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Grade inflation plan passes

In an almost 2 to 1 decision, the faculty voted Monday to approve the anti-grade inflation proposals released earlier this month by the Committee on Examinations and Standing. Faculty debated the proposals for about 90 minutes and then approved them, 156 to 84.

"We had a thoughtful and extended discussion today and now we need to get to work to implement the proposals in the most thoughtful and sensitive way possible," Nancy Weiss Makiel, dean of the college and one of the primary authors of the proposals, said after the faculty meeting.


The vote is the first step by a selective university in recent years to curb a steady rise in grade — a nationwide trend — and is the culmination of more than two weeks of contentious campus debate conducted under national media scrutiny.

The approved proposals set an "expectation" — rather than a "limit," as originally proposed — of 35 percent A-range grades among undergraduate courses in each department and 55 percent A-range grades in independent work, after an amendment set out the new language.

The new guidelines will take effect this fall, though Malkiel noted that the proposals' provisions would be phased in over a three-year period. The faculty room of Nassau Hall was filled to capacity a little after 4:30 Monday as Malkiel introduced the proposals. Anticipating a number of faculty concerns, Malkiel said the proposals were "by and of the faculty" and would not negatively affect academic freedom.

"These proposals do not try to tell faculty how to teach," Malkiel said. "No faculty member should fail to give an A to a student who deserves it. We are asking faculty to enter into a social contract to bring grade inflation back under control, back to the way we graded at Princeton in the late eighties and early nineties."

Malkiel also addressed a concern among students that small departments will be aversely affected by the proposals because they do not have the large introductory classes that Malkiel has said will undergo the most significant reduction in grades.

Instead, Malkiel said every small department except one had large enough introductory classes to offset the impact of the proposals on upper-level seminars.


Faculty opinion on the proposals was mixed. Some faculty members heralded the proposals as a sign of Princeton's leadership within the Ivy League while others expressed concern with the potential negative impacts on both faculty and students.

"It seems to me that if this proposal passes, I will no longer be on an honor system when grading," English professor Esther Schor said. "Instead, I will be expected to conform to a one-size-fits-all grading policy, and with this policy what is to prevent a department chair from holding things like teaching assignments over a junior faculty's head to get them to comply? This is a liability to junior faculty."

Other professors argued that the proposals would provide greater guidance to junior faculty as well as help students stand out from their peers at other universities when applying to jobs and graduate school. After presentations and debate, David Botstein, director of the Lewis Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, motioned to end the debate and vote. John Fleming '63 of the English department then proposed a closed ballot vote.

Christopher Eisgruber '83, who will take over as provost next fall, argued against a closed ballot, saying secrecy would violate a tradition of openness in faculty voting.

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The faculty voted in support of the open ballot.

Despite broad support for the proposals, some faculty members felt that debate had been cut off too soon and that not enough consideration had been given to a closed ballot vote.

"I was gratified by the richness of the faculty discussion and dismayed at the abrupt calling for a vote, when the issue was just coming clearly into focus," said Caryl Emerson, chair of the Slavic languages and literatures department.

A committee will also be formed over the next few months to collect data on grading within each department and examine the results of the proposals every fall, with a major review scheduled at the end of a three-year phase-in period.

The committee will take into account special circumstances that may prevent departments from complying with the plan's provisions and then fine-tune implementation accordingly, Malkiel said.

USG President Matt Margolin '05 said the USG will also work to monitor the implementation of the proposals this fall and ensure that student concerns are addressed. The focus on grade inflation at Princeton began in 1998, when the Committee on Examinations and Standing first released a report tracking grading patterns at the University from 1973 to 1997.

The report revealed a steady rise in undergraduate grades and set the stage for additional reports and proposals attempting to stem the tide of rising grades.

Last spring, the Committee on Examinations and Standings returned to the issue only to find that, despite its efforts to work with individual departments, grades had continued to rise.

"We took these findings to the department chairs last spring and they told us that we had a collective action problem," Malkiel said. "The chairs gave us the specific mandate to formulate a proposal with uniform grading standards for the University and we on the Committee worked closely with them to refine the proposal."

The proposals were released to the faculty earlier this month. Malkiel subsequently emailed them to the student body, a day after releasing them to the faculty. However, the communication had been earlier than anticipated, she said, because a faculty member gave the proposals to a colleague in Boston who in turn leaked them to the Boston Globe.