When Jailene Sinchi ’25 opened the email from the Dean of Arts and Sciences that confirmed that she had made the Dean’s List, she expressed feelings of high achievement after a grueling first semester as a biology major on the pre-med track. However, fall 2021 could be the last semester for Sinchi, and her peers, to achieve the award before the University changes or retires the designation.
The Dean’s List is an academic achievement that can be earned by full-time Cornell students each semester for meeting a certain grade point average. The honor appears on a student’s official transcript for the corresponding term.
Recent activity in the Faculty Senate has pushed for the University-wide elimination of the Dean’s List. At the University Assembly meeting on Jan. 25, Faculty Senate representatives proposed recommendations for standardizing student honors across all seven colleges.
Currently, each of Cornell’s colleges has its own criteria for determining which students earn the Dean’s List honor on their transcripts each semester. While most colleges require a minimum of 12 academic course credits taken for a letter grade for a student to be eligible for the Dean’s List, the College of Arts and Sciences requires 15 academic letter-graded credits.
Grade point average requirements also differ between colleges: Students in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning must achieve a 3.8 GPA, while the College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences both require a 3.5. In some cases, the requirements are not uniform within the same college. Freshmen in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations need a 3.3 GPA to make the Dean’s List, while seniors in the same college must have a 3.6 GPA to obtain the same award.
To address these disparities, the Faculty Senate made a series of recommendations for standardizing honors.
Under the Senate’s proposal, the Dean’s List and all GPA-based, non-Latin honors and distinctions will be eliminated. Their replacement will be a University-wide system wherein Latin honors are awarded based on percentiles, with summa cum laude being awarded to the top five percent in each college or school, magna cum laude to the next 10 percent and cum laude to the next 15 percent, with naming conventions for all distinctions made consistent across all of the University’s colleges and schools.
The proposed changes are supported by deans from all colleges and schools at Cornell and administrators, including Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Lisa Nishii.
University officials claim that the proposal was in part spurred by students who expressed concerns about the lack of consistency in academic policies across the University.
The proposal argues that the Dean’s List signals to students that University leaders see a high GPA as the achievement most worthy of their commendation, fueling anxiety about grades and deterring students from taking academic risks and exploring the curriculum further.
Some student leaders, like Executive Vice-Chair of the University Assembly Jacob Feit ’22, worry that eliminating the Dean’s List would create more obstacles to equity and inclusion in the hunt for internships and jobs.
“For the students who are least connected and least privileged, academic work is a serious path for them to land prestigious internships,” Feit said. “They might not have the connections that another student might, their parents might not work in the company that they want to intern in.”
However, the proposal argues that since the majority of other Ivy League institutions already forgo Dean’s List honors, students wouldn’t be put at a disadvantage with respect to their peers across the Ivy League if the Dean’s List were eliminated at Cornell.
While the University has offered Dean’s List honors since at least the early 20th century, there is some precedent for removing them. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University temporarily suspended the Dean’s List for spring 2020, citing the added stress that striving for honors could cause students during a shift to remote learning.
Some student leaders disagree with the faculty movement. Feit questioned the assumption that Dean’s List is the most significant academic stressor for students.
“I really don’t think that [the] Dean’s List is that big source of stress that the faculty believes it is,” Feit said. “The big source of stress… is placing median grades of every course next to the student’s earned grade on their official transcript.”
Since the Fall 2008 semester, median grades and total enrollment for courses have been published on official transcripts for all Cornell undergraduates. Letter grades for all students enrolled in the course, undergraduate and otherwise, are used to calculate these median grades.
Duncan Cady ’23, Student Assembly students with disabilities representative, said that he believes the presence of median grades on Cornell transcripts is more harmful to student stress levels than Dean’s List.
“You get your class grade, you see you got a B+,” Cady said. “You worked very hard, you’re proud of that B+… and you saw that the median grade of the class was a B+. Now, all of a sudden, that hard work feels average.”
Elizabeth Navarro ’25 said she believes that the Dean’s List puts a mental strain on students who want recognition and feel stress from pursuing the honor, but also stated that students who get high grades deserve the recognition.
But for students who oppose the change, the problem is also procedural: Cady said he was disappointed that the process didn’t include as many student voices as he thought it should have.
The Faculty Senate will meet again on Feb. 9 to further discuss the elimination of the Dean’s List. It will also face increased scrutiny and community feedback as students weigh in on the proposal.
If adopted by the University, these changes could take effect as early as the 2022-2023 school year.
Dean of Faculty Eve DeRosa did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publishing.