In 1940, more Harvard students had an average grade of C- than any other GPA.
By 1986, that C- had ballooned to a B+. Today more students receive As and Bs than ever before. And that’s about as far as the consensus on grade inflation goes. Harry R. Lewis ‘68, dean of the College, doesn’t even use the word without distancing himself from its connotations. “I think that by far the dominant cause of grade ‘inflation’ at Harvard,” Lewis writes in an e-mail message, “is the application of constant grading standards to the work of ever more talented students.”
Are students smarter? “I haven’t seen it in my class,” said Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ‘53. The self-described “publicity hound” sparked the most recent inflation controversy when he released figures from the registrar’s office indicating that more than half of all grades at Harvard are As or A-minuses. “This is absolutely absurd,” said Mansfield. “It’s a real injustice to our most gifted students.” The Boston Globe ran Mansfield’s figures as front-page news. The Associated Press picked up the story. Mansfield says he received hundreds of e-mails expressing support and “egging him on” to speak out against inflation.
But public sentiment turned against the conservative professor when another front-page story ran in the Globe on February 7. The article desribed Mansfield’s theory that the academic inferiority of blacks admitted under affirmative action in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s caused grade inflation. Controversy ensued.
“For Professor Manfield to make such unsubstantiated claims is the only proof of academic inferiority at Harvard” says Professor Jay L. Matory of the Afro-American Studies department, who rejects Mansfield’s explanation. The administration’s response was similar. “Nothing I have personally observed, and nothing I have read or heard, leads me to believe that grade inflation resulted from the enrollment of greater numbers of minority students,” President Neil L. Rudenstine wrote.
But some evidence correlating the influx of black students 30 years ago and higher grades at Harvard does exist. While not conclusive, these sources suggest that Mansfield’s theory deserves further investigation.
The Disappearance of the C
Although black students have attended Harvard since the 19th century, it was only in the late 1960s that the College first admitted large numbers of blacks. Although as late as 1965 there were less than two dozen black undergraduates, wrote Sylvester Munroe ‘73 in the Saturday Review in February of 1973, “the big push came in 1968, when for the first time there were almost 100 black students in Harvard’s freshman class.” In 1969, the faculty voted to establish an Afro-American Studies department.
“Everyone was sympathetic to the black students at that time right after the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” says Mansfield. “I think most white Americans had a lot of good will towards blacks.” That goodwill extended into the grading process, he said. Not wanting to give black students a “rough welcome,” Mansfield said professors refused to “give black students low grades or even Cs.”
“I saw this in my course, when section leaders spoke of it and admitted they had done it,” he says. Mansfield recalls being surprised after looking over the grades given out by his TFs. “You asked, ‘Why no Cs?’ And they might say, ‘Those are students I feel sorry for.’ Or they would say nothing. Or they would give me the blue books and I would regrade them.”
He says this phenomenon wasn’t unique to his classes. “I actually had discussions with other professors and saw this on committees,” he says. “This happened not so much through the senior professors but though the young grad students. The idea that grades were sacrosanct and only given on the basis of merit was in disfavor.”
Mansfield says this was a symptom of white guilt. “Professors, imbibed with the spirit of affirmative action, thought, ‘Since we are going to to give blacks something of a break when they are admitted, why not give them another break when they are here?” In order to “justify or possibly conceal what they had done,” these professors raised the grades of white students as well, according to Mansfield, all behind closed doors. “This isn’t something that people did openly, but it was very common.”
Mansfield doesn’t have numbers to support his testimony because personal transcripts are sealed in Harvard’s archives for a period of 80 years, and his opponents have seized on this fact. Of course, the equation works the other way, too: anti-Mansfield campaigners can’t offer (or haven’t yet) a factually based counterargument or use statistics to disprove the affirmative action theory. The war over grade inflation is a war of anecdotes. And a number of anecdotes from the era in question support the Mansfield Theory.
