May 4, 2010

Equalizing the Honors System

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In a few weeks, thousands of seniors will cross a stage on Schoellkopf Field and walk away with a diploma, the capstone of a successful undergraduate education. The diplomas will be similar, for the most part — all will note the date, student’s name, undergraduate degree and college. Some, however, will bear that esteemed distinction: cum laude.

Each student who graduates cum laude will have gone above and beyond in some way the requirements for graduation for his or her major. But some of these students will have put in more effort and scholarship than others. And others (graduates of the Colleges of Architecture, Art and Planning, Human Ecology and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations) will have never had the opportunity to earn Latin honors, though they may be recognized with other terms: ILR and Human Ecology students can graduate “With honors,” (for research) or “With distinction” (for a high grade-point average).

It is understandable that specific requirements for graduating with distinction (of any sort) vary across departments and colleges. Students in the hard science departments, which are notorious for their resistance to grade inflation, need only achieve a certain GPA to graduate with Latin honors, while students in the liberal arts majors must produce a thesis or some original body of work. This type of discrepancy is appropriate given the different natures of the subject areas. However, the faculty should work to ensure that graduating “cum laude” is an option available to all Cornell students, and that such a distinction is granted to students who demonstrate similar quantities and qualities of scholarship.

In other words, the gender studies and biology departments should not have the same objective requirements (original research or GPA) to achieve “cum laude.” But, they should require comparable workloads and standards of scholarship, as decided by the faculty.

The University’s Strategic Plan, the final draft of which will come out this summer, features an increased emphasis on a common educational experience. A move toward a more common education gives the University an opportunity to standardize the amount of work required to earn honors distinctions across colleges and departments. It is important that the type of work stays department-specific, but setting a baseline for the effort required to earn honors will ultimately increase the value of these distinctions. In addition, it will quell the frustrations of students who have to meet significantly higher standards than their peers to earn the same honors distinctions.

As Cornell moves toward becoming “one University” (as the Strategic Plan puts it), the requirements for honors distinctions will need to change to adapt to the realities of a more centralized University. Every student should have the opportunity to graduate with Latin honors. It is up the the faculty to ensure that honors achievements are granted for similar levels, if not similar types, of educational achievement.