Provost's Speech

Convocation Address

Provost and Dean of the College Andy Shennan
September 4, 2012

Good afternoon everyone. May I add my warm welcome to the members of the faculty and administration who are here today–some new to the college and many old friends and familiar faces. I’d like to welcome again the members of the Class of 2016, whom I met, along with many of your families, on move-in day. I hope you have enjoyed your orientation and are excited now to have the academic year underway. I’d also like to offer a warm welcome back to those of you in the Classes of 2014 and 2015. And, last but not least, I salute the senior Class of 2013, impressive in the academic regalia you will wear at Commencement next spring. 

Looking out, it occurs to me that many of you may have no idea who I am or what a provost is. And why should you? Everyone has a general sense of who a president is, but a provost…? We have only had one for a couple of years, and I dare say even a few of my faculty colleagues are a little fuzzy on the concept! If you have heard of me, you probably know I’m one of those deans on the third floor of Green Hall. But what does a provost do? In a nutshell, my job is to coordinate all the moving parts that need to operate in unison in order for the College to offer the outstanding education that we do, now and into the future: the people, the budgets, the facilities, the programs, the plans. Obviously, you–the students and the faculty–are doing the essential work of the College, the work of intellectual exploration and transformation; like other deans, I largely facilitate that work. 

And one of the ways in which, to a modest extent, I can perhaps facilitate your work is to put before you issues that have proven persistently challenging for Wellesley, and that you will confront together in the year ahead. The issue I’d like to focus on today has been controversial on college campuses for years–mostly because universities and colleges have been unwilling or unable to do anything about it, but here at Wellesley precisely because we have done something about it. I am referring to the phenomenon of grade inflation. At Commencement, before we read the names of graduating seniors, I ask the audience to hold their applause until we have read all the names. It never works. The applause always starts with the very first name and continues for the next five hundred and eighty. Today, I’m tempted to ask you to hold your boos and hisses until I’ve finished. I realize that Wellesley’s famous (or notorious) grading policy is hardly standard fare for an inspirational occasion like this. But if you’ll hear me out, I hope you’ll agree that it raises critical questions about our shared intellectual life here, and perhaps points to a surprising conclusion.

Wellesley College has always stood for academic excellence. Ten years ago, however, our grading practices were threatening to undermine that commitment and that hard-earned reputation. After rising rapidly through the 1990s, our average grades were higher than the grades at almost all of our peer institutions. Across the college, more than 50 percent of grades were either A or A-. In many academic departments, more than 60 percent were A or A-, and faculty in those departments were finding it increasingly difficult to evaluate their own students’ transcripts; for example, to determine whether they were qualified to do honors work in their major. With average grades higher than 3.5, we were heading toward a kind of unacknowledged credit/non system, where grades in the A range were satisfactory and any other grade was viewed as unsatisfactory. We were also heading toward an unfair two-tier system, with a growing gulf between the grading pattern of high-grading departments and the grading pattern in other departments, where a fuller range of grades was still being used. This disparity was creating unequal access to honors, prizes, and distinctions, giving dubious incentives to students in their choice of courses and majors, and misleading students about their academic performance. 

Between 2002 and 2004, the entire college engaged in a conversation about these problems and what, if anything, we should do about them. The conversation was led by a committee, the Curriculum Committee, which then, as now, included students and faculty members as well as administrators. At the time, I remember being told by a colleague at another institution that the only way in which we would have any hope of addressing grade inflation was by administrative fiat. Of course, that was the last way in which it could be done here. A challenge for the whole community, it could only be addressed by the whole community, with the faculty taking the lead. In 2004, after prolonged debate, a new policy was approved by our Academic Council. The policy stated that an appropriate maximum average grade in 100- and 200-level courses with enrollment of 10 or more should be a B+. An earlier version of the policy had suggested a quota on A grades (similar to the one that Princeton University was in the process of instituting). But our faculty didn’t like that idea. The policy they approved didn’t impose a quota. It didn’t force instructors to grade on a curve or to artificially depress a student’s grade in order to meet the B+ rule. It simply said that the kind of rigorous standards we expect in a Wellesley College course would generally be consistent with an average grade no higher than  B+. Instructors were not to be punished or reprimanded if their courses had an average above B+; they were simply expected to explain why a higher average had been appropriate.

This new policy was introduced in the fall of 2004, and within a short time college-wide average grades fell from around 3.5 to around 3.3. Since then, grades have risen slightly, but have remained, broadly speaking, in line with the policy. The two-tier grading pattern hasn’t disappeared altogether, but the disparity between grades in different departments has narrowed considerably. With more consistent standards being applied across the college, your eligibility for Latin honors is less likely now to be determined by the department you happen to major in.  I know that students often refer to our policy as the “grade deflation” policy, but in truth Wellesley grades have, if anything, gone up slightly in the past five years. They are at a higher level now than at any time in the college’s history except for the decade between approximately 1993 and 2003.

Wellesley has been one of the very few leading institutions to tackle this problem successfully. So what have been the lessons of our experience? First, we’ve learned that reducing grades isn’t particularly popular or comfortable. No surprise there. Among faculty, there has been a wide range of unease. Some (especially but not exclusively those who choose to give a lot of As) have objected to the policy as an intrusion on their academic freedom. Others have been concerned that too many colleagues haven’t followed the policy closely enough–haven’t held their averages below 3.3, haven’t justified their non-compliance to the Curriculum Committee, haven’t adhered to a social contract that the faculty made in 2004 and has reaffirmed on two occasions since. 

