and sticks in people's minds during networking conversations. Corporate recruiters especially value honors - some say they won't even interview applicants who aren't cum laude material. In a tight job market, the credential helps a candidate stand out. And honors is still a nice touch for the Sunday wedding pages; Harvard alumni regularly note that they graduated cum laude, a cultural status symbol.

    Yet some academic insiders say that when 91 percent of Harvard graduates can claim honors, it becomes more like a reward for good attendance than for excellence.

    ''From age 3 nowadays, students compete to get into nursery school, primary school, high school, and then Ivy schools, and each stage they have to present their credentials: grades and honors,'' said Isaac Kramnick, Cornell's vice-provost for undergraduate education, and himself a 1959 summa from Harvard.

    ''Now they're paying $35,000 at Harvard, and they expect something to show for it,'' he said. ''But honors cannot speak for itself anymore.''

    Three wars, one campus

    Between the end of World War II in 1945 and Kramnick's arrival 10 years later, Harvard Yard bustled with men who knew more about fighting in the Pacific Theater than studying for exams. The GI Bill of Rights had professors widely fretting about grade inflation for the first time. If the vets struggled in class, would anyone really penalize them with a D?

    Grades did rise, but not dramatically, and it was largely due to Harvard setting higher admissions standards, according to university memos from the period.

    The Vietnam War, and to a lesser extent the Korean War, gave grades real value. Students needed good marks to stay in school and keep draft deferments. And some, trying to avoid fighting overseas, used A or B averages as a springboard to graduate schools. Honors from Harvard was second only to a Rhodes scholarship for opening doors.

    ''Latin honors really helped people who wanted to become professors, and many students did,'' said Kramnick.

    As an undergraduate, Kramnick devoured political philosophy and hungered for honors. In 1959, his work paid off when he was among 2 percent of his class to earn summa (compared to 5 percent last June). Then came Cambridge University, a doctorate at Harvard, and finally Cornell.

    Today he keeps his diploma in his attic to avoid seeming showy. The current honors rate at his alma mater only makes him laugh; he wonders, if more students are striving for honors, are they less bashful than he in mentioning it?

    ''Summa's been on my vita for 41 years, but I can count the times I bring it up on one hand,'' Kramnick said.

    The '60s began with Harvard students demanding choice: over the curriculum, over grades, over just about everything. The faculty, meanwhile, worried about a narrow curriculum: English majors seeking a broad liberal arts education, for instance, shouldn't be consumed only with Chaucer and Shakespeare.

    In 1961, professors hit on a compromise. They loosened honors requirements by allowing students to earn cum laude by taking a range of courses, without actually doing honors work in their major.

    The move was significant. Honors shot up in 1962 by seven percentage points. Today, one-quarter of all honors go to these students who do not earn honors in their major. It requires only a B average overall, and not everyone needs a thesis.

    That kind of honors distinction seems more than a little flimsy to most Ivy schools.

    ''To be an honors student is to create your own intellectual work in a thesis or a science lab - to have had a transformative experience,'' said Jamshed Bharucha, dean of the faculty at Dartmouth, where 40 percent graduated with honors last spring.

    ''If you go to Harvard, you are by definition a Harvard student, so we automatically know your education is worth a lot - therefore honors should require more there than it does at most places,'' said Lee Mitchell, a Princeton English professor who has studied grade inflation in higher education.

    High grades took on new urgency at Harvard in 1963 as each week brought rumors of a looming draft for the war in Southeast Asia. To avoid it, steady academic progress was needed, and top grades would be extra insurance to dissuade draft boards from taking a Harvard man.

    Graduate teaching fellows were instinctively sympathetic, since, as students, many of them found the idea of a draft chilling. And with more professors caught up in their own research and publishing, the twentysomething teaching fellows began exerting enormous power over grades, to the bane of some administrators.

    ''I don't believe in giving low grades,'' one fellow said during the first week of Epic and Drama, an introductory humanities course, in 1963. ''Life is much too short.''

    At that, students broke into applause, said Jim Metcalf, a freshman then, who recalled the moment. He ended up receiving a B in the class, while in some other courses - several taught by professors - he earned C's. (The physics major ended up graduating without honors, ''but still had a very happy life,'' he said recently, with a job at Hanscom Air Force Base and a daughter now enrolled at Harvard.)

    Anxiety over the war worsened in 1965-66, when the Selective Service System sought Harvard's help in developing rules for drafting its own students. The request sickened some professors. But ''we at Harvard felt obliged to cooperate, and did so,'' John U. Munro, the dean of the college, wrote at the time.

