Arts and Sciences honors requirements tightened

Arts and Sciences (A&S) faculty members voted last week to tighten the requirements for Latin honors since over half of last year’s graduates received them on their degrees.

“My sense is that this needed to be addressed somehow,” Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser said. “It’s not that we want to be draconian about it, but we felt that the numbers were too high and didn’t represent the correct thresholds anymore.”

Starting for the class of 2009, the resolution will raise the cumulative GPA requirements from 3.40 to 3.50 for cum laude, from 3.60 to 3.65 for magna cum laude, and from 3.75 to 3.80 for summa cum laude.

The adjustments should reduce the total number of honors recipients from their current level of 55 percent to around 42 to 43 percent, and highest honors recipients from 10 percent to six or seven percent.

Glaser presented the resolution to change Latin honors with Professor Joe DeBold, chair of the Honors Committee, at last Wednesday’s A&S faculty meeting.

The changes were originally meant to take effect for the class of 2006, but objections amongst faculty members led to an amendment delaying them until the graduation of the class of 2009.

“Student perception must be accounted for,” one professor said at the meeting. “I’d feel ripped off if I came in under one set of guidelines and they were changed.”

The resolution also changed several other requirements for Latin honors. In order to qualify for cum laude, students must now have five marks of A or A- within their major, instead of the current minimum of four.

Additionally, students trying to earn summa cum laude will now be required to earn an A or A- in only four out of the five distribution areas, instead of all five, as listed in the current Tufts Bulletin.

Some faculty members expressed concern that this last change would disadvantage transfer students, whose credits at other institutions would not count toward distribution requirements.

Finally, summa candidates will no longer have to produce a letter of recommendation from outside their department.

Last week’s resolution marks the first adjustment to Latin honors since 1991. Before then, the GPA thresholds for honors were 3.00, 3.40, and 3.60 for cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude respectively.

In 1991, the thresholds were raised to their current levels, except for summa cum laude, which was initially set at 3.80 and lowered to 3.75 one year later.

Honors requirements have been tightened to counter rising student performance over the past 15 years, especially in terms of GPA. Faculty members attribute this change to a stronger body of incoming Tufts students and grade inflation.

Average student GPA rose from 3.17 in 1992 to 3.33 in 2002, and the average SAT score for this year’s freshmen is 60 points above current seniors’.

At Harvard University, administrators recently revamped the Latin honors system after discovering that 90 percent of Harvard graduates received an honors degree.

Instead of a GPA threshold system, students graduating from Harvard after June 2005 must be within the top five percent of their class to achieve summa, the top 20 percent to reach magna, and the top 50 percent for cum laude.

Dean Glaser and the Honors Committee believe that a system of fixed percentages like Harvard’s would not be appealing to Tufts.

“It doesn’t really take into account how difficult some majors are,” DeBold said. “Some departments award higher grades more frequently than others. If you look at grades from science or math related departments, their average grade tends to be lower.

Students seem supportive of the new rules, perhaps because no one currently at Tufts will fall under its purview. “What’s an honor if everyone gets it?” sophomore Jake Becker asked. “I never liked when people got an award for being average.”

At Tufts, cum laude is awarded to anyone with a sufficient grade point average; but GPA only determines eligibility for magna or summa cum laude.

To receive a diploma marked magna cum laude, students must also earn a departmental recommendation. To obtain summa honors, students must secure a recommendation and pass a vote by the entire University faculty.

Certain departments have additional requirements. The biology and psychology departments will not nominate a student for summa honors unless he has also conducted research. Other departments closely examine students’ final body of work, including final papers.

Unlike other universities, Tufts does not require students to complete an honors thesis to be eligible for Latin honors.

“It’s wonderful to get honors, but it’s not going to make or break your life,” Glaser said. “You can have a perfectly wonderful life and career without it, but it is a recognition of what you’ve accomplished here and how proud we are of you.”

Becker shares Glaser’s relaxed attitude toward honors degrees. “I don’t mind the raise because I’m not close anyway,” Becker said, laughing. “So it makes me look better that less people have it.”