Arts and Sciences’ New Look

Harvard’s FAS debuts a new leader and look—and discusses grading.

Hopi Hoekstra


At its first faculty meeting of the year, on October 3, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) debuted its new look and new leader. As announced last March by President Lawrence S. Bacow, the University’s leader will no longer chair FAS meetings—a decision that ended a tradition and more appropriately recognized the role of the dean in running such meetings (as well as saving successor presidents a lot of time). Claudine Gay, then FAS dean, now president

(and the first FAS dean in Harvard annals to be promoted across Harvard Yard from University Hall to Massachusetts Hall), accepted his logic. That timely decision spares the new FAS dean, Hopi Hoekstra, appointed in late June and in office since August 1, the awkwardness of having her immediate predecessor chair the meetings of her own faculty.

In her doubly new roles as the faculty’s leader and chair of its meetings, Hoekstra called the session to order promptly at 3:00 p.m. and, having secured unanimous approval of minutes from last May (the first official faculty action on her watch) said to laughter, “Wonderful, we’re off to a good start.”

Following presentation of a couple of memorial minutes on the lives and services of deceased professors, Hoekstra used the regularly scheduled dean’s business to make a forthright, endearing introduction of herself: “For those of you I haven’t met yet, I’m Hopi Hoekstra, dean of the FAS”—eliciting a vigorous round of applause from the packed Faculty Room. She proceeded to fill in the picture a bit by describing her scholarship—the lingua franca of faculty colleagues of course, and in her case research involving evolutionary and molecular biology, ecology, genetics, genomics, and field work: a broad range of life sciences, and an appealing demonstration of multidisciplinary science. The joy of scholarship, she said, is “the freedom to follow connections” where they may lead—in her case, now into University Hall, from which she was proceeding to meet fellow professors, graduate and undergraduate students, and postdocs; attending receptions for new faculty members; and indulging in informal chats in Harvard Yard. She thanked colleagues for their openness and candor, and looked forward to continued meetings and opportunities to learn about the FAS throughout the fall.

In the meantime, Hoekstra took the initiative, announcing three actions of interest to FAS members.

Rethinking faculty meetings. First, and consistent with the new way of chairing faculty meetings, she said it was an appropriate moment to rethink the meetings themselves. She has established an advisory committee to ponder how they might be made more productive, conducive to full discussion of important issues, and a source for building “academic community” to enhance FAS’s work.

The “Research Minute.” Second, following her example of outlining her intellectual interests and credentials, Hoekstra said that beginning with the next faculty meeting, she was initiating a “Research Minute,” in which someone would make a presentation so colleagues could learn about one another’s scholarship: a deft way of modeling what FAS’s work is really about.

Faculty Room Imagery. Third, later this term, Brenda Tindal, the chief campus curator (a position recommended by FAS’s task force on signage and visual culture), will consult with professors on how the Faculty Room—now hung largely with portraits of past Harvard leaders—might be reimagined to reflect the more diverse community of today.

“I’m sincerely looking forward to all the changes ahead,” Hoekstra said.

Admissions. Following a few more points of information, but before the docketed items, she reported briefly on deliberations about changes in procedures since the Supreme Court outlawed affirmative action in admissions last June. Harvard has modified its practices to comply with the law, she noted: undergraduate admissions officers no longer have access to applicant’s self-reported data on race or ethnicity, nor to related aggregate statistics for the applicant cohort. Interviewers have been trained on the new boundaries. And admissions essays have been restructured, with five short, mandatory prompts in which applicants can talk about their life experiences, who they are, how they might contribute to Harvard, activities (from extracurriculars to employment to family support), and how the College might benefit from their presence. Finally, recruiting has been broadened.

Unlike the College, which employs a large admissions staff to deal with the deluge of applicants (more than 62,000 in a recent year), graduate school admissions are handled by faculty committees within each department, discipline, or program (there are 57). They are being briefed, in small groups, on the new rules.

