University of Chicago Dean’s List made stricter; students object

November 22, 2019 • 11:30 am

Grade inflation is rampant on nearly every college campus, and that reduces the ability of employers or graduate schools to discriminate among applications. This is made even harder by the tendency of schools to stop using standardized tests (e.g., the SAT for getting into undergraduate school and the GREs for getting into grad school). What can you do when “all must have prizes”? How do you choose the best person?

While professors at the University of Chicago have also participated in grade inflation over the last few decades, the administration (and the faculty governing bodies) have resisted loosening academic standards. In fact, they have just tightened them in two ways. First, according to the student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, the requirements for making the “dean’s list”—a traditional honor given to American college students whose grades are above a certain threshold)—have been changed:

The College has also changed the requirements for the Dean’s List. Students who have a GPA in the top 20 percent of all undergraduates will be placed on the list at the end of the year. Previously, any student with a cumulative GPA above 3.25 for that year earned a spot on the Dean’s List.

The University made these changes by updating a section of the College’s Course Catalog. No general announcement was made to the student body.

In other words, this change, which restricts honors to only 20% of the students (still a remarkably high percentage compared to what I would consider “honor worthy”, and also lower than many other top colleges), may well render some students “dean’s-list-ineligible” compared to previous years. I suspect, given grade inflation, that the 20% cutoff will indeed render fewer students eligible for Dean’s List honors than previously.

Further, the College has initiated “Latin Honors”: that is, ranking the best-achieving students as “summa cum laude”, “magna cum laude”, and “cum laude” on their diplomas, also an honor that you can put on your c.v. In this case there are also cutoffs, but assessment is based on more than just grades. They’ve also created a class of honors for second-year students (my emphases in all statements below):

All students with GPAs in the top 25 percent of their major compared to a five-year average will graduatecum laude. Students in the top 15 percent and top eight percent will be eligible to graduate magna cum laude and summa cum laude, respectively, depending on a College committee’s decision. They will “review each student’s record to gauge broad engagement with the curriculum.”

The top 10 percent of second years by GPA will be recognized as “Robert Maynard Hutchins Scholars,” which “is designed to honor students who have performed exceptionally in their core courses and introductory courses for their major,” according to the Course Catalog.

I’m not sure what “broad engagement with the curriculum” means, but presumably it involves not just grades, but what courses you took. If you took easy “gut courses”, presumably you’d have less chance to get Latin Honors.

Well, so be it. But of course some students don’t like these changes. In a column in the paper, second-year author Elizabeth Winkler has several beefs:

 The administration did not announce the changesthe student body wasn’t notified, and moreover, three faculty members I reached out to said they were not notified as well, nor did the University publish a press release. Instead, they updated the College Catalogue. This lack of communication reflects as poorly on the administration as do the changes themselves, which are neither consistent with the honors policies of other top Universities nor, more importantly, in the best interests of students’ already-challenged mental health.

Well, yes, perhaps the College could have announced the changes more openly, but that’s the only criticism I agree with. The rest of Winkler’s beefs are along the lines of the last sentence above: the changes will challenge the students’ already-challenged mental health!

Presumably being at the University of Chicago is a prima facie challenge to one’s mental health! I vehemently disagree; it should be a liberating experience. But if if getting on the Dean’s List is your main priority, then you need to reassess those priorities. Yes, you can work hard to excel, or you can work hard because you love knowledge and want to cram as much as you can into your noggin during the one time in your life when most people can concentrate on their intellect, but you shouldn’t work hard simply to get on the Dean’s list or to win a summa cum laude on your diploma. Granted, getting honors is one part of excelling, but the acquisition of hard-won knowledge and analytical skills, and the thrill of a new realization, are the best parts of excelling.

Winkler continues to carp:

Why is it important for students to be able to self-assess whether or not they make the Dean’s List? Because I predict that not having a clear GPA cutoff will make students even more preoccupied with grades than they already are, and will cause them to struggle with more stress and uncertainty than they currently face. Given that University-provided mental health resources continue to be subpar, there’s no reason UChicago needs to add any extra stress to students’ plates.

Umm. . . . if students don’t know the grade-point cutoff, it seems to me that would make them less preoccupied with grades, as they don’t know what grade point average (GPA) they have to get to get on the Dean’s List!  To many, like Jon Haidt, students are largely engaged in casting themselves as mental-health victims because they have to work in college. (There are other causes, too, like excessive parental pressure, engagement, and overprotectiveness.) Colleges, too, tend to pathologize students by emphasizing safe spaces, hate speech, and microaggressions, but thankfully we have little of that at the University of Chicago.

