Recipients of the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence from 2015-16 were composed of a group of sophomores and juniors who were overwhelmingly male — in a two to one ratio.
According to Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler, due to the selection process for the prize, this is an outlier year. The gender breakdown often fluctuates for the prize because it is chosen based on academic excellence. Approximately 45 freshmen and 45 sophomores are chosen each year, Fowler said.
“It really varies when you have 45 people,” Fowler said. “This year it was a two to one ratio but actually that’s not always the case.”
“Sometimes there’s a gender disparity in who’s in the top 10 percent of the class, sometimes there’s not,” she said.
She said that, for example, some years there might be a lot of winners in one particular residential college.
The University announced 87 total Shapiro Prize winners this year, hosting a dinner for the winners, faculty members, and administrators in Chancellor Green on Sept. 27. 30 were women and 57 were men. Last year, there were 58 women and 36 men selected for the Shapiro Prize.
“Traditionally, we have a dinner and speaker and all the winners receive the same book written by the speaker,” Fowler said. The prize was endowed by former University President Harold Shapiro GS ’64 and his wife Vivian Shapiro, according to History Professor Emeritus Nancy Malkiel. Malkiel served as dean of the College when the award was originally established.
“I think the impetus was simply to have a way of recognizing students for academic excellence,” Fowler said. “Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate academic excellence?”
Fowler declined to release the gender breakdown of award winners for previous years, because the award is part of a student’s education record, although the names are printed in the commencement booklet.
A female award winner noted that recipients were seated by year and residential college at the dinner. Administrators and residential college faculty were seated with winners as well. According to this award winner, her table had 10 people and only two of them were women.
“I just thought ‘OK, this is fine,’” she said. “I noticed this as a function of the fact that I was the only humanities person at my table, because I’m always hyper aware of it.”
She said that when she looked around the room, “the whole room represented the disparity at my table.”
She also said that she didn’t know any other female winner this year, but knew several of the male winners prior to the award ceremony.
However, another award winner said that the gender disparity at the dinner wasn’t as pronounced.
“Now that I think about it, there were more males at my table than females, but it wasn’t a glaring thing to me,” he said. A two-time award winner, he said that he thought the prize winners last year in Butler were all female.
“It wasn’t something we really talked about it at the dinner,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t a big concern.”
Fowler said that to choose the award winners, she and the residential college deans review the top 10 percent of the class in terms of GPA. Because the students are recognized for their freshmen and sophomore years, their departments are not observed, Fowler said.
“We don’t do is strictly by GPA because it only tells you one thing about a student’s record,” Fowler said.
She explained that having a 4.0 in eight classes and passing one of her classes through pass/D/fail is different from a student who took 12 classes but received a B+ in one class. The award takes into account complexity, breadth, and rigor of the student’s program. She said it was “not enough” to have a 4.0 in six classes and that they look at the whole program.
“Grades are important but they’re not the whole capacity of your education,” Fowler said. “It’s nice when you get good grades but it shouldn’t be the driving force of your education. It might make you make narrower choices than you might want to make. That’s what P/D/F is for.”
Fowler said that the GPA is largely considered in honoring this “purely academic award.”
“What they told us was we were selected for the award based on a combination of your academic performance and the breath of your academic pursuits,” one awardee said.
A female award winner however, wondered about a perceived skew towards the sciences in award recipients. She said that selection committee places an emphasis on A+ grades but the classes that largely give out A+s are in non-humanities disciplines. Because non-humanities disciplines are often graded on the curve, if a student places outside of the curve, he or she receives an A+. However, if a student writes an excellent paper, they will still most likely receive just an A, she said.
Fowler said that they account for this in the way the University calculates GPA because an A and an A+ are weighted the same. She said that the selection committee is “mindful” of the difference in grading between the humanities and non-humanities.
“A lot of students take science classes,” Fowler said. “All the engineers are 25 percent of the population, [so] it’s not surprising that a lot of them would be represented.”
However, a female award winner said that this year’s gender disparity did make her have doubts, though it did not make her question the award.
“Did I get this award so they could at least have some females here or did I get it in spite of the fact that they have no regard to the gender breakdown?” she said.
“I don’t think having a quota fixes anything, but I think there is an impressive number from groups that identify as women and men that could have won the award,” she said. “Even if it’s the top kids are men but don’t have the highest GPA, the University could account for that by looking at men or women because it is holistic.”
Fowler said that they look at the transcript without regard to race or gender, but said that people might notice, "as we do", imbalance in the selected group of winners.
“I felt like if I raised this concern with an administration it would come off as ungrateful and I shouldn’t feel that way I don’t think,” a female awardee said. “They’re never going to release the criteria.”