After recognizing newly tenured faculty members (including five in sociology), and conferring on those without a Crimson degree an honorary A.M., Hoekstra directed the first question period. By prior arrangement, Phillips professor of early American history Joyce E. Chaplin—speaking for herself, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell and Lea professor of the history of science Naomi Oreskes (all strong advocates of fossil-fuel divestment, and of environmentally and socially responsible investing)—queried why TIAA-CREF was the servicing entity for faculty pension plans, given its investment in the coal industry and in forest-clearing agriculture in Brazil. Ritu Kalra, Harvard’s new vice president for finance and chief financial officer, explained that the University investment committee had put recordkeeping services out to bid in 2018, and TIAA was the least expensive provider. Although its name appears on the webpages faculty members use to access plan information, she continued, far more assets are invested in funds managed by Vanguard, including both targeted retirement funds (which are the default investment option) and such offerings as its fund that filters out holdings in industries such as alcohol, adult entertainment, gambling, weaponry, and fossil fuels, and also evaluates labor and diversity standards maintained by companies in which it might invest.

The Docket. In an election free of polling, campaigning, or competition, the faculty elected Putnam professor of organismic and evolutionary biology David Haig parliamentarian for the year—always a comforting presence beside a dean, and perhaps particularly a new one. Given rising incidence of COVID-19 cases, Dr. Giang T. Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services, reported on campus conditions and encouraged all present to get booster vaccinations and fall flu shots. He also encouraged all to be tolerant of those who mask, a wise precaution as respiratory-disease season spread (and a sprinkling of faculty meeting attendees were masked).

Academic Matters

Course Registration. The third item was a report on previous-term course registration (which replaces shopping week), as enacted by the faculty in the spring of 2022. Gillian Pierce, associate dean of undergraduate education, reported that all was in readiness: the course drop/add policy has been updated, so students can proceed without faculty permission; faculty members are now obliged to provide course descriptions and at least some sort of syllabus information earlier, so students know what they are registering for; advising has been moved up on the calendar, so it takes place before students choose courses; the underlying technology has been adapted to pull this all off; and the student, faculty, and administrator committee charged with overseeing everything exists.

FAS registrar Erika McDonald applied the castor oil, reminding faculty members that in order to realize the benefits of earlier registration (teaching, rather than chaos, the first week of classes; better assignment of teaching spaces and teaching fellows), they had committed themselves to course configurations and sections for next spring term by October 16; final syllabuses by October 25; and direct enrollment in sections and laboratories at pre-set times, by October 16. One other implication of all this (which may further irritate critics of previous-term registration): students must declare their concentrations by October 25 of the third semester, before registration—and to meet with the appropriate advisers earlier still. Looking ahead, course planning for fall 2024 must begin soon, the faculty were reminded (or warned), and be completed by the middle of next March. FAS’s vote on the course catalog, long a feature of May meetings, will now occur at the March meeting.

For students and their teachers alike, it is a sweepingly new world, or at least academic calendar.

Undergraduate Cross-Registration.

Dean of undergraduate education Amanda Claybaugh brought forward for a vote an amendment of the faculty’s 2017 policy on cross-registration. The subject, broached in the spring of 2022, then prompted debate over whether a measure to simplify procedures was in fact a stalking horse for a more substantive change that would permit undergraduates to shed some of their liberal-arts classwork for more preprofessional instruction. Undergraduates can take MIT courses without limit or procedural hassles; under the 2017 policy, they can take eight credits in other Harvard schools, out of a total of 128 required to graduate, “without scrutiny.”

Claybaugh’s proposal is for unlimited undergraduate cross-registration in classes offered elsewhere in the University—a step intended to encourage intellectual exploration, and perhaps to relieve enrollment pressure on certain large concentrations. Courses taken through cross-registration may count for concentration or secondary-field credit, but will not be included in grade-point average calculations (an effort to prevent cross-registration as a means of gaming GPAs; see more on grading below).

She noted that the proposal pertained only to students’ elective courses, not to General Education or concentration requirements. She further observed that there are natural limits to students’ cross registration: the non-FAS schools can be a schlep, they follow different class hours, and in many cases don’t allow undergraduate enrollment. Accordingly, few undergraduates take two courses by cross-registration, and it is the rare undergraduate who pursues three. Finally, she said, professors might note that the purported differences between FAS and professional school courses might be overstated: lots of faculty members in fact hold dual appointments, and many professional school professors hold liberal arts doctorates. Among the popular cross-registered courses are a Kennedy School offering on the philosophy of technology, a Divinity School offering on the New Testament, and a Graduate School of Design class on housing and urban development.

