Summa Circumscripta

When 116 seniors (6.8 percent of the class) received summas at Commencement in June of 1996, observers noted that the elite crowd, for the first time, spilled down the Memorial Church steps. The number of degrees awarded summa cum laude that year was 46 percent higher than in 1995. The previous record had been 83 (4.8 percent of the class) in 1992. Summas have ordinarily gone to between four and five percent of the graduating class, an historic average that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) unanimously voted to restore early this year by modifying the criteria for earning highest honors. As a result, this June's commencement saw 75 seniors, or 4.8 percent of the class, graduate summa.

Research last fall by several deans revealed that the bumper crop of 1996 was not a fluke. A similar percentage of 1997 graduates would have been honored had FAS not taken action. The system for awarding summas from 1985 to 1996 was based on a grade-point-average (GPA) cutoff established each year by a vote of the College's Administrative Board. During the last decade, the Ad Board slowly raised the cutoff point to maintain a steady number of summa degrees. But since 1993, the cutoff has been stalled at 14 (on a 15-point scale), a point above which differences in GPA become less meaningful, some board members felt. Reluctance to raise the GPA cutoff led to the higher number of summas awarded last year.

This rigid and formulaic system could, at the same time, prevent worthy students from receiving a summa. Addressing faculty members before their vote, dean of undergraduate education David Pilbeam said, "All of us can remember pleas from the floor...that a particular student below the cutoff should qualify for a summa by virtue of some particular and outstanding aspect of their performance." Yet such changes weren't possible when faculty members couldn't vote to honor one individual and ignore others higher on the scale.

Under the new rules ratified March 11, departments recommending a student for summa will be expected to show not only a high GPA, but also "at least one other indicator of the candidate's mastery of the field, such as performance on a substantial piece of independent work or on a written or oral general examination." Furthermore, "the candidate's total record must demonstrate outstanding work across a range of fields," such as "outstanding performance in upper-level courses not directly related to the concentration." A six-person subcommittee of the Faculty Council, with two representatives from each of the broad curricular areas (humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) will now review the records of students nominated for highest honors and recommend those who should graduate summa.

Professor of English and comparative literature James Engell warned colleagues that the new system, which resembles the Phi Beta Kappa selection process, will involve painful decisions. But "in the end," he said, "it's a more scrupulous way" to award summa degrees.

As for the Minimum Requirements

Prior to tightening the requirements for graduating summa, the faculty raised the College's minimum academic requirements. In a report, dean of the College Harry Lewis suggested that by raising the minimum requirements, students performing below their potential could be identified earlier in their Harvard careers, and more of the chronically underperforming students could be required to take time off. In his report, the dean made a strong case for the benefits of time off for those struggling academically. "The new 'minimum requirements' are indeed minimal," wrote Lewis. The old minimum requirements, which required only one satisfactory grade per term, were "extremely low" (21 satisfactory letter grades are required to earn a Harvard degree). The definition of a satisfactory record was also changed: it no longer permits grades of D+, D, or D-, except in the case of first-term freshmen.


As with summas, degrees awarded magna cum laude have increased steadily over the last 30 years.

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