New dean: Grade deflation to stay
When Smith’s appointment was announced 15 months ago, she declined to comment about her position on grade deflation, explaining that she wanted to wait to study the policy as dean before voicing her opinion. After occupying the dean’s office in West College since July 1, Smith expressed support for the policy but added that future changes to it were not out of the question.
“I do not have plans to overturn the policy,” Smith said. “I am working with colleagues to figure out how we can enhance the spirit of the policy.”
The grading policy sets the expectation that no more than 35 percent of students on average should earn an A in a course and no more than 55 percent of students on average should earn an A on independent work. Set into motion by a 1998 report that noted the grade inflation that the University had seen over the prior two decades, the grading policy was approved by the faculty by a 2-to-1 margin in an April 2004 vote.
Despite the approval of the faculty, the divisive grading policy became inextricably linked with Malkiel, its main proponent. Malkiel vociferously defended the policy, most notably in a December 2009 Whig-Clio debate and in a back-and-forth volley with former USG president Alex Lenahan ’07 of lengthy emails to the student body in October 2006.
Robert Vanderbei, the chair of Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering and a member of the Faculty Committee on Grading — which Smith chairs — said that despite Smith’s support, grade deflation will always be seen as Malkiel’s “signature issue.”
“No matter who follows in her footsteps, it will be perhaps viewed as less of a contentious issue than it was under Dean Malkiel,” Vanderbei explained.
After Malkiel announced her retirement from the deanship in September 2010, there was speculation as to whether her most identifiable policy would leave with her. In December of that year, after Smith was chosen, University President Shirley Tilghman said the new dean would be able to “reframe the discourse” about the grading policy.
Yet Smith reiterated much of Malkiel’s message on the policy, explaining that she agrees with the “assumptions” behind the grading policy: leveling the grading distribution between different departments and ensuring that grades offer students meaningful feedback on the quality of their work. To some extent, though, Smith did indicate that she planned to reopen, if not reframe, the campus dialogue about the grading policy, citing a desire to “expand the conversation.”
Smith said she was currently working with the Faculty Committee on Grading and the McGraw Center to ascertain how to engage the campus in this conversation. She also noted that part of this expansion meant providing opportunities for faculty members to share best practices about grading.
“We want to figure out a more effective way of communicating the spirit behind the policy and expanding the conversation around grading and assessment,” she said.
Smith added that part of this reframing of the conversation would include a broader focus on evaluation and feedback beyond the grade a student receives.
“What I’m trying to do is have a larger conversation about the evaluation and assessment of student work, of which the letter grade is a part, but I want to try to take the focus off the letter grade,” she explained.
Tilghman, who personally selected Smith as dean from the pool of finalists, echoed Smith’s message on the importance of a multi-pronged approach to student evaluation. To Tilghman, “expand the conversation” means moving beyond the grading policy.
“I think having conversations with chairs of departments — having conversations with department representatives and encouraging them to find as many ways as possible of giving students feedback about the quality of their work — is expanding the conversation,” she explained.
Tilghman noted that, as far as she knows, there are currently no plans for any additional University committees to further this dialogue.
Vanderbei said the Faculty Committee on Grading had discussed ways to better collaborate with department chairs and communicate the grading policy to the faculty. He said he did not know what Smith meant by “expand the conversation.”
Smith said she would engage and involve students as part of this larger dialogue. The USG, whose position has fluctuated between combative opposition to the policy under Lenahan and a more accommodating attempt to improve the communication of the policy in recent years, could potentially be an important player in Smith’s first years. Smith and representatives of the USG confirmed that they had met to discuss academic issues but had not extensively discussed grade deflation.
USG president Bruce Easop ’13 said in an email that the student government could not discuss its plans on grade deflation specifically or its academic agenda more broadly until the results of the Academic Life Total Assessment survey are released later this month. The survey asked students for their perspectives on the grading policy, among other student issues.
Since the grading policy was implemented in the 2004-05 academic year, the percentage of A grades in undergraduate courses has decreased from a three-year average of 47 percent in 2001-2004 to 40.1 percent in 2008-2011, according to a September 2011 report from the Office of the Dean of the College. A separate “Grading at Princeton” pamphlet for the current school year states that the average GPA of University students has declined by roughly one-tenth of a point since the implementation of the grading policy in 2004.