As for the Latin Honors, Ms. Winkler decries their inception as well, saying that it will somehow increase competition and thus detract from the panoply of activities that students could be engaging in, like making friends and enjoying the city of Chicago:

As laid out by the Catalogue, Latin honors will reward students for prioritizing academics over every other aspect of their lives [JAC: not true, see above where other factors are taken into account]a disturbing prospect given how seriously I predict UChicago students will take the new awards. Students who care about these honors (and many will) will choose the highest-possible course load to maximize the “breadth and depth of [their] engagement with the curriculum outside of their primary major.” Instead of making new friends, exploring the city of Chicago, or enriching their lives with other extracurricular experiences, students will tack on an extra major, make space for a minor, and sequester themselves in libraries and in their rooms.

In my year and a quarter at this school, I have searched for interpersonal connection and have cried when unable to find it. I have stayed up past midnight trying to balance a rigorous academic calendar and commitments to new RSOs, have become schedule-obsessed only to realize how terrible that is for my mental health. I am lucky enough to have found wonderful friends in my house; yet, at times, I have still felt isolated, sad, frustrated, like I am fighting to create and maintain friendships with people from classes and RSOs. I know that many of my peers have also felt this way.

Would she then concur that all honors should be abolished? Wouldn’t that ease her burden? But that won’t work, either, because what employers really look at is tangible accomplishments, both in the form of grade-point averages and projects you’ve done. And if you’re aiming at graduate school, those places also look at student application essays, research done, and a host of other factors indicating how well you’d do in schools aimed at producing academics, lawyers, doctors, and so on.

The Maroon reports that the student government also passed a “resolution” about two weeks ago, urging the College to reconsider these changes and consult with the students if they want to make such changes. The Google document showing the resolution adds—and there might be some justification for this, but not a strong one—that any changes should not apply to current students at the college, but begin with next year’s entering class. Regardless, there is simply no reason for the college to consult with students to determine what honors should be conferred on what percentage of students. Can you imagine how that might turn out? All must have prizes!

And some STEM majors are complaining that—presumably because grades are lower in science-related courses—it makes it harder for them to get on the Dean’s List compared to, say, students in sociology, gender studies, and other non-science disciplines:

Second-year biological chemistry major Max Cohen said that the changes make the Dean’s List “more meaningful for those who are on it” but also “makes it even more difficult for STEM majors to achieve.”

“Achieve”? What he means is “achieve getting on the Dean’s list”. Every other criterion of achievement in science, including getting a decent grade, doing a project, publishing your work, and having the stupendous experience of finding out, through independent research, something that nobody has ever found before—all of these achievements aren’t affected at all.

You can tell me, “OK Boomer”, but that’s not an argument. What alarms me is the way college is now being pathologized, as if being in school itself is like being in a mental-health ward. I worked my butt off in college, and wound up as the valedictorian, but I never felt mentally ill, and didn’t work for the grades. In fact, until I was a well along in school I didn’t even have any thought about what I wanted to do in life. I just loved biology. I also loved fine arts, philosophy, Greek tragedy, and all the other courses that were new to me and that I was required to choose among in a liberal-arts curriculum.

I’m not saying that all students should do what I did, but I am saying that they should follow their inclinations and their hearts and not worry all the time about grades.  And why on earth waste precious time protesting the University’s policy on honors, not to mention how the college cafeteria cooks General Tso’s chicken?

26 thoughts on “University of Chicago Dean’s List made stricter; students object

  1. I’m sure that the students’ concerns aren’t about whether they’re given a high GPA or honors but with how they are perceived in comparison to graduates of other elite universities. If everyone held to the same standard, there shouldn’t be a problem.

  2. It appears that the Wikipedia link describes the monicker of a psychotherapy observation – I’m not sure that’s what was intended here – perhaps simply a reference to the hilarious scene in Alice in Wonderland?

  3. At most publicly-funded schools there is growing political pressure to increase retention and graduation rates, which is most easily achieved by making classes easier. And that in my experience is what is happening. There is implicit pressure to not fail students or discourage them by being a tough grader. This is further reinforced by reliance on student evaluations to evaluate faculty.
    The net result not being considered is that the value of a college degree continues to drop, even as the cost of getting one continues to rise. This, in the long run, seems like it would be an unsustainable trend.

    1. There is so much remediation with students now. Reports are run and the list of students that look like they are in trouble are seen to. Jeez. When I was in school they didn’t even care – come here or not we don’t care.

