September 15, 2004: Letters
Letter Box Online
PAW welcomes letters. We may edit them for length,
accuracy, clarity, and civility.
As a recent graduate, I am aware of the high percentage of undergraduates who receive top marks in many of the courses at Princeton. Nevertheless, it was my experience that, in most cases, these “inflated” grades were well deserved and reflected the ever-increasing caliber and work ethic of students.
My greater concern is the effect Princeton’s new grading policies might have on undergraduates’ career aspirations. As an analyst at an investment bank, I’ve become involved in the recruiting process for summer interns and full-time hires. One of the first items looked at on a candidate’s résumé is the GPA and rarely is any consideration given to the grading policies, lenient or rigorous, at the candidate’s school. Many institutions have GPA cutoffs below which they will not consider an applicant for a position.
Princeton students could find their résumés being passed over while those from inferior students at peer institutions are considered. This could well be the case for the graduate school application process as well. Should anyone expect, for example, the admission committee at a small state-chartered medical school in California to know that a 3.3 premed GPA at Princeton is equivalent to a 3.7 premed GPA at one of its peer institutions?
In its reform, the University does not seem to have weighed the possibility that its students will find themselves at a disadvantage to undergraduates from other schools in the competition for summer internship and postgraduate opportunities. It is the University’s obligation to its students to acknowledge such realities of the real world in shaping its grading policy. Dean Malkiel has justified the proposed grading-policy changes by saying that they will provide students with greater clarity on their academic performance, allowing them “to know [when their] work is really superb.” I’m sorry, but I’d wager that the average Princeton student is rightly and rationally more concerned with being best positioned to fulfill his long-term career ambitions than knowing whether his politics paper is marginally better than that of the kid sitting next to him in precept.
One of the biggest factors in Princeton’s continued popularity is the excellent career opportunities available to its students both during and after college. Curbing grade inflation would curb these opportunities, inevitably damaging the school’s attractiveness to prospective students. Furthermore, Princeton relies heavily on the charitable giving of its alumni. It’s not inconceivable that Princeton graduates, finding themselves in less favorable career paths, would be less willing and able to give back to their alma mater as generously as past alumni. The administration’s proposed grade-inflation policies have much wider, graver implications than it seems to have taken into consideration.
Alex Rosenfeld ’03
I am glad to see the administration taking steps to limit the number of A’s. I suggest the University adopt a system of anonymous grading for exams. Every law school I know of works on a system of anonymous grading for exams. The system enjoys broad support by both faculty and students, and it is simple to administer.
From a student’s perspective, the system ensures the integrity of the professor’s evaluation of the exam. The professor can be confident that he or she evaluated each exam on its merits without being influenced by preconceptions about the author. Anonymous grading would help return the grading curve to an appropriate shape. And the professor is saved from having to deal with students seeking an upward grade adjustment. The student who is interested in discussing the exam will still appear during office hours, but those whose interest is limited to grade adjustment will stop taking up a professor’s valuable time.
Thomas B. Roberts ’75
It appears that the professional graduate schools are dictating to Princeton how to grade because grades, class rank, and standardized test scores are all they consider for admission, not the quality and rigor of the undergraduate program. Isn’t a C at Princeton equivalent to an A at many other not-so-rigorous universities? I think so. Apparently, the graduate schools of law, medicine, and business do not subscribe to that conclusion. How many of their applicants have ever submitted a senior thesis just to graduate? Therefore, grade inflation exists to satisfy their conditions for admission.
Nearly all students at Princeton, by the fact they were admitted on a very highly selective basis, are A students. Once enrolled, the students find themselves graded on a comparative basis with each other. Within that august circle, when the bell-shaped grading curve is applied, very few should be receiving A’s; the majority would fall in the larger midrange of C– to B+. The very nature of the curve demands that the very highest mark would be given sparingly.
For Princeton to pander to the graduate schools by inflating grades makes a mockery of the curve, which should be restored to its rightful shape in the academic galaxy.