Malkiel, the architect of the policy eight years ago, declined to comment for this article.
“One of my operating principles is never to comment on anything that my successor may be doing or thinking, no matter what the subject and no matter what I may think about it,” she said in an email.
Malkiel has long-stated that she hoped other schools would implement a similar grading policy; to date, none have. Toward the end of her tenure as dean, Malkiel said she was in conversation with administrators at other universities who were interested in adopting a similar grading policy at their schools.At the December 2009 Whig-Clio debate, Malkiel said representatives of two other Ivy League universities had asked her to speak to their faculties, though she declined to name the peer institutions that had contacted her. In March 2010, Malkiel confirmed to the ‘Prince’ that she had “been in dialogue” with Stanford University about implementing a grading policy modeled on Princeton’s.
Since assuming the deanship, Smith said she has not had the opportunity to speak with other schools about expanding the University’s grading policy to other campuses. She said she was unaware if other universities were currently developing grading expectations modeled on Princeton’s policy.
Smith added that she did not think the lack of other schools following Princeton’s lead undermined the University’s position.
Because no other schools adopted a similar grading policy, critics of the policy argued to Malkiel that the limit on the number of A’s in a course placed Princeton students at a competitive disadvantage in graduate school admissions and employment opportunities. In 2009, the USG and Malkiel launched a project that allowed students to send an explanatory letter of the University’s grading policy to prospective employers or graduate schools.
Tilghman wrote in a November 2011 column in Princeton Alumni Weekly that there have been a number of misnomers about the grading policy, including the belief that students’ deflated grades disadvantage them in the job market.
To Tilghman, the controversy surrounding the policy is a communications problem and not a policy problem. She explained in an interview that addressing “misperceptions” like the competitive disadvantage argument is part of her desire to see the new dean “reframe the discourse.”
“It means considering not the purpose of the policy but how in fact the policy is understood by the campus and how it is practiced on campus,” she said.
In a December 2010 interview with the ‘Prince,’ Smith said she was “aware of the fact that some are concerned about [the grading policy’s] effect on future competitiveness.” On Tuesday, however, Smith said the data she has seen does not indicate that grade deflation has had a major effect on competitiveness.
“I understand that there’s concern, but my understanding of the data is that our students continue to do exceptionally well in these particular areas,” she noted.
Despite the acknowledged concerns, Smith said that during her time with students, the grading policy “rarely comes up,” which she said surprised her.
Other issues that more frequently arise in conversations with students, Smith said, will form the early part of her academic agenda.
The new dean said that her office has been working to enhance the University’s system of academic advising, recognizing the “crucial role” that it plays in the undergraduate education. Smith said her office is currently working with Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler to offer resources to students matriculating to the University between the time they accept the offer of admission and the moment they arrive on campus for orientation.
Additionally, the Office of the Dean of the College is piloting a program in Rockefeller, Mathey and Whitman Colleges that coordinate the academic advising that students receive from RCAs, peer advisers and Resident Graduate Students. Smith said these programs are an attempt to form strong “advising communities” beyond the traditional faculty advisor.
“This is partly in response to increased awareness that while students certainly value the advice and guidance they receive from faculty members, they also value and seek out the advice of more advanced students,” she explained.
Smith said she is also working on building a stronger sense of community within the residential colleges through mentorship programs, increasing opportunities for international study such as the Bridge Year and Global Seminar programs and expanding the Community Based Learning Initiative, which encourages faculty members to incorporate civic engagement components in their syllabi. She also explained that her office was investigating ways to strengthen thesis-writing groups for seniors.
Though Smith will try to carve out her own legacy and her own “signature issues” as Dean of the College, her tenure will in part be defined by how she distinguishes herself from her predecessor. Vanderbei said he did not think that Smith came to her position with an agenda to overhaul the grading policy dramatically. Yet he did acknowledge that Smith and Malkiel are different people and will therefore likely have different approaches.
“I don’t expect there to be major changes but I can’t state the future. I think there’s some sense it was a little bit painful for both students and some faculty, but all in all, I think it serves a noble purpose,” Vanderbei said. “It’s kind of a two-edged sword.”