    Under this arrangement, Harvard computed a class rank for each student based on grades, then sent the data to the student to forward to the draft board. Students had deferments from the draft, yet they worried about losing them if the war escalated. If that happened, and a draft board needed men, high grades and class rank would be essential to avoiding Vietnam.

    ''Students realized they needed evidence to show they weren't just messing around in college to avoid the draft,'' said George Flynn, a historian and author of ''The Draft, 1940-1973.''

    ''The war just set off inflation at Harvard,'' said Henry Rosovsky, who joined the economics faculty in 1965. ''Professors gave higher grades to protect them.''

    Rosovsky, now retired and working on a research project about grade inflation with other scholars at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, demurred on whether he himself inflated grades. ''It's a very hard question for me to answer,'' he said. ''If I did anything like that, it wasn't consciously.''

    In the end, very few Harvard men were called to serve. For Rosovsky, perhaps the most powerful symbol of grade inflation is above the pews in Memorial Church on campus. There, a small, gold-plated plaque lists the undergraduates who lost their lives in Vietnam. It has only 19 names.

    Across from it is a huge stonefaced wall etched with the names of hundreds of students who died in World War II.

    ''Vietnam was our class-based war, no question,'' Rosovsky said.

    No time for finals

       
    Pressure for Harvard to become more diverse resulted in twice as many black students gaining admittance in 1969.
    (Globe File Photo)


    An anti-ROTC demonstration in 1969. Grade inflation soared in 1969-70 as students were drawn into direct political activity. (Globe File Photo)

    By 1966, many students spent as much time organizing protests as writing papers. Any high-profile event on campus was ripe for a demonstration. More than 1,000 students screamed ''Murderer!'' at Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as he tried to drive through campus for a speech; he was finally escorted by police. The next year, students barricaded a recruiter from napalm-maker Dow Chemical in Mallinckrodt Lab for several hours, until faculty ''worked out conditions for his release,'' according to one memo written in the aftermath.

    The Social Relations Department, a locus of antiwar thought, even hired outside protesters to teach and grade students.

    ''The TF's (teaching fellows) went into the streets and hired people who had no academic ability at all to run class sections,'' said John Dunlop, a faculty leader and economics professor at the time, who later became US Labor Secretary under Nixon. ''There were plenty of grading abuses, when grades were even given.''

    The taste of power drove students to seek more control over education as well. And time and again, the faculty bent.

    Classes were sporadically canceled. In 1967 and '68, professors encouraged the use of plus and minus grades; broadened options like pass/fail marks and student-designed independent study; and eased tough foreign language requirements. ''A flight from grades,'' as one dean said in 1968.

    ''Professors were being told to get with it,'' said Theda Skocpol, a government and sociology scholar who had just started teaching at Harvard. ''And the professors, in general, loosened up. Once that happens, it's very hard to tighten back up.''

    There were so many powder-keg issues on campus that faculty began retreating deeper into their labs and libraries. One volatile topic was racial diversity. Harvard had been enrolling a few dozen black freshmen each year, but protesters began demanding more, as well as a degree-granting Department of Afro-American Studies.

    Harvard aggressively targeted the nation's ghettos as part of an affirmative action campaign in 1968-69. Officials wanted a broader socioeconomic, as well as racial, spectrum. And in the fall of '69, about 120 black freshmen arrived in the Yard, almost twice as many as the previous year.

    Many of them struggled. Derek Bok, who became president of Harvard in 1971, said this was inevitable for students whose high schools were anything but Andover and Exeter. ''That created some academic difficulties because of the big adjustment to Harvard,'' Bok said.

    That freshman class in 1969 had some of the worst SAT scores Harvard had seen in years. The top percentile of test-takers - mostly white students from prep schools - had an average of 1561, down seven points from 1968, according to records. The two lowest percentiles - many of them less affluent and less prepared academically for college work - scored 1280 and 1134, a decline of 37 and 28 points respectively.

    A weak freshmen class usually would lower grade averages, but the opposite was true in 1969-70. The proportion of A's and B's overall grew by about 10 percent. And honors spiked up. The freshmen of 1969 ended up earning more honors than previous groups - and they were arguably not better students, as the university asserts today. About 77.5 percent of them earned honors in 1973, compared to 69 percent in 1969.

