Grading system stifles academic creativity

President Schapiro, during your convocation address to the senior class this past Saturday you repeated the common refrain that, as privileged students at a world-class college, we should take risks. I have no doubt that your words were sincere and your motives genuine. I agree that it would be a waste to attend this college and take only subjects that are familiar and safe.

However, President Shapiro, your assertion that our GPA does not matter and that we should not worry if our GPA is 3.7 or 3.4 is simply not true. Granted, you admitted that grades were important, but you argued that it is more important to focus on the experience of learning. Well, I would have to say that as four years at Williams draws to a close, I have realized that my GPA does matter, both at Williams and beyond. For this reason, I would like to issue a challenge to you to back up your words by making the changes necessary that would encourage Williams students to truly take risks.

I see two ways to accomplish this task, although I’m sure others on campus can come up with many more. First of all, in the face of fellowships, graduate schools and many jobs that demand an extremely high GPA simply to apply, there needs to be a way for Williams students to take a few classes without risking their GPAs. I don’t mean a fifth class with a pass/fail option (a four-course workload is demanding enough), but perhaps once a year each Williams student should have the option of making one of his or her eight classes a pass/fail course. I have heard that Yale has a system that allows something similar, although I plead ignorance to the details. This ability to take a credit simply for interest’s sake, without worrying about its effect on your grades, would be a wonderful innovation on this campus and would perhaps help change many students’ foci from grades to learning.

Secondly, President Shapiro, while you tell us not to worry about whether our GPA is 3.7 or 3.4, departments at Williams clearly do. In your speech you included “writing a thesis” as a worthwhile goal that everyone should at least consider. I agree. It would be hard to think of a more valuable undergraduate research opportunity. Why then, do many departments continually turn prospective thesis students away because their GPAs are not high enough? If a student has a great idea, an advisor who supports and believes in the student, and the drive to work extremely hard their senior year, why would a 3.3 instead of a 3.5 make such a difference? Honors could still be contingent upon a certain grade level, but while other schools such as Princeton require theses, why are many departments at Williams turning students away, and even raising the minimum necessary GPA to write a thesis?

To conclude, President Schapiro, I also see the value of taking risks while at Williams. I would urge you to work with the faculty and relevant committees to make Williams a place that truly embraces risk-taking, instead of an institution that supports it on one hand and punishes it on the other. With your leadership and the actions of the faculty, I am hopeful that change can be accomplished.