- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

A Harvard University professor sent an internal memo to department faculty advising professors that they should take the trauma of the September 11 attacks into account when grading students' work an action some policy groups argue is yet another example of an Ivy League school "dumbing down its curriculum."
The Jan. 15 memo, sent in the form of e-mail several weeks before the fall semester's final exams, was written by Joyce E. Chaplin, a full-time senior history professor and head tutor who oversees the department's undergraduate program. The memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, suggested that professors and graduate students, who grade papers and tests, should note that students may not have been able to perform at their highest level last fall as a result of the attacks.
"As exams and grading approach, I wanted to remind you that this has not been a typical semester," the memo reads. "Events throughout fall, starting with September 11th, have been distressing for everyone. I would urge you to keep this in mind when assessing students' work; there is every reason to suspect that students have not been able to perform at their highest levels. Despite the recent hullabaloo over grade inflation, this is not the best semester in which to crack down. Please give each student your most considerate attention."
The memo has taken on particular significance at the Massachusetts school after accusations of grade inflation surfaced on the Cambridge campus last fall.
A report, released last fall by the school's faculty of arts and sciences' department, showed that more than half of the grades distributed among undergraduates last year were in the A and A-minus range, and that during the past 16 years mean grade point averages have risen a full point. As a result, Harvard President Lawrence Summers had asked the faculty to review grading standards.
David Blackbourn, chairman of the history department, said he disapproved that the memo was "leaked" to the news media and refused to comment on its contents.
"This is very much an internal memo and it was written only for members of this department, and is not relevant to the public," Mr. Blackbourn said. "I disapprove of this memo being leaked. It's just not proper. I can say that the memo is not part of the process of evaluating grades."
As for Miss Chaplin's reference to grade inflation, Mr. Blackbourn said: "I have no doubt there will be some procedures put in place before the end of the academic year to address grade inflation."
Miss Chaplin did not return a telephone call seeking comment yesterday. But in an interview with a reporter from the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, Miss Chaplin said her memo was meant to be taken as a general reminder for last semester's work.
"I felt that this was a bad moment to be having this discussion about grade inflation, it being so late in the semester and given the events of September 11," Miss Chaplin told the Crimson.
Groups, including the Young America's Foundation and the Eagle Forum, criticized the memo. "It's just outrageous," said Floyd Brown, executive director of the Young America's Foundation in California. "This is like handing out grades like they were candy."
"This is one more way of dumbing down academic work," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum.
The memo also was met with resistance among other professors at the department. One professor sent a dissenting memo, saying whether terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks should be "permitted to undermine our university system too."
Some professors who disagreed with the memo said students should be treated like adults, not like infants, which is what they said the memo seems to suggest. None of the professors interviewed for this story knew whether the contents of the memo affected any grades.
"If there had been a nuclear attack where a large number of our students had been orphaned, then we could take that into account when grading work," said Stephan Thernstrom, a history professor. "Am I entitled to skip class and come ill-prepared for class? No, I don't, and I don't expect my students to, either."


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