    Did race play a role in grade inflation? Harvey Mansfield, then and now a professor of government and a social conservative, says yes. He argues that the lax grading culture led professors and teaching fellows to indulge their more liberal sympathies and inflate grades in order to create a level playing field for black students, who would have done worse than whites otherwise.

    This theory is offensive to many and roundly dismissed by current Harvard officials. In private, however, former officials say that black and white students both benefited from grade creep when they were on the cusp of a higher mark. Academic records from the 1960s show that the draft and faculty votes on grading had a much more pervasive impact on grade inflation than 120 black freshmen sprinkled among hundreds of classrooms.

    ''It's conceivable that the human impulse was to not give black students D's, but it doesn't explain the grade inflation up the line,'' Bok said in a recent interview.

    Mansfield still discusses his views on race in the hopes that it will spur Harvard into, first, proving him right or wrong, and second, publicly acknowledging grade inflation as a major problem.

    ''One professor follows another here - I give high grades because others do, and I don't want my students to suffer,'' Mansfield said. ''Action must be taken university-wide.''

       
    Derek Bok, who became Harvard president in 1971, said he is worried about the kind of surge of top grades that occured in 1969-70
    (AP Photo)

    What worries Bok more than grade inflation is the kind of surge of top grades that happened in 1969-70. In May 1970, after Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four students at Kent State, the faculty made spring finals optional, and went on record supporting students who were drawn ''away from their academic work and into direct political activity,'' according to a 1970 faculty memo.

    ''Things got excessive that year,'' Bok said. ''I think you can't force people to conform on grading, but you can try to find a way to stabilize the number of categories by which you distinguish different students' work. I think that conversation could be healthy today.''

    His friend and former dean, Rosovsky, agrees.

    ''One of the problems is that very few standards are ever discussed. What is a B-plus? What is an A-minus? It's assumed people will know what to do when grading. But I think that's a faulty assumption now,'' he said.

    A or A-minus?

    When Bok became president in 1971, the protest culture was ebbing on campus. Many in the Students for a Democratic Society - who had roughed up deans during a takeover of University Hall in 1969, only to be ejected violently by police the next day - had graduated (with honors, in some cases). The ''crisis'' was passing, officials felt, and an attempt to save learning and grading was needed.

    One study by historian Ernest May, a dean at the time, found that departments graded and awarded honors quite differently. Bok hated that. History and literature majors like Frank Rich, class of 1971, were able to graduate magna while some peers in the hard sciences were on a steep grading curve that drove marks down.

    ''This was the period of really shifting cultural values, and grades were a part of that,'' said Rich, who is now a New York Times columnist. ''You practically had to write `(expletive) you' on a blue book to flunk out.''

    To provide more unity, Harvard crafted a core curriculum. One of the goals was to return more professors to the classroom and reduce grade inflation by the teaching fellows.

    Rosovsky, who led this effort as dean of the faculty, also worked with professors to develop tougher rules for honors. In their first year, 1978, honors declined from 85 percent to 73 percent. By 1985, it had fallen to just under 69 percent.

    But high grades never really slid downward. The A grades returned in earnest in the mid '80s, and honors took off again, to 80 percent in 1990 and 91 percent this past June.

    For students like Richard John, the obsession with high grades only grew with time. John, a freshmen in 1977, wanted to become a university professor. And because honors would help him in a crowded academic field, he dreamed of summa.

    John avoided a few legendary tough graders, and he carefully steered his way past the Marxists in his social studies department who demanded more ideology than he gave. And he benefited from a faculty culture that didn't emphasize careful grading. In one of Professor Daniel Bell's sociology courses, John remembers turning in a paper on economic development that came back more honored than assessed.

    ''He didn't make any comments on it and gave me an A,'' John said. ''He didn't have a [teaching fellow], which was good. But I don't think he spent a lot of time on the paper.''

    John graduated magna in 1981 and went on to become a teaching fellow at Harvard, where he saw the arbitrariness of grading in a new light. He and another teaching fellow once argued over honors for a student who, the other fellow felt, hadn't properly criticized Horace Mann's views on American education in a paper.

    ''The TF's judgment was based on shallow, ideological grounds, and he blocked the student from getting magna,'' said John, who is now an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. ''I felt she deserved a magna, and still do. I really feel quite bad about that.''

    Last spring, after French grammar teaching fellow Mahalia Gayle had given her students their final grades, she received e-mail from two of them begging for higher marks. One young man wanted an A-minus upped to an A because, he said, his class participation was strong and his homework was always thoughtful and complete.

