Grade Inflation Resolved

TO: President Lawrence H. Summers

FROM: Task Force on Grade Inflation

SUBJECT: Findings and Recommendations


Illustration by Lynne Foy

It has now been several months since you asked us to prepare a full report on the problem of grade inflation at Harvard. Even though the following report is incomplete, as well as several weeks late, we hope you will agree with us that it deserves an A+.

To bring you up to date on the current state of grade inflation here in Cambridge, we offer the following three examples as anecdotal evidence of the phenomenon:

* An economics major received an A on a final exam for identifying "supply" and "demand" as two key elements in the law of supply and demand.

* A graduate student in classics received an A- for a paper in which he asserted that the Theban plays of Sophocles included Xena, Warrior Princess.

* A history concentrator received summa cum laude honors for his senior thesis, Positive Identification of the Body in the Tomb of General Ulysses S. Grant.

While we are aware that you battled another kind of "inflation" in your old job, we must stress that grade inflation, Harvard-style, is a different kettle of fish entirely. It cannot be wiped out, as you (jokingly?) suggested at our last meeting, by having "that sourpuss Greenspan speak at Commencement." (Mr. Greenspan has already spoken at a Harvard Commencement, in 1999, and not only did his address have no discernible effect on grade inflation, it may have actually precipitated the stock-market collapse of the following year.)

How, then, to wipe out grade inflation? Here, President Summers, is the good news: the Task Force strongly believes that Harvard should make no effort to wipe it out, since--and we know that we run the risk of raising some eyebrows by saying this--grade inflation is Harvard's best friend.

Yes, grade inflation has become a cherished, integral part of life at Harvard, as much a part of the University landscape as easily impressed foreign tourists in the Yard or hilarious factual errors in the Crimson. It's why many of the best high-school seniors in the country apply to Harvard in the first place. Even our competitors in the Ivy League have figured this out: witness Yale's recent decision to change its motto from Lux et Veritas to "Yale: Even Easier Than Harvard."

For this reason, we are concerned that eliminating or even reducing grade inflation at Harvard would be tantamount to killing the golden goose. It is the recommendation of this Task Force, in fact, that grade inflation be allowed to flourish like the burgeoning hothouse flower that it is, sucking every last nutrient from the soil and blocking out the sun from all plant life in its monstrous shadow.


Illustration by Lynne Foy

With this lofty goal in mind, then, it is our conclusion that Harvard's grades are not nearly inflated enough; if anything, they are woefully deflated, especially in light of the academic harlotry of our Ivy competitors, who blithely disperse A's the way a mother gives out Kleenex in cold season. We are leaving our rear flank woefully exposed to opportunistic rivals like Princeton, which now offers honors to any student who can successfully identify the ingredients of a Singapore Sling. Harvard, we believe, can--and must--do better. Starting next fall, we should start granting straight A's to all Harvard undergraduates immediately upon matriculation. Bold? Some might call it that. We call it something else: Harvard at its best.

In summation, President Summers, we believe that Harvard's happy experience with grade inflation leaves us with only one open question: what other aspects of Harvard life could be similarly inflated? Perhaps this is the work of another Task Force, but we would like to leave you with the following suggestions:

Bursar's card
Platinum CrimsonRewards Card
Pforzheimer House
Four Seasons Quad Spa and Resort
Loeb Drama Center
24-stage Loeb DramaPlex
Weld Boathouse
Harvard International Boatport

Andy Borowitz '80, a humorist for the New Yorker, was named Best Humor Columnist on the Net for 2001 for his website, .


You might also like

The Roman Empire’s Cosmopolitan Frontier

Genetic analysis reveals a culture enriched from both sides of the Danube.

Tobacco Smoke and Tuberculosis

Harvard researchers illuminate a longstanding epidemiological connection. 

Discourse and Discipline

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences broaches two tough topics.

Most popular

Small-Town Roots

Professors’ humble beginnings, concentration choices, and a mini history of Harvard and Radcliffe presidents

Vita: Fanny Bullock Workman

Brief life of a feisty mountaineer: 1859-1925

Being Black at Work

Realizing the full potential of black employees

More to explore

Illustration of a box containing a laid-off fossil fuel worker's office belongings

Preparing for the Energy Transition

Expect massive job losses in industries associated with fossil fuels. The time to get ready is now.

Apollonia Poilâne standing in front of rows of fresh-baked loaves at her family's flagship bakery

Her Bread and Butter

A third-generation French baker on legacy loaves and the "magic" of baking

Illustration that plays on the grade A+ and the term Ai

AI in the Academy

Generative AI can enhance teaching and learning but augurs a shift to oral forms of student assessment.