Laurence C. Day ’55
I’m surprised that many, but not all, of the letter writers in the July 7 issue responding to the grade-inflation article (Notebook, May 12) seemed to have missed the point. In order for grades to have any meaning, their distribution must have a nontrivial standard deviation. The problem is not so much grade inflation as it is grade compression. Those against any solution to the problem seem to be saying that there should be no way for the exceptional student to distinguish herself from the rest of the 47 percent who are getting A’s. Although the 35-percent rule may be far from the perfect solution, I think most reasonable alumni would agree that doing nothing is unacceptable. If we can’t expand the standard deviation in one direction, maybe we should expand in the other direction and create new grades such as AA and AAA, as we do for eggs, battery sizes, and minor leagues.
B. Brock *93 s’87
Although I have had affiliations with Rutgers, Williams, UCLA, and the Uni-versity of Pittsburgh, and have been a professor, department head, and dean, I think of my five years at Princeton, as a graduate student, teacher, and assistant to Secretary of the University Alexander Leitch ’24, as the best in my academic life.
A half-century ago, when I lived at the Graduate College, the undergrads called it Goon Hill, and we were “geeks.” The curriculum followed the old Germanic premise that you couldn’t master the language and literature of your own time unless you had traced them from their beginnings. Thus, we studied Old English to read Beowulf and Middle English to read Chaucer. I can still see Professor D.W. Robertson writing Old English conjugations on the board with his right hand while erasing them with his left, to make room for the rest.
After getting the M.A degree, I expected to have a couple of years to write a doctoral dissertation — but it was not to be. A faculty member had died on the Friday before fall classes began, and, as the required freshman course was Shakespeare, whose work I knew well, and it was too late to get a proper replacement, I was appointed assistant instructor and given two sections of the freshman Class of 1956. I think now of the great 19th-century Harvard biologist, Louis Agassiz, who recalled that, on his very first day, “I spent the first 20 minutes telling them everything I knew about biology, the second 20 minutes everything I knew about life, and for the rest of the hour repeated myself.” My students were a good bunch, but, of course, were always looking for weak spots, which I generously supplied. They were also generous when I scored one back. After walking them carefully through a difficult passage in Shakespeare, a student said, “That was brilliant, Mr. Evert, but do you think an ordinary person would understand it?” And I replied, “Perhaps not, but I thought you had come to Princeton so you wouldn’t be an ordinary person.” This begat a great drumming of feet on the floor, which was then a mode of approval.
I remember the Class of 1956 with affection, and I still have their grade sheets in my files — but I won’t tell. I always read the class column in PAW — though a bit unnerved that so many are now retiring from their working careers.
Walter H. Evert *60
I am a member of the Old Guard who was back for my 70th reunion and rode in a cart in the P-rade. I watched the younger classes march and was struck by the length and slowness thereof. It was longer and slower than the Death March on Bataan, thanks to the babies and dogs, which, in my estimation, do not have a legitimate place in the P-rade.
I recognize that the younger classes are larger than they used to be and that Princeton is now co-ed, but in the interest of a shorter and quicker P-rade, I suggest that participation be limited to persons 18 or older.
N. Conover English ’34
I was upset to read President Tilghman’s Commencement address when she said: “The Vietnam War, like today’s war in Iraq, divided us and raised fundamental questions about our policies and values.”
Without going into the reasons for “escalation of the war” in Vietnam, it should be noted that President Nixon succeeded in ending the war.
I, like many of my classmates, served four years in World War II, and later I served 18 years in the Naval Air Reserve, retiring as a Navy captain.
Those who wish to raise “fundamental questions about our policies and values” and refuse to serve our country in time of war should suffer the consequences. As general counsel of the Selective Service System, I saw to it.
In testifying on March 8, 1974, before the House of Representatives Subcommittee of the Judiciary, I stated that 19,271 men failed to register or to register timely for induction. Of these, 10,153 violators had their indictments dismissed for the reason that they submitted to induction or upon an F.B.I. investigation it was found that their violations were not willful. Of the remaining 9,118 violators, 1,186 were acquitted, while 7,932 were convicted — 3,961 were put on probation and 3,971 were incarcerated.