“Harvard does seem to bend over backwards to be nice to the Negroes in its midst, and the black students finds this amusing and like to cite anecdotal instances of white overreaction,” wrote E.J. Kahn Jr. ‘37 in Harvard: Through Storm and Through Change. “There used to be a possibly fictitious course grade in Cambridge called a ‘Radcliffe B.’ It was given, however undeservedly on a strict academic basis, to girls who might otherwise have burst into tears. Now one hears talk of a ‘Negro A-minus,’” wrote Kahn.
Kahn, a former writer for The New Yorker, claims that the culture of white oversensitivity prevailed in all aspects of college life. “One black undergraduate reported that at home, when it came to athletics, he had always been considered hopeless; at Harvard, whenever sides were chosen up for informal touch-football games, he would always be picked first. Another black student had a white roomate. One night, the black student was trying to study, and his roomate had a radio going full blast. The black student asked the white one to turn it off, and got instant compliance. A few nights later, as a sort of behavioral experiment, the black man turned a radio on to maximum volume when his roommate was trying to study, and the white student never uttered a peep of protest.”
In fact, other Harvard professors have made the same case as Mansfield. Grade inflation occured at the Harvard Medical School in the mid-1970s because of affirmative action, according to Bernard D. Davis, Adele Lehman Professor of Bacterial Physiology, Emeritus at HMS. “The performance of the early [minority] students was in fact disappointing...minority students continued to fail to meet our earlier standards,” Davis wrote in his book Storm Over Biology. “Faced with the choice of either abandoning quotas or drastically lowering standards, our school chose the latter—though not by open faculty debate.” Davis recalls the story of one student who passed all his required classes to graduate but failed the National Board basic science examination five times. “I was troubled to see how far the virtuous aim of trying to meet affirmative action goals was in effect destroying the tradition of ‘veritas’ in the university.”
Black students had much more leeway at Harvard than they would have if they attended an all-black school, wrote Munroe when he was a senior. “Eating lunch with a group of black freshman and sophomores last spring, I overheard one of them say to another: ‘You know, I’m really glad I’m at Harvard and not Howard. I’ve heard [the Howard faculty and administration] don’t take no stuff down there.’ I realized that he was glad to be at Harvard because here, being black, he can get through without ever really applying himself.”
Harold J. Evans ‘74, who was involved in the infamous 1969 student takeover of University Hall, believes the college was extremely lenient with him because of his race. “The discipline that was taken for that was suspension for one semester, and then that suspension was suspended, so basically nothing happened,” Evans said. “At a predominatntly black school, the students would probably be expelled. That would not be tolerated at at an all-black school,” Evans says. His professors also gave him some leeway after the takeover: “I think there were some extensions given on papers and makeup tests. I know I got some leniency in some of my courses.”
William J. Adams, a former economics TF in the 1970s, agrees that grade inflation may have been sparked by the changing composition of Harvard’s student body. “This was a period of transition in admissions for Harvard,” Adams explains. Harvard was sowing the seeds of a meritocracy where admitted students were not just club legacies “who didn’t have to start working ‘til their second year here. These kids had to start working hard the minute they got here. While these kids had to have the grades to get here, perhaps the Harvard administration was attempting to justify why this diverse crop of students should be kept here.”
On the other side of the political spectrum, Dr. Charles Murray, the co-author of the controversial book The Bell Curve, a sociological study which argues that race has a genetic effect on intelligence, believes that racial sensitivity to minorities continues to inflate grades today, although it may be impossible to prove. “I know that in private some Harvard professors will accept with a ‘what-are-you-going-to-do’ shrug that they really don’t want the grief to which they expose themselves if they give lower grades to blacks or Latinos,” wrote Murray in an e-mail. “But how one would collect systematic data on this issue, or how one would get professors to say in public what they say in private stumps me.” Murray attacks the culture of political correctness that prevents professors from liberally and openly expressing their opinions on race.
Several professors and students who were at Harvard during the late ‘60s dispute Murray’s and Mansfield’s theory. “I never gave any higher grades to African-American students than I did to any other students,” said James Loeb Professor of Classical Art and Arachaeology David G. Mitten. “And I had quite a few African-American students in my classes.”
