In Other Ivory Towers: Amherst changes Latin honors system

David Wignall


(Daderot/Wikimedia Commons)
















Students graduating magna cum laude or summa cum laude from Amherst must now satisfy a median grade threshold and a course breadth requirement, following a Feb. 7 faculty vote to amend Amherst’s Latin honors criteria. The decision has been met with both praise and controversy.

Previously, students were assessed for Latin honors by class rank: Students with GPAs in the top 40 percent of their class were eligible for magna cum laude, while those in the top 25 percent were eligible for summa cum laude. Now, students graduating magna cum laude must have a median grade of A-, while students graduating summa cum laude must have a median grade of A or A+.

Every student graduating with such a distinction must also pass one class in each of four academic disciplines: arts, humanities, sciences and mathematics, and social and behavioral sciences.

“[T]he College’s definition of excellence in coursework, and hence summa or magna honors, includes the willingness to explore unfamiliar intellectual and/or creative fields,” the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) wrote in its proposal to faculty.

All students who wish to graduate with honors from Amherst must also write a thesis during senior year — a requirement that has remained consistent.

Amherst’s CEP spent two years developing the new Latin honors system. “The goal of this proposal is threefold: To make Latin honors determinations more transparent and equitable, to eliminate uncertainty surrounding class rank, and to encourage exploration of the curriculum,” the CEP wrote.

The shift toward a median grade threshold has been met with widespread approval among Amherst students and faculty. In an op-ed in The Amherst Student, the college’s newspaper, a student noted that the new approach could promote equity: Those who scored poorly during their first semesters would still be able to attain high honors. Another student observed that the abolition of class rank could help alleviate uncertainty, since prospective honorees would no longer need to speculate about their rank.

Nearly 75 percent of recent Amherst graduates had a median grade equal to or higher than an A-, and nearly 40 percent had a median grade of A or A+.

But the new system’s breadth requirement has sparked controversy. Amherst has no distribution requirements and no core curriculum. In order to implement the breadth requirement, the CEP had to sort Amherst’s departments into four categories — akin to Williams’ three academic divisions — that did not previously exist.

Amherst students and faculty alike expressed concern that the change represented a shift away from Amherst’s open curriculum. “If the majority of the college must fulfill distribution requirements, no matter how mild they are, how can we claim to have an open curriculum?” wrote Sophie Durbin in an op-ed for the Student.

“The idea that a graduate has failed to meet Amherst’s highest standards if they took courses solely in the ‘humanities’ or ‘arts’ or ‘STEM’ is a slap on the wrist to thousands of alums since the establishment of the open curriculum,” wrote Henry Bontempo in another Student op-ed.

Williams’ policy for allocating Latin honors differs from that of Amherst. At Williams, students do not need to complete a thesis in order to graduate with Latin honors.

Instead, Latin honors are based purely on class rank, though all students must satisfy divisional requirements in order to graduate. Summa cum laude is awarded to students with GPAs in the top two percent of their class, magna cum laude is conferred to those in the top 15 percent, and cum laude is given to the rest of students in the top 35 percent.