The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense. No ordinary man could be such a fool....  ...George Orwell.

Commentary of the Day - February 12, 2001:  This Is Not Your Father's Harvard:

Back in the dark ages when the Irascible Professor was a graduate student in physics at the University of Pennsylvania, there was a story (probably apocryphal) floating around about an exchange between two faculty members at a meeting of the physics faculty to determine where the cutoff line would be drawn for a passing grade on a recent Ph.D. preliminary exam.  At the time it was the policy of the department to pass only the number of students that they could afford to support with graduate fellowships.

At the meeting each potential Ph.D. candidate's course grades and scores on the preliminary exam sections were flashed up on the screen.  The student's advisor then would be asked to say something about his or her potential to successfully complete the degree program. The process was quick and easy for the top students in the class.  However, as the faculty worked its way down towards the cutoff line the discussions became more animated.

When the scores of one hapless candidate were flashed on the screen, it is rumored that Abe Klein, a theoretical nuclear physicist with a Harvard Ph.D., exclaimed "if we had a student who was this bad at Harvard we would send him elsewhere!"  Whereupon,  Jules Halpern, a crusty old experimentalist rose in the back of the room to say "well Abe this is elsewhere"*.

From recent reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Boston Globe, it appears that things are not quite the same these days at that venerable campus close by the Charles.  It seems that it is getting more and more difficult to distinguish the slackers from the best and the brightest at dear old Harvard.  The reason being that Harvard, along with a number of other elite universities, is suffering from a bad case of grade inflation.

According to Patrick Healy's Boston Globe story (2/7/2001), 87.5% of the undergraduates at Harvard now receive grades of B or higher, while only 12.5% received a grade of B- or lower.  If one lumps the B- grades with the B's, then fewer than 5.5% of Harvard students receive grades of C+ or lower.

Harvard government professor, Harvey C. Mansfield, has been waging a one-man battle since 1970 with the Harvard administration over this issue.  Known on campus as "C-minus Mansfield", he attributes the origins of grade inflation to an influx of African-American students three decades ago.  However, this contention has been hotly contested by Harvard's president Neil L. Rudenstine.  In a second Boston Globe story (2/9/2001) Rudenstine contends that the number of African-American students at Harvard has been too small to have any significant effect on grade inflation.  Instead, Rudenstine suggests that grade inflation at Harvard may have originated with the large influx of GI-bill students after World War II.

Most other sources trace the origin of significant grade inflation on American college campuses to the Vietnam War era.  At that time students needed to maintain B averages in order to keep their draft deferments.  Many instructors, particularly those who opposed the war, made changes in their grading standards to help students retain their deferments.  For many years following the Vietnam War average grades in the B range were common at a large number of American colleges and universities.

However, the move towards average grades that are closer to A's than B's at America's elite colleges and universities is a much more recent phenomenon.  The reason for this upward drift in average grades is not known with certainty; however, many observers have suggested that it is related to skyrocketing costs at these private universities and colleges.  Students who have had to compete strenuously to gain admission to these very expensive institutions feel that they are entitled top grades.  Unlike their more deferential predecessors, today's upwardly mobile, aggressive students are not afraid to let their professors know how they feel about grades.

Mansfield recently decided to give students in his classes two grades.  Each student will receive an "inflated" grade that will appear on his or her transcript.  The second, unofficial, grade is Mansfield's estimate of the real worth of the student's performance.

The Irascible Professor puts little stock in Mansfield's contention that grade inflation at Harvard can be traced to the influx of African-American students.  Harvard recruits from among the brightest minority students in the country.  No doubt, these students are every bit as qualified as other Harvard students.  Nevertheless, the problem of grade inflation at elite colleges and universities is real.  While the majority of Harvard students probably have the innate talent to achieve at an A level, it is by no means certain that the majority are willing to expend the effort needed to earn an A- or better in every class.

The response of the Harvard administration to Mansfield's effort to call attention to the problem has been disingenuous at best.  Susan Pedersen, dean of undergraduate education at Harvard, argues that as long as there is an adequate number of grades that can be used to assess students' work, grade inflation is not a problem.  According the Chronicle story, Pedersen argues in a bit of doublespeak that would have made Orwell proud that "there's quite a difference between students in my history courses who do A work and A-minus, B-plus work, and below.  Those are quite meaningful and robust distinctions."  Robust?  Hardly, what is clear is that Pedersen gives A's to students who deserve them, A-minuses to students who in a former era would have made a B, and B-pluses to students who would have settled for a "gentleman's C".

It's unfortunate that Mansfield has chosen to focus on an untenable theory for the origins of the grade inflation problem.  What is much more important, in the view of the IP, are the effects of grade inflation.  Basically, average grades at many of the elite colleges and universities have risen to the point where they have become meaningless.  This shortchanges the students whose work is truly outstanding, and it unfairly rewards students whose work is merely adequate.  In the long run, grade inflation at the college level may well have the same effect on the value of a college degree that grade inflation has had on the value of a high school diploma.
*The Irascible Professor received an email message from Mike Cohen, one of his professors from his graduate school days at Penn, on February 29, 2008.  Professor Cohen said in his email that he was the person who made the "well Abe, this is elsewhere" remark, not Jules Halpern.  Mike Cohen was not a crusty old experimentalist, but he indeed was a crusty, middle-aged theorist at the time.  And, since he was there, the IP will take his word for it!


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