None of a dozen black alumni contacted for this article recalled that white guilt-induced goodwill increased their grades. “I don’t think we skated on anyone’s sympathies,” says Gail S. Lowe ‘72. “I never even heard of that. It wasn’t easy at Harard then. We weren’t universally loved. I may have been young, naive, and totally unaware, but I thought we worked for our grades.”
Whether or not the “affirmative grading” theory is true, it is just one of a slew of hypotheses offered by academicians and students from that period. “I don’t think grade inflation is as easily explained as Harvey Mansfield might suggest,” says Lizabeth A. Cohen, Professor and Head Tutor in the History department.
WAR: Bleeding Crimson on the Front Lines
The uproar over Mansfield’s racially-based theories has predictably obscured the second reason he believes grade inflation occurred: the war in Vietnam. According to Mansfield, antiwar professors inflated grades to keep students in good academic standing and away from the draft board.
Regarding this explanation, Mitten agrees with Mansfield. “Back in the days of the Vietnam War, no one would give students a grade, especially a male student, a grade that would land them in the war,” says Mitten. “We might have students who got a low average and were on probabtion or something. They might get called up by their local draft board and lose their college exemption. So we gave them higher grades. I did it and I know other professors did it. We didn’t want any Harvard students going to Vietnam. I remember being very conscious of this.”
Grades for Grads
But Mitten believes there is another factor which has played an important part in grade inflation. “There are two grading standards at Harvard,” says Mitten. “One is the A through E system for undergraduates. And the other one is for graduates; A or B is all they get. A B-minus is the kiss of death for a grad student.”
One professor traced the matter of grad school grade inflation to the 1940s. “For 30 years or more, B- has been the lowest acceptable grade for a graduate student in a graduate course; and graduate students rarely receive grades lower than a B-minus,” Professor of Astronomy David Layzer wrote in The Crimson on June 7, 1976. “I would be hard put to defend the thesis that today’s Harvard undergraduates perform less well in their courses than graduate studetns of two and three decades ago did in theirs.”
He believes that professors might think of concentrators like the grad students in the departement, and that the grad school double standard might be one of the causes of undergrad grade inflation.
Never Let School Get in the Way of Your Education
Some professors and alums believe that an increased emphasis on extracurriculars at Harvard has led professors to be more lenient in their grading of students. “I think our students have the academic wherewithal to meet much higher expectations. But students here are not just about academics. They do many extracurricular activities, and Harvard encourages that. It’s part of Harvard culture,” linguistics professor Bert Vaux says. “If you demand total devotion to a class, the students will do much better in it, but they won’t be able to write for The Crimson, for instance.”
The Harvard commitment to extracurriculars has existed on campus for decades, according to former student Evans. During the 70s, he says, the main non-academic activity was social protesting. “Professors accepted the fact that a substantial number of students were involved in protesting-there were expected extracurricular activities like playing sports or singing in the choir. They understood that many students would be involved in these activities, so there would be some leniency. There was definitely some leniency in terms of assignments and things like papers.”
Several professors and students believe that one cause of grade inflation is the constant negotiations between grader and gradee. “I have never seen such grade-grubbing students as one encounters here,” Bert Vaux says. “And I have a much more charitable view of Harvard students than most other professors. There is a small subset of students who will fight for every fraction of a point for every assignment no matter how insignificant. Dozens of hours of my time are wasted on grade grubbing. And to the extent that one doesn’t want to waste one’s time, one will bump up grades.”
Howard Bailey remembers negotiating with his TF in freshman year calculus to raise his grade: “He said, ‘You’re in danger,’ and tried to work with me for a while. I ended up negotiating myself a pass, with the promise tht I would never go to his section again,” says Bailey. “My impression was that lots of other people who were failing tried to negotiate with their section leaders.”
“You get people who have a B+ and they’re arguing that they should have gotten an A-,” says Mitten. “It’s constant process of trying to winch the grade up by pressuring the teaching fellows. I think people are less concerned about learning; they’re more concerned about getting straight As to get into medical or law school.” But Mitten says he won’t cave in to the pressure: “We don’t respond to these attempts to jack up the grades.”