Her presentation was apparently persuasive: the motion carried unanimously, by voice vote.

Grading: “Inflation” vs. Compression

In something of a surprise, Rakesh Khurana, Harvard College dean, and Claybaugh then presented a “Report on Grading at Harvard College,” dated last February. It had been commissioned by Khurana in 2022 (rather than as a result of any faculty motion) “in response to growing concerns among the faculty over rising grades,” as the report puts it.

The report merits reading and reflection. It cites four “distortionary pressures cited by faculty”:

•concerns about correlations between high scores on course evaluations and course grades;

•concerns about enrollment and/or interest in attracting concentrators to a department;

•“a desire to be judged favorably by students”; and

•concern that grades may negatively affect students’ academic or professional prospects (medical or graduate school admissions) or eligibility for prizes, fellowships, and so on.

As phrased, the first three of these appear to be faculty concerns about their prospects, evaluations, and feelings (although the second could also reflect concern that students might shy away from fields with perceived tough grading); the fourth pertains to students’ professional and academic aspirations. In this sense, none of the concerns appear to bear directly on what the report describes as the academic purpose of grading: to “evaluate a student’s work but also communicate feedback from instructor to student about what a student is learning and how to improve.”

A general rise in grades results in “compression”: less distancing among those ranked, which the report repeatedly cites as a challenge for awarding honors. And in an era of compression, of course, students hoping for honors designations would have a strong incentive to avoid a class that awards A minus- or B plus-range grades, since a single one could reduce her or his GPA sufficiently to put the prize out of reach.

The report offers evidence on what is happening. The mean undergraduate grade in academic year 2002-2003 was 3.41 on a four-point scale; that drifted up to 3.80 in 2020-2021 (the report is silent on possible pandemic-year effects that year, perhaps inducing particularly lenient grading). The share of A grades rose from 60 percent in 2010-2011 to 79 percent in 2020-2021—and rose in all divisions.

There is variation in grades by course type, according to the report: lecture courses have the lowest mean grades; tutorials and other formats have higher grades. (The report is silent on whether this affects the distribution of A grades across divisions, from the lowest, engineering and applied sciences, to the highest, arts and humanities: do students and teachers work more closely together, typically, in one division vs. another?)

Finally, the report concludes that grading “compression is not necessarily evidence of inflation.” Indeed, “The higher proportion of A grades could be due to improved teaching and students achieving at higher levels rather than to lower standards.”

Experiments at other institutions—ungraded first-year classes, flexible drop or pass/fail options, mandated caps on A-range grades, publishing median course grades on transcripts—tend to have unintended, negative consequences, according to the report. The latter, for example, provides an incentive for students to game their course selections to avoid those with tougher grading (“enrollment increased in more leniently graded courses”).

The report finally adopts a proceduralist approach, recommending that departments receive information on median grades for their courses each year, for departmental discussion; annual conversations among faculty about grading criteria and norms in their fields; grading criteria for assignments “based on learning objectives for the course,” shared with students; and expanding prize criteria, as other institutions do, to extend beyond GPA. On the latter, the report notes, Berkeley, Columbia, and Princeton use multiple measures to select students for their highest academic honors, including personal essays, letters of recommendation, and consultations with departments about the depth, breadth, and rigor of courses students have chosen.

Although the report touches on pedagogy—and thus what students might learn, and how—it does not connect those hints to the underlying question of grading as a method of evaluating the quality of work and incentivizing intellectual mastery. Thus, for example, it notes in passing (emphasis added), “There are classes, such as Expository Writing 20, where students receive feedback and revise their work before receiving a grade. Practices such as these are likely not only to reduce grade compression but also to ensure that assessment achieves its primary goal: to improve student learning.” One wonders whether that practice is commoner in writing-intensive arts and humanities courses than in, say, problem-set-based STEM offerings—and what the effects might be if the pedagogy were more widely applied, in any field.

