Harvard prof softens stance on grade inflation

Kathryn Monroe

A Harvard professor is taking a stand against grade inflation this semester by giving students two grades: the one he believes they deserve and the one that will go on their transcript.

Harvey “C-minus” Mansfield, as he is known, said he has tried to fight grade inflation, but finally compromised his hard-line stance by giving his students higher grades this semester. After complaining in countless meetings with no results, Mansfield said, he came to a decision: “I don’t want to continue punishing students for a situation that is not their fault.”

Mansfield said he believes grade inflation decreases the value of all grades.

“In no other walk of life would you say that nearly one quarter of practitioners are worthy of A’s,” he said.

For now Mansfield said he will give higher grades so students’ grade point averages won’t have to suffer to make his point.

Harvard is not the only university struggling with grade inflation – the trend also is visible at Northwestern. A report from the Provost’s Office in Fall Quarter 2000 showed that the average undergraduate GPA has increased from 2.99 in 1982 to 3.32 in 1998.

Although some NU professors acknowledged the trend of increased grades, others said they sincerely believe students deserve the higher grades.

English Prof. Julia Stern said grades have risen along with the quality of students and their work. Students perform well, especially in upper-level courses, because they are a “self-selected cohort of students with experience in that field,” Stern said.

She said the “motivation, self-discipline and pre-professional orientation” of students at NU has caused the increase in grades.

Civil engineering Prof. Robert Gemmell said he thinks NU students are simply getting smarter.

“If you get a better quality, you give a better rank,” Gemmell said.

The traditional markers of quality, including SAT scores and high school ranks, have increased at NU over the years, so perhaps students are earning the high grades, said Stephen Fisher, associate provost for undergraduate education. But some people say standards are also lower, he said.

Anthropology Prof. James Brown said he has noticed such a change. “Over the last 20 to 30 years, less is expected of students.”

He also said his impression is that students are under a great deal of pressure, especially because of the quarter system, and that professors give higher grades to “make it less burdensome to students.”

John Reque, a Medill senior lecturer, said professors such as Mansfield are fighting for a hopeless cause. “An individual teacher who is determined to stand firm runs into opposition” from students and from other faculty members, Reque said.