The above is as it should be. When our country calls you to duty and you fail to respond, someone has to go in your place. Further, it is an honor to serve and save our country in times of peril.
Walter H. Morse ’42
Professor Thomas Espenshade *72’s analysis (Notebook, June 9) raises several questions, the most heartbreaking of which is the dilemma of those applicants today who enjoy no such preferences. Recently, I made my first foray into recruiting an outstanding student to Princeton. This young woman graduated from a top high school and had perfect S.A.T. scores (i.e., 1600) in her junior year. She had written a novel, she was an officer of her graduating class, and she was an athlete competing on the school’s women’s soccer team. As is the case with many whose talents lie in writing, her 4.0-plus grade-point average was not as stellar as those of some of her classmates whose concentration is in science or mathematics. The objective natures of those fields lend themselves to what might appear to be a higher level of high school achievement.
Unfortunately, I didn’t persuade her to focus her hopes on Princeton until it was too late to apply early admission. The decision to apply early grants applicants an admission preference that is not included, so far as I can tell, in Professor Espenshade’s research. Still, she did decide Princeton was her first choice, motivated largely by the creative writing program and by a conversation which she had with an English professor. Hence, it came as a disappointment for me to see Princeton reject her. I can only imagine the effect on her. As you may have guessed, she doesn’t benefit from any of the other preferences listed in Professor Espenshade’s article.
Hence, I have a question for Professor Espenshade and his colleagues on the faculty. Why do they leave the crucial admission decision to administrators? Why doesn’t the faculty directly oversee this process? Why, especially, when the faculty would never dream of leaving the Graduate School admission decisions to administrators? Are faculty members not equally as responsible for the quality of the choices made at the undergraduate level as they are in the choice of graduate students?
Jack Cumming ’58
I enjoyed reading the articles about Walden Pond and Henry David Thoreau in the June 9 issue. I thought the following bit of information might be of interest; the text is from the book New England and the Sea (1972). “In the late 1850s, virtually every New Eng-land village with access to tidewater began to cut ice from its ponds and ship it out. Thoreau, watching the process on his Walden Pond, wrote ‘thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Mad-ras and Bombay and Calcutta drink from my well.’”
John Bernard ’49
Photos: Princeton University Archives
In the July 7 From the Archives photo, I am the oarsman in the fourth seat counting from the back. I believe the long-haired gentleman in front of me is Tom Craig ’76. Crew is an intense sport, and most of the others dropped out. I lasted the full season but decided after freshman year that college should be more than just eat, sleep, study, and row — not necessarily in that order. I returned to the sport after college and now frequent Lake Carnegie in my own single scull. I row at a much more leisurely pace than was promoted by Mike McLaughlin, the freshman coach of the 1972—73 season. Since I only rowed one year, the picture has to date from the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973.
Bill Katen-Narvell ’76 s’78 p’08
Editor’s note: We heard from a number of readers, including Bob Mast ’76, Jonathan Price ’75, Terry Ryan ’77, and Dave Tweardy ’74, who identified the men in the boat, front to rear, as Dave Tweardy ’74, Scott McKee ’73, Philip Lyman ’74, Bob Mast ’76, Richard Ressler ’74, Jim Black ’76, Dan Abuhoff ’75, and Bob Carter ’73; Bill Sargent ’74 is standing. There is some disagreement about the student in the fifth seat from the front. Bill Katen-Narvell ’76 writes that it is he; others believe it is Chris Dietemann ’75 or Richard Ressler ’74.
The picture of the band featured at the top of the Class Notes column in the May 12 issue is from the fall of 1975. The band marched to Palmer Stadium before every home football game, going through 1879 Arch and down Prospect. The band is being led by drum major Terry Thiele ’76.
Julie Askins ’77 s’77
Our July 7 story about the Class of 1929 misstated the tuition in 1924. Total fees amounted to $980: $400 for tuition, $288 board, $165 room rent, $55 heat and lighting, $10 library use, $10 infirmary, $10 physical education, and $42 washing.
A May 12 memorial misstated the date of Donville Raye Buchanan ’89’s death; it was Oct. 30, 2003.
PAW regrets the errors.