It’s coming. You can feel it in the air. The Princeton campus is seething with passion, the combination of sunlight, bikinis and intellectual over-stimulation whipping the undergraduate body into a virtual frenzy…but over what? Look out, pundits and wags. It’s another self-interested, “organization kid” hot button issue, which as critics of the University are so fond of pointing out is the only thing that ever comes close to unifying this campus: grade inflation. The University has done its best to keep the proposed policy to end grade inflation from becoming an issue. Rather than host one forum, there have been a series of small discussions. The time span between the proposal’s announcement to students and its being voted on by the faculty is only a month. Grading information has been released under broad and somewhat vague categories rather than by class or department, limiting any debate the under-informed student body can engage in. And, most importantly, no poll of the undergraduate student body will be taken. Oliver Stone would have a field day with this.
Allow me to pontificate upon what Ollie’s thesis might be. We have here a proposal that for all intents and purposes will have a negative effect on those of us who are currently enrolled as undergraduates at Princeton. Its effect ten years down the road is debatable, but those of us who are the guinea pigs in this experiment in academic engineering will suffer. For all the reasons why that is so, see all the excellent articles that have been written about this in other student publications, attend one of the forums with Dean Malkiel, or simply ask five Princeton students what they think about it. We are a remarkably intelligent and articulate group, and this comes out in full force when our personal interests are at stake. So if the proposed policy will hurt students who are here now and has nothing like certain benefits for those who come later, why propose it? The answer is frighteningly simple. This proposal has nothing to do with individual undergraduates. It has to do with the prestige of Princeton University as an entity apart from those who happen to attend it. This correction of grade inflation is so simplistic, so foolish, so drastically out of touch with the realities of academia and the real world that follows that it must be the spawn of a very narrow desire. And that desire is the good name of Nassau Hall.
For some time now, the media have blasted Princeton and the other Ivies for grade inflation. Specifically, the attacks have focused on the three great bastions of old-money, mainstream success, and traditional academic superiority: Princeton, Harvard and Yale. Princeton’s image has suffered significantly, and along with it the respectability of those who are a part of it. But examine who specifically has the most to lose from that particular image problem. The students? Not quite— they know that even an inflated Princeton degree is better than a degree from just about anywhere else. Individual professors? Nope; nobody can accuse you of being a grade-inflator just because your institution happens to have a problem with it, and how you grade pales in importance to what you’ve published in the pecking order of the academic world. The people who are hurt most by grade inflation are those most connected to the University as a whole rather than any particular one of its parts: department heads and administrators. These are the people whose prestige, whose importance, whose market value depends upon small aspects of Princeton’s popular image like this one. What an amazing coincidence that they’re the ones who created it! What are the odds!
Just in case this is starting to sound too much like a college movie, with Dean Malkiel playing the role of the administrative stuffed shirt about to be mercilessly pranked by some wacky frat boys, it’s worth pointing out that there are positive aspects to this plan. None of this is supposed to suggest that the people who crafted it are intentionally putting their own interests on top of those of the student body…the folks in the ivory tower are out of touch, not evil. And who knows? It’s possible that the plan could have some benefits down the road. A complex problem like this one always involves shades of gray. The real tragedy here is not that an ill-advised grading policy might be put into place; it’s the driving force that leads Princeton to want to do something severe about its grading at all. That driving force is public opinion.
We thrive on what the public thinks of us. We’re number one, according to the most widely read college rankings scheme. The Harvard writers on the Simpsons staff consider us important enough to take digs at us; not digs at our credibility, as befalls hapless Brown, but the benign jests of a rival perceived as at least close to an equal…no small concession from the folks in Cambridge. We have outstanding numbers: the highest SAT scores, the lowest acceptance rate, an Early Decision program that conveniently keeps our matriculation rate astronomical. We have the history, the Gothic architecture, the administrative building that had a brief run as the nation’s capital. We’re God-knows how old. But there are cracks beneath the surface. Our own former president is suggesting that we need to remodel our student body to look more like those of the smaller liberal arts schools. These newly influential colleges across the nation are packed with intellectuals who have shunned the Ivy League model, who deride our image obsession as overpowering our academic worth. In some circles of high academia, places like Swarthmore are considered simply superior to the Ivies.
Before this proposal, those critics seemed like embittered wanna-be’s suffering from bad cases of endowment envy. If this proposal passes, however, it will be at least a partial confirmation of their argument. By forging ahead of the rest of the 11 power schools, or the G11 as I like to call them, we are seeking to distinguish ourselves, to make our image more impressive than any of theirs. But as one student pointed out at a grade-inflation forum, the internal problems of the university, the one that The New York Times rarely covers, are left unresolved. Discussion sections are arguably worthless, academic advising largely non-existent. These problems have nothing to do with our image, and so they are tidily shoved under the carpet, the subject of the occasional “discussion” or “forum” but no significant action. But just let them become an issue in the national news media. Then the Princeton giant would awake.
This image fixation is a tragic one. Princeton has begun to care more about how it looks than what it does, what its classes look like when they enter rather than what happens to them while they’re here. This perception spreads like a virus through the student body, whose obsession with GPAs rather than learning is what created grade inflation in the first place. It’s not as if the Princeton faculty rolled out of bed one morning, smacked itself in its collective forehead and exclaimed “We need to mellow out!” This grade proposal is a small crisis in and of itself, but it is symptomatic of a much larger problem. With the spreading of student talent across and outside of the Ivies, Princeton will have to seek out new ways to maintain its dominant status. It can attempt to do so by continuing the course it appears to be on, that of staying one step ahead of its traditional competitors and continuously making sure its Gothic spires are bigger than anybody else’s. Or it can return to what originally set it apart from those competitors, the very reason so many students chose Princeton over the competition: its concentration of vast academic resources on undergraduate education. Short of putting an end to tuition, an idea that has been tossed around, the second of these two paths is the only one that will truly keep Princeton where it deserves to be: on top. We will never win the name-recognition game with Harvard, but we can continue to provide a superior education to them. Part of doing that is acting in the best interests of the student body. Part of doing that will include voting down this grading proposal and replacing it with one less totalitarian. On April 26th, we’ll find out what path we’re on.