    ''We had a long argument but I made it clear he was getting an A-minus - one, I had calculated the grade; two, it was already at the registrar; and three, I don't negotiate,'' Gayle said.

    ''It was charming in a way,'' she added. ''I think he'll do very well in life.''

    Corporate recruiters are indeed looking for academic stars, and honors particularly helps one shine. ''A degree from Harvard is very good, but honors certainly helps it along,'' said M.J. Wheble, national manager of campus recruiting for Deloitte & Touche. ''It indicated someone has really worked hard.''

    Over the last decade or so, deans at Harvard have made stabs at discouraging grade inflation, such as regularly informing faculty about how fast A's are rising. But the prerogative for controlling grades belongs to the professors. And ever since Rosovsky, the deans have either marched in lockstep with tradition or chosen not to take the faculty on.

    The current dean of the college, Lewis, wrote a memo last spring linking grade inflation to better students, but he also blamed it on ''the collapse of critical judgment in the humanities and some of the social sciences.'' Yet what can be done? Lewis wrote, noting the power of the faculty's dean, Jeremy Knowles, and a largely failed effort by Princeton to rein in grades. Lewis and Knowles declined comment.

    The humanities are indeed a harbor for A's, which account for half of all the grades given in those classes; humanities professors teach about 30 percent of Harvard students. The hard sciences enroll a similar proportion and give more B's, while the social sciences enroll about 50 percent and fall toward the middle of grading trends.

    Alexandra Mack, a 1991 anthropology major, received a C in calculus and a B-minus in Stephen Jay Gould's evolution class, but recalls breezing through one humanities exam by simply regurgitating the professor's ideas.

    ''The comments back from the professor were `great insights, great thoughts,' '' Mack said. ''I felt, `I'm glad you think I'm brilliant, but c'mon.' ''

    Still, renaissance literature scholar Stephen Greenblatt, a University Professor in the Humanities, says a lack of critical judgment isn't the issue - it's that Harvard simply has better students than other colleges. He uses words like ''astonishing'' and ''amazing'' to describe his students' papers.

    ''A very remarkable number of these projects are publishable quality,'' Greenblatt said. ''Is someone who graduates summa cum laude at a less selective university really the same as a summa at Harvard or Yale?''

    Summa, in fact, is the one honor that Harvard officials have taken steps to protect. In 1996, the number of highest honors jumped from 79 (or 5 percent of degrees) to 115 (about 8 percent), infuriating some professors. They then decided to cap summa at 5 percent and required that these students earn almost all A's, receive an endorsement from a special summa committee, and almost always write a thesis or other project.

    Yet while Yale and others cap other honors categories as well, Harvard worries far less. Cum laude, which can be earned either with a B-minus in the major or a B average overall, was given to a total of about 50 percent of graduates last spring. About 36 percent earned magna by having a B-plus average, usually a thesis, and a recommendation from their department.

    While Harvard and other Ivies have talked about joining together to deflate grades - to avoid a unilateral change that might hurt a given school's students who apply to graduate school - that step seems unlikely.

    ''It would be hard to motivate our faculty to do something different about grading because the Cornell faculty thinks it should,'' said Jeff Wolcowitz, Harvard's associate dean of undergraduate education.

    But some say that as long as grades and honors continue to rise, Harvard is raising doubts about the integrity of its own diploma.

    ''It's a good time for Summers and the faculty to reconsider how they grade and give honors,'' said Professor John, the magna from 1981. ''It wouldn't hurt Harvard one bit to get a reputation for being tough.''

    President Summers declined to be interviewed for this article. Officials say he wants to address undergraduate issues at his inauguration on Friday, but Dean Pedersen also notes that grading and honors have not been a major concern of his. She hopes to at least start the faculty talking seriously this fall about the issues of grading and evaluating students.

    Trevor Cox, meanwhile, is graduating in a matter of months, and is therefore prone to reckoning. He is among those who say they would sacrifice easy honors for more rigor: More comments on papers, more challenges from faculty members, more direction in his studies, more grades that made him buckle down. Cox says he is putting his all into the Lincoln thesis, but he knows he won't have to sweat it too much. Honors is guaranteed.

    ''You'd think I'm not competitive enough to care about honors, but I'd feel dumb if I was among the 9 percent who don't get it,'' Cox said. ''I think magna is within my reach - which is criminal, really.''

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

    This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 10/7/2001.
    © Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.




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