Bloomberg News

Harvard Median Grade of A- Gets F in Responsibility From Teacher

December 04, 2013

Harvard University

Harvard University pennants sit on sale at the Harvard Cooperative Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

Harvard University undergraduates are more likely to get an A than any other grade, a measure of academic largesse that hurts the college’s students in the long run, a professor said.

A university official revealed in a faculty meeting that A’s are the most frequently given mark from Harvard College teachers, and A- is the median grade, the Harvard Crimson student newspaper reported yesterday.

“They’re debasing the value of an A,” said Harvey Mansfield, a government professor who has long decried grade inflation at the school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They’re ignoring their responsibility to maintain our standards.”

Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education, revealed the data on grades to answer a question from Mansfield at a monthly faculty meeting, the Crimson reported. Jeff Neal, a university spokesman, confirmed the accuracy of the information in an e-mailed statement today.

“We believe that learning is the most important thing that happens in our classrooms and throughout our system of residential education,” Neal said. “The faculty are focused on creating positive and lasting learning outcomes for our undergraduates. We watch and review trends in grading across Harvard College, but we are most interested in helping our students learn and learn well.”

The school formed an Initiative on Teaching and Learning in 2011.

Cheating Scandal

Harvard, the oldest and richest U.S. university, had its scholarly reputation rocked last year by a final-exam cheating scandal that resulted in suspensions for dozens of students. The scandal was discovered when teachers noticed evidence of students collaborating inappropriately on a take-home exam.

The college’s students expect high grades, whether or not they perform outstanding work, Mansfield said.

“The scandal took place in an atmosphere where easy, good grades are expected,” he said in a telephone interview. “People aren’t serious about working for grades.”

Mansfield said that many teachers give A’s because they want to maintain good relationships with students, who need high marks to get jobs and places in graduate and professional schools. He called the high-grade glut a kind of pollution, where each person thinks their contribution is harmless.

“Students are living in a bubble,” he said. “When they get out, they’re surprised that people don’t get A’s for doing no work and being dumb.”

Established in 1636, Harvard has an endowment of $32.7 billion, the biggest educational fund in the world. The school said in September that it plans to raise $6.5 billion in donations by 2018, a record goal for U.S. universities.

-- Editors: Chris Staiti, Lisa Wolfson

To contact the reporter on this story: John Lauerman in Boston at jlauerman@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net


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