Faculty Consider Changing Latin Honors to Rank-Based System

Katherine Coetzer ‘23

Staff Writer

Illustration by Richard Ferrell ’22

Following a vote last Thursday, November 7th, the faculty have decided to delay a final vote on proposed changes to how Davidson awards Latin honors until next month. If this change is approved, however, it will make graduating with Latin honors significantly harder. 

According to Davidson’s website, last year Latin honors were awarded to 250 members of the Class of 2019, with 149 graduating cum laude, 99 as magna cum laude, and two achieving first honors, summa cum laude. That number is set to drop in the future if faculty approves how Davidson awards Latin honors, a move that has been met with student pushback. 

Currently, Davidson’s website indicates that Latin degree honors are awarded based on cumulative grade point average (GPA) at graduation, with students achieving a GPA between 3.500 and 3.749 graduating cum laude, between 3.750 and 3.999 magna cum laude and 4.00 summa cum laude.

According to Hannah Aronson ’20, a member of the Student Government Association (SGA)’s Educational Policy Committee (EPC), beginning with the class of 2024, the newly proposed Latin honors system would be based on percentage and class rank, instead of grade cutoffs. The top 2% of graduates would be awarded summa cum laude, the next 10% magna cum laude and the following 20% cum laude. 

The EPC is made up of the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, Phillip Jefferson, two student representatives and professors. The committee votes on proposed changes to academic policy, and if approved, the proposed changes are sent to the faculty who have to approve them before they can be initiated. 

Aronson explained that two years ago, faculty asked the EPC to review Davidson’s policies on Latin honors, as the number of students graduating with honors has significantly increased—from around 20% to just over 50% of students over the past two decades. 

According to Assistant Dean for Educational Policy and Chair of the Mathematics department Dr. Carl Yerger, faculty members on the EPC believe the number of students graduating with honors is too high, as data shows that Davidson is an outlier amongst its peer institutions in the number of students with honors. Dr. Yerger said that the changes are being proposed to maintain consistency with prior graduating classes at Davidson as well as Davidson’s peer institutions. 

SGA President Emmitt Sklar ’21 believes that the proposed change is unwarranted and unfair as students who are at the threshold GPA would not be awarded Latin honors because of their class rank. Furthermore, Sklar expressed concern that the policy change will create a toxic academic culture as students compete with each other. Sklar affirmed, “we can be competitive with ourselves without trying to bring down each other; that’s what Davidson is about.” 

Aronson shared similar concerns. While Aronson is looking forward to walking across the stage next May, she worries that beginning with the class of 2024, the tone of graduation will shift as the celebratory event becomes a competition. 

“Davidson students already compare themselves enough on their campus involvement, summer internships, and job opportunities,” said Aronson. “The move to a class rank will instate an unhealthy learning environment that removes the focus away from students’ success at Davidson, and instead will make academics a competition.”

However, Dr. Yerger argues that many students are unaware of Latin honors until their senior year. Yerger emphasized that the significance of the proposed change depends on students and their own personal goals. 

While many students are concerned about how the change may impact their future career and graduate studies opportunities, Assistant Dean of Faculty Fuji Lozada stressed that Latin honors and GPAs are becoming increasingly less important. Lozada said, “It’s not really about the grades. It’s about what you learn and what you do.” This sentiment is reinforced by a 2013 New York Times interview in which Google executive Laszlo Bock referred to GPAs as “worthless as a criteria for hiring.” 

Similarly, a 2015 Forbes article highlighted that top employers are looking for distinct qualities in students that are not measured by their GPAs. According to the article, large companies such as Goldman Sachs and J. Walter Thompson both emphasized that they hire self-driven individuals who show “an entrepreneurial spirit.” 

Likewise, in a Wall Street Journal article, the dean of admissions for Stanford University’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars graduate program, Derrick Bolton, said application readers may glance at honors designations, but don’t dwell on them.

Catherine Jackson ‘20, however, said that GPA plays an important role in securing a job, especially for finance and consulting careers, as many of the job postings have a minimum GPA requirement to apply. 

Beyond the effect of the proposed change to the Latin honor system, members of SGA are concerned, Sklar noted, that “there is going to be a push by the faculty to change [additional] policies that support student academic well-being because they feel that there’s grade inflation.” Sklar added that the faculty’s continuing push for Latin honors despite student pushback is “important because it showed that the administration didn’t really listen to student voices.”

Likewise, Aronson stressed that during EPC meetings, faculty and administrative members did address student questions of why the overall increase in students’ GPA is a problem, only repeated the premise that Davidson is an outlier.

“The achievement of students at Davidson is being exploited to make Davidson more prestigious,” said Aronson. ”Davidson cares more about its image than it does its community.”

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