University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 pointed to the near-constant criticism that surrounds grade deflation as well as recent feedback received from alumni as the strongest indicators that the policy needs review.
“If anybody had said to me on the day that I voted for the [grading] policy … that a decade later this would still be a major topic on campus, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Eisgruber said in an interview Wednesday morning.
In the most important policy review so far in his presidency, Eisgruber charged a committee of nine faculty members with reevaluating Princeton’s grade deflation policy on Monday. The committee trwill not include students.
Eisgruber revealed that the review was discussed with the Board of Trustees at a meeting in late September and that the committee members were selected mainly from the two University committees that deal with grading and examinations. He also detailed the scope of the review, explaining that it will focus on students’ experience at Princeton and, as a result, will not review the impact of the policy on the admission yield.
The grade deflation policy, enacted in 2004, states that no more than 35 percent of undergraduate grades given in a department should fall within the A-range.
“I think Princeton, as a research university, takes the commitment to undergraduate learning more seriously than any peer,” Eisgruber said. ”But I think that this conversation [surrounding the grading policy] … in some ways becomes more prominent than our commitment to teaching.”
He said he found the input from off-campus alumni especially persuasive since it came from people who he felt didn’t have a personal stake in the issue.
“When you leave campus and someone says to you, ‘You know, I think the students really have a point with these arguments’ … that can change perspectives,” Eisgruber said.
In fact, the announcement of the review came the morning before Eisgruber appeared in front of over 1,000 alumni at an event in New York City, the first of a number of appearances that will take him to three continents to meet with alumni.
But the continued controversy over the policy isn’t the only evidence Eisgruber cited as motivation for a reexamination of the policy.
At the NYC event, Eisgruber cited a study by UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School published two months ago that found students who come from schools with tougher grading standards are less likely to earn admission to choice graduate schools.
“I haven’t had the chance to look into that study in enough detail to know whether or not its arguments hold up,” Eisgruber said of the study in the interview. “If the arguments are true, there would be serious concern about our policy.”
Similarly, he explained that he was disappointed no other schools had followed suit after the introduction of grade deflation, a sentiment echoed by policy proponent and former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel in an interview earlier this week.
“I certainly would have hoped 10 years ago that … we wouldn’t still be going it alone,” Eisgruber said. “I would’ve thought some would have followed our leadership position.”
But while the review will not focus explicitly on admissions issues, Eisgruber said he does worry about the impact of the policy on prospective students’ perceptions of the school. In NYC, Eisgruber said that Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye had shared her concerns with him that the grading policy was negatively affecting the University’s yield. He noted that this concern had, however, been taken into account when deciding to form the committee.
“If [prospective students] are defining us in terms of the grading policy, that’s a problem,” Eisgruber said in the interview.
While Eisgruber acknowledged the concerns behind the decision to review grade deflation, he said he is still hesitant to make an assessment of the policy’s effectiveness before the committee finishes its review, noting that it is not clear yet if these concerns are well-founded.
However, he said that even if the review concludes that the policy is, in fact, the best possible one for the University, the administration would still push to better convey the policy specifics.
“At a minimum, if we’re to continue with the policy as it currently stands, I think it would be very important to have a statement … explaining why we are doing that and what the benefits of it are,” Eisgruber said.
Currently, a letter explaining grade deflation is attached to every students’ official transcript.
Charging the committee
Eisgruber also shared some details as to how the committee set to review the grading policy was formed. He said that he engaged in discussions over the summer with many University stakeholders about whether reviewing the policy was a good idea. Then, after discussing the policy in a Sept. 20 meeting with the Board of Trustees, the selection of committee members commenced.
According to Eisgruber, the committee’s members were chosen from two standing faculty committees — the Committee on Grading and the Committee on Examination and Standing. Other faculty members outside of these two committees were chosen to help review the grading policy due to their extensive experience in teaching many students, he said.
The committee, he said, will explore what Eisgruber sees to be the crux of the grade deflation debate — whether or not the policy is serving the University’s “pedagogical objectives” in making Princeton a better learning environment.
The committee will attempt to answer two main questions: First, are the current objectives of grade deflation the right ones, and second, is the current policy the best possible one in terms of its effect on students?
To the surprise of some, Dean of the College Valerie Smith — Malkiel’s successor and the leader of the office tasked with enforcing grade deflation — was left off the committee. Eisgruber said that Smith was not on the committee because they considered it important that the committee be made up of only faculty members.
“Whatever comes out of this committee, it’s important that the faculty be able to own the policy,” Eisgruber said in explaining why an all-faculty committee was necessary.
Eisgruber emphasized that — despite Smith’s official absence from the committee — she had been and would continue to be extremely involved in the conversations surrounding the review of the grading policy. He further noted that Smith’s office would be staffing the committee.
He added that complaints from the student body regarding the grading policy have always been taken seriously, but that up until this point, these simply have not matched with the data the administration has gathered. He said these complaints were also unsurprising since grade deflation often results in lower grades for students.
However, Eisgruber said he is open to the possibility that the committee will find a drastic need to reform the grading policy.
“We may discover,” he said, “that we should have been listening more carefully all along.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article mischaracterized the involvement of the Board of Trustees in the decision to reevaluate the grading policy. Eisgruber and the trustees discussed potential changes to the policy at a late September meeting. The ‘Prince’ regrets the error.