But Vaux, who teaches Social Analysis 34, “Knowledge of Language,” a Core class, says that significant pressure does exist, and that it isn’t always very easy to ignore. “There is a communal sense in the Harvard community that you curve around a low B-plus. That’s not really active pressure from anyone. However, one knows that if one departs from that in any sizeable way, one will get a lot of grief.” Giving students Ds and Es is particularly hard, according to Vaux. “[The administration] makes it very hard to give the student a failing grade. Students have a support network in their senior tutors and house tutors who will hound the professors. If you want to fail someone, you have to be prepared for a very long, painful battle with the higher echelons of the administration.” Bridie Andrews, the History and Science head tutor, states that professors within her department may feel some pressure to inflate grades as “”they are very aware that any grade below a B-minus cannot count for concentration credit.” Andrews surmises that students here are extremely concerned with their investment in their education and, in particular, in “the University education as a means to subsequent career advancement.” Professors don’t want to mess up students’ chances to attend prestigious gradudate schools or score high-paying jobs come graduation.
But according to Vaux, “there are number of conflicting messages sent out from the administration.” He believes some adminstrators want to prevent grades from becoming too high. “There is a large amount of pressure from the Core office to keep grades down. Last year, for example, there was pressure to give no more than a quarter of the class some sort of A,” he says. “[The administration] sends out grade reports to each department, where your grades are compared to the grades the students received in all their other classes. The implication is, if you are giving grades higher than what those students receive in their other courses, then you are inflating.”
The differences between class sizes may also lead to an inflation of certain grades, according to Vaux. “In a small class, there is no grade pressure and hence the grades are incredibly inflated,” he says. “In a class of 5, the students will probably get all A’s or maybe an A-. That was a problem for me when I went from small classes to large ones. The tradition in our department with small classes is that everyone get’s an A or an A-minus. You can give all ‘As’ for a small class but not for a big class.”
Vaux says he also gives higher grades to students in his Core class because he realizes that they are not working in their academic area of strength. “Most of the students in my class are not linguists. If I graded them the way I thought they deserved to be, their grades would be significantly lower,” says Vaux. “I would have given out 15 or 20 As, as opposed to, based on the inflation system one develops here, 60 or so As. Roughly four times as many students got A’s as I would have given out without grade inflation.”
Who Cares About Grades? The Student Perspective
But many professors and students think that grades—inflated or not—are a low priority in terms of problems to deal with at Harvard. “I don’t really care about grades,” says Vaux. “I think they’re not important in the big picture. One simply cannot grade people fairly and objectively; it’s impossible, I’m convinced of this. Given that grades are so profoundly subjective, we should not be putting so much weight on them. Take a paper. It’s based on what your TF thinks of you and your writing style; both of these profoundly subjective. Your TF is going to grade you based on the background you come from.”
Lewis agrees that grade inflation should not be at the top of the agenda for change. “I think we have much more important things to worry about,” Lewis says.
However the administration chooses to deal with the issue of grade inflation, it cannot change the culture of competitiveness that exists amongst students at Harvard. Harvard kids want high grades and they get them. According to University statistics, 65 percent of the undergraduate community is awarded Group I or Group II status. Twenty years ago, 48 percent of students were in these top two prestigious groups. Thirty years ago, only 20 percent of students were awarded Group I and Group II status. There is something driving students at Harvard today to get higher grades. Senior Associate Registrar of Harvard College Thurston Smith states that today, “only eight to nine percent of Harvard undergraduates are below Group III.” A gentleman’s C is not good enough now, and for most Harvard students it never has been.
The culture of grade-getting begins in grade school and is cemented in high schools where students are tracked and re-tracked—pre-packaged for their Ivy League acceptances. Harvard, the oldest and most prestigious university in the nation, is the ultimate reward for academic achievement. And to get here, students needed to pull in top-notch report cards for 12 years before even setting foot in Cambridge. According to Director of Admissions Marilyn McGrath Lewis ’73, every student who comes to Harvard College is “qualified to do the work.” So everyone has the potential to get As. If grades have always been crucial to Harvard students, why should the emphasis on grades stop once accepted into the Crimson ranks? This combination of self-imposed competition and expectations creates a culture where grade inflation is acceptable.