Similarly, the report notes that grading may not measure what it is intended to measure, particularly “when course grades are based on only a few, high-stakes assignments, when grading criteria are not transparent to students, and when grades are viewed as a mechanism for sorting and comparing students to one another rather than as a direct reflection of student mastery of course material.” If there are such cases at Harvard (the report is silent on that), the College might want to direct its efforts to course design, instruction, and teaching training—major issues in pedagogy and in learning success. But that may be for another day.

In the event, the report prompted one of the most vigorous discussions at a faculty meeting within memory. Professors were clearly agitated about many aspects of grading—foremost among them, the inherent tensions between trying to encourage students’ subject mastery versus trying to make distinctions among students: ranking them for external purposes.) As an example, in the ensuing discussion the point was made that Computer Science 50, the hugely popular introductory course, is designed so that students can practice and revise their work until they master the skills: in other words, it aims to have every student learn to code, and therefore earn an A. So it places all its emphasis on mastering material, not on ranking performance.)

In her prefatory remarks, Claybaugh noted that the latter function was compromised by grade compression, leading to “shadow systems” of assessments (faculty letters of recommendations for prizes, fellowships, or graduate school applications; student loading on of extracurriculars to prove their distinction). All that, she said, resulted in “a significant misdirection of energy.”

She felt the evidence on grade inflation was less severe. Nonetheless, she thought the situation called for faculty discussion to articulate clear grading standards, and how to apply them, perhaps informed by better data, more consistently provided to departments, by the office of undergraduate education and other sources.

Faculty discussion. Among the many points raised in the meeting were:

•The apparent decline in administering traditional three-hour exams—and a question about whether that correlated to grade inflation (a point not yet answered in the research).

•Whether faculty members are seeking to encourage student learning, progress, and holistic performance—and thus to assure them of their competency, so they won’t resort to artificial intelligence to boost their results—or emphasize the distinct levels of performance exhibited by students within a course. There was further discussion about whether the rise of AI represented such a huge challenge, and opportunity, that this was the moment to rethink the purposes and application of grading standards.

•Whether the best means of informing students about their mastery of course material was a form of feedback, from which people benefit in most contexts—particularly when given a chance to revise their performance (see the comments on Expos 20, above)—or a single point or metric of evaluation. Khurana made this point, and the related one: that grading tries to do too many things, and those functions need to be disentangled.

•Given that complexity, one speaker suggested abolishing letter grades, and moving to narrative assessments (of the sorts already done for fellowship and prize letters)—a huge commitment of work, but perhaps something to “lean into” on behalf of students and their actual learning in a course.

•The conflict between course rigor, which might produce tougher grading, and the desire to attract students or, for teaching fellows, favorable evaluations—and therefore to grade leniently. The latter point was raised, poignantly, by a lecturer whose continuing appointment, he said, and therefore ability to teach students important material, was significantly shaped by his course evaluations. (Given this incentive, and its probable effect on inflating grades, another speaker suggested making student course evaluations narrative, too, rather than simple numerical scores—and making the evaluation of exams a double-blind process: i.e., removing the instructor from reading exams.)

•Several faculty members noted that FAS’s faculty handbook already has grading standards, and that discussing them with teaching fellows at the beginning and end of term could have a salutary effect. The same effect might be had by reminding students of those standards at the beginning of a course.

•Professors note that new colleagues get essentially no information on Harvard grading norms and practices: they imbibe the standards, or make up their own.

•To address compression, a final speaker said, the FAS would almost certainly have to craft and impose a uniform grading curve for all classes.

Khurana suggested that the discussion looked at the distribution of grades, but not grading practices. He felt the discussion itself was positive, and an invitation to departments to talk among themselves about desired learning outcomes, evaluation, and how to share those norms and standards with both new professorial colleagues and students. At its most elevated, he said, such a discussion contributed to FAS’s sense of “what is our purpose” academically. At the very least, it was a good way to begin articulating the faculty’s goals and means of encouraging learning and recognizing excellence.

Hoekstra, her formal decanal debut complete, with the chair’s gavel in hand, thanked Khurana and Claybaugh for their report and the discussion it prompted (and it was a good, substantive one), and adjourned the meeting.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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