  4. Dr. David Baird, the former Dean of Seaver [undergraduate] College at Pepperdine University was an anomaly among many LA&S Deans. He regularly pointed out the average GPA given out by our Natural Science Division, around 2.2, and challenged the other Divisions to be as rigorous as NS. Some Division’s course averages were well above 3.0, and David would remind the Division Chairs that as an elite undergraduate institution, earning a B or an A should actually indicate above average and superior achievement. David is a historian and firmly held that all academic divisions from science to business should be rigorous.

    1. I was an undergraduate philosophy student. Faculty were often, apparently, told that their grading standards should align more with other departments in at least Faculty of Arts. There was a problem, though, with this and with Baird’s idea: selection bias on the part of the students. McGill undergraduate programs in philosophy were often selected by the bright and (more the point) ambitious students who used as a pre-law or (sometimes, even) pre-med program. So there was a tremendous bias introduced that way.

  5. I doubt it will make one feel any better to look at history on this matter but I will mention it anyway. Just started reading a book, Thomas Jefferson’s Education, Alan Taylor. A look at student/faculty relations at William & Mary during the 1760s might surprise all of us. It certainly did this to me. In 1760 alone, in July new replacement professors arriving from Britain led a student riot against the townspeople. A key flashpoint remained the power to discipline students. In April 1769, students rioted in the dining hall, making waste and havock to furniture, plates and windows. A code of silence would cause much trouble at Virginia colleges in the next generation. There is a lot more but will just say, it was not a bed of roses.

  6. Perhaps this is beyond the topic at hand, but I add this commentary by Paul Nurse that includes his view on letters of recommendation that come from the United States :

    … he says he doesn’t even bother with them when sorting through applicants. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I don’t think it’s good.

    1. To be fair, he implies letters from Europe aren’t very much better.

      Part of the problem, I think, is that academics and administrations are terrified of kickback if they fail to say a candidate is marvellous. I know that HR in the company I once worked for were so obsessed with the possibility of being accused of bias, that every letter of reference they issued for a departing employee just said, only, “Mr X worked for [company] from 19xx to 19yy. He was employed in the [xxx] department as a [position]”. And that was all! Totally bloody useless, but they couldn’t be accused of bias or favouritism.


  7. In connection with “students’ already challenged mental health”, I can report a related development at the University of Washington. An “Outreach” functionary in one department is working on plans for the department to have an Escape Room. I guess a policy of Inclusion for paranoids (a hitherto marginalized minority group) has to include a Safe Space for them to hide in when the stress becomes overwhelming. I have no say in the matter, of course, being Emeritus, and thus having made my own Escape years ago.

    1. I look forward to finding out which uni will be the first to force professors to hold classes for agoraphobics. The teacher will have to come to the student’s dorm rooms and teach the class separately for each.

      We’ll probably have to wait only a year to find out at the rate things are going.

  8. I find it peculiar that “mental health” is never clearly defined in stories like these – especially since symptoms of poor diet, poor sleep, and such problems with a physical basis can be perceived as a problem with “mental health”. Factor in skipping sleep to study, drinking alcohol, and – like the Dodo – it’s hard to know where the problem starts or ends.

  9. It would be very easy, interesting and valuable to know just what are, in effect, these various percentages, such as Chicago is now going to use, in all other universities and (cow?) colleges– and with respect to different academic disciplines–and historical versions of same. One could even use these to make a list of which institutions, and disciplines, of supposedly higher learning should have the phrase ‘mickey mouse’ as an adjective applied to them. (There are probably 3 or 4 newer versions of that phrase since my day.)

    That would be only one of many criteria of course.

    I think teaching mathematics made relatively simple, and bullshit-proof, this sort of evaluation for me to make. But even in that discipline, especially once one has gotten past cookbook material like most early calculus consists of, there is more judgement, wisdom or lack thereof, and creativity involved than many non-mathematicians seem to realize.

  10. These days, students will complain if they miss DHL by a point or so. I am old saying this but in my day that was just too bad. I had that happen to me one year (my first year) & I’d never dream of complaining but now admins proactively review things like this and get sign offs from Deans. It’s too much I think as that’s a lot of admin overhead.

    I’m sad as my alma mater is using “with distinction” instead of the Latin Honours though it still will put “summa cum laude” on the certificate. I think it’s a nice tradition. I also think only summa cum laude is recognized so the other Latin honours aren’t there. Ya got it or ya don’t I guess. When I graduated summa cum laude I had no idea what it was or that it appeared on your certificate….I just was trying to get the best marks I could.