Naturally, the policy has generated even greater unease among students (and, I can say from personal experience, many parents and alumnae too). Students have raised questions about the policy’s effect in the classroom, suggesting that it fosters undue competitiveness among students and adds stress to an already stressful environment. And then there is worry about the effect after graduation. Does the policy make it harder for Wellesley graduates to gain access to graduate programs, to internships or to jobs, when they’re competing against students graduating from schools that have allowed grade inflation to run rampant? In our monitoring of Wellesley graduates’ post-college careers, we have detected no evidence that the grading policy has had that kind of a negative impact. Indeed, admission rates to professional schools have improved since 2004, and graduates in recent classes have been more likely to be accepted into their first-choice graduate schools than previously. That said, students have rightly pushed the college to communicate about the policy more effectively to external audiences and to study its impact more systematically. Just this summer, we redesigned the college’s transcript to include a description of the policy right on the transcript, and I have written a full-page letter explaining our policy, to be included with every transcript that is sent out. We are also working with a group of faculty to investigate as comprehensively as possible the impact of the 2004 change on our students’ post-college careers.

Along the way, we’ve also learned some sobering lessons about internal communication. When the new policy went into effect, we all recognized that there would be a difficult period of adjustment, as students who had experienced the old grading standard would now be graded according to the new policy. We expected that the Classes of 2005, 2006, and 2007 would be particularly concerned about the impact on their transcripts. But once those Classes had graduated, I think many of us assumed (in retrospect, quite naively) that students who had known no other grading system would just accept the policy as the “new normal” and that much of the heat and intensity around the issue would fade. We could not have been more wrong. What happened, instead, was that a mythology quickly grew up around the policy, a mythology that was spread via FirstClass, social media, and word of mouth, and transmitted from one generation of Wellesley students to the next. We learned that if just one or two faculty members, who perhaps misunderstood the policy themselves, justified a surprisingly low grade by reference to it–“I would have liked to give you an A, but I’m not allowed to”–the rumors spread like wildfire. When Dean French and I were invited to Senate last spring, we heard stories about faculty members being punished for high grades, about faculty being compelled to grade on a curve, about grades being artificially lowered at the end of the semester to meet the policy. Such misconceptions about the policy have proliferated rather than faded. Frankly, the College has been very slow to respond, but now at least we are beginning to do so. At the instigation of students and faculty on the Curriculum Committee, we have posted a set of informative FAQs and have written to all faculty members to ensure they have an accurate understanding of the policy. I don’t expect the myths to disappear, but I am hopeful that providing more accurate information will counteract the rumors and misconceptions, and increase students’ confidence in the rationality of the policy.

The fact that grade inflation has been such a pervasive problem at so many schools suggests that its roots are systemic. Both the graders and the graded are operating under pressures and constraints that could easily contribute to rising grades. Course evaluation systems, for example, like our SEQs, may influence some instructors to raise grades in order to improve their ratings. Academic departments view themselves as competing for student enrollments, and it is tempting to use higher grades (consciously or unconsciously) to encourage enrollments in fields where they might otherwise be low. And students, I don’t need to tell you, feel pressured to manage GPAs with an eye to graduate school admissions or post-college recruiting. You’re understandably very grade conscious, and the easiest way for the College to accommodate to your grade consciousness is to allow grades to rise. The truth is, of course, that none of us really likes to be evaluated, especially by such a crude measure as a letter grade. When I share with colleagues the draft of an article or a book review or even a lowly memo, if I am honest with myself, what I really want to hear is: This is excellent. If I had been a student in 2004, I would have had precisely the same objections that our students expressed. When the grades I was most likely to receive were A and A-, I might have become inwardly skeptical about the candor of the feedback I was receiving; maybe I’d even have lost respect for some of the courses or instructors. But let’s be honest–I would have been hearing what I wanted to hear.

To have resisted all those pressures, to have taken the position that the College owes our students something more than the condescension of inflated grades–this is a remarkable achievement. Why grade at all? From an educational perspective, the reason is to give students useful information about the strengths and weaknesses of your work, to guide you to well-informed choices about your future course of study, and to motivate you to improve. I believe we should take pride in our faculty’s willingness to put these educational principles first and not to give in to a credentialing mentality. 

But here’s the twist: Any college idealistic enough, against all conventional wisdom, to address the problem of grade inflation ought to be idealistic enough to tackle other, still greater, challenges. Surely we can all agree that grades are not the most important element of an education. They are a summation of a student’s academic work, but not the essence or the goal of the education itself. Could this be the time for us to move on–not to back away from our policy, but to the contrary to declare that our commitment to rigorous standards, like our commitment to women’s education, is here to stay? It’s a given. And what we want to do now is to identify the new educational challenges on which to focus our idealism and sense of purpose. 

As I conclude these remarks, let me offer the example of one such challenge that I believe will be front and center in our immediate future. It is this: How will we respond to the potential of online learning to transform, either very much for the better or very much for the worse, the experience of a residential liberal arts education? Like grade inflation, the proper place of online learning is a question that can be endlessly deferred, and dismissed as too vast and complicated for a single institution, especially a small college, to tackle. But like grade inflation, online learning raises fundamental questions about how students learn and how faculty teach. Even more than grade inflation, it may threaten the very essence of our educational model or give us the capacity to enhance our model beyond what we can readily imagine. This is precisely the kind of challenge worthy of our faculty and students. And, in the months ahead, I hope we will begin to tackle it together.

Again I’d like to offer my warmest welcome to you all, as you enter upon this, Wellesley’s 138th academic year.