    1. I graduated cum laude from a mediocre university, majoring in history. I didn’t work too terrible hard, (although much harder than the average student) at least compared to later biology and chemistry courses I took later at another slightly less mediocre university. I barely scraped by with a C- in chemistry, and busted my arse to get high Bs in biology. The departmental differences are striking and speak volumes. None of that matters now, none of it has helped me gain worthwhile employment; I’m lucky to make around $25,000 a year, but it’s twice what I earned while in university. I was a single parent, worked full time, took 12 hours a semester, and I had real mental health issues. My idea of a safe space was a working car and a place for us to live, and while I wanted to succeed, my grades or honors were of little consequence. And now that I’ve worked in primary and secondary education for around 12 years, seeing how kids are promoted to the next grade no matter what, regardless of whether they have demonstrated even the most tenuous grasp of the material, never mind mastery, I have even less use for grades. I don’t care about your little letter grade or silly GPA; or as the late physics professor Julius Sumner Miller used to say, I am not interested in what you KNOW, but what you UNDERSTAND. But kids, parents, school boards, principals, superintendents, and legislators only care about grades, GPA, and, above all, the Almighty Standardized Test! Or, to put it another way, we are f*cked.

      1. Fifty years ago, a standardized test helped me immensely. I had a mediocre undergraduate record, and then worked in a university research lab for two years. The faculty noted that my work exceeded what they were expecting, and encouraged me to take the GRE and apply for graduate school. I scored quite high, was admitted on probation, and finished the BA to PhD program in four years. And the rest of the story is history 😉

      2. Lol none of it really matters even work performance. It’s all about charm and self promotion and that’s what you see people obsessed with at jobs: not working hard for the good of what they are doing, not taking pride in good work, but promoting themselves and being seen so they can get a raise and claw themselves up the hierarchy. And then people are so shocked that narcissists and sociopaths as world good ally all of it.

  11. “Harvard, which revised its system in 2002 after 91 percent of the previous graduating class received honors, relies on departmental recommendations and college-wide GPA cutoffs. It limits honors recipients to no more than 60 percent of graduating seniors.”

    I guess 60% is more stringent than 91%, but still. I’m not sure honors is worth that much. College is a chance to learn some things, and find out what you like and don’t like. Honors might help you get in the door somewhere, but you are going to have to take it from there anyway.

  12. Consult with the students about the criteria for grading students and awarding honors to students? In short, no. Hell, no.
    When they earn their degree and later earn further credentials to be a professor, then and only then can they have some say in how professors should grade and recognize their students.

  13. “in the best interests of students’ already-challenged mental health.”

    Well we all know that ‘Muricans are completely barmy, two cans short of a six-pack, out of their tree, have a screw loose, and belong in the rubber room at the funny farm, but I hadn’t expected one of them to proclaim it quite so blatantly. 😎

    (With apologies to denizens of this list who do have all their marbles).

  14. One thing on this that also comes to mind:

    For some reason, McGill Faculty of Arts and Faculty of Science (at least when I was there) grants three *kinds* of academic honours to undergraduates:

    One, the deans list mechanism, which is a top 5% / 10% thing; i.e., a relative ranking.

    Two, a honours degree / first class honours degree which is governed by an absolute standard (3.0/3.5 GPA in faculty of Arts), additional course work in the field (60 credits vs. 36) of concentration, and in many cases, an honours project or thesis. So this is an absolute standard (in one sense, anyway)

    Three, faculty of arts only this time, a recognition of “distinction” or “great distinction” which were granted for those *not* doing honours but who also made it to 3.3 / 3.5 (I think) GPA – again an absolute standard.

    One thing which came up at least amongst Faculty of Science students was the question of compensation for extra course credit. I graduated with 102 (or 96, if my satisfactory/unsatisfactory graded course doesn’t count) in a 90 credit program (as is usual for undergraduates from Quebec) and did not get recognition for that – other than finishing a minor as part of my honours program, which is hard. The FoS thing comes up becuase apparently at their convocation, GPAs of the medal winners (another honour!) were announced – and they were *higher* than the 4.0/4.0 that corresponds, at least in a 90 credit degree, to *exactly* straight As. (One 3 credit A- gives 3.99, IIRC.)

    I mention this all because there are many ways to reward academic standing and maybe a general look is in order. Also because it is so weird to see so many similar yet different things done!

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