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A’s at Harvard a mark

Harvard College is facing a new round of disapproval, and even ridicule, from some educators following news that the most common grade awarded is an A, more than a decade after professors pledged to combat grade inflation.

Critics say that making top grades the norm cheapens the hard work of the best students and reinforces the deluded self-regard of many members of the millennial generation. Yet Harvard has illustrious company among universities struggling with how to turn the tide on several decades of rising marks.

Princeton University is reconsidering the grading crackdown it instituted nine years ago, amid concerns that tougher grades are hurting Princeton graduates’ prospects for jobs and graduate school. At Yale College, where 62 percent of grades are in the A range, proposals to curb grade inflation are in doubt following student protests and faculty concern.

Grade inflation is a problem far beyond the Ivy League, although perhaps not quite as much of a problem, according to Arthur Levine, an education scholar. For his book “Generation on a Tightrope,” Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, found in a national survey that 41 percent of students had grade point averages of A-minus or higher in 2009, compared to just 7 percent in 1969.

“Harvard is leading the nation once again,” Levine said Wednesday, with considerable irony. ‘“This is a generation which has grown up without skinning their knees. They’ve all won awards: best trombone player born on April 25. They’re used to having approbation.

“Given inflated self-esteem, it’s not a good thing to give them high grades, because it only encourages a false sense of what they can and cannot do,” he said. After a Boston Globe analysis in 2001 found that an astonishing 91 percent of Harvard College students were graduating with honors, officials released data showing that 48.5 percent of grades were A’s and A-minuses, compared to 33.2 percent who received those marks in 1985.

In response to a professor’s question at Tuesday’s meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education, said that the median grade awarded to undergraduates is an A-minus, while the most frequently awarded grade is an A. The news was first reported by The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper.

—Marcella Bombardieri, The Boston Globe

Pope setting up commission on clerical child abuse

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will set up a commission to advise him on protecting children from sexually abusive priests and on how the Catholic Church should counsel victims, the Vatican said Thursday. The step was his first to address one of the most sensitive issues facing his papacy.

The timing of the announcement, two days after a U.N. panel criticized the Vatican over its handling of abuse cases, suggested that the pope and his closest advisers want to be seen to be tackling the issue with greater firmness than in the past.

The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests, and it fit with Francis’ pattern of willingness to set a new tone in dealing with religious and secular critics of the church. The suggestion to set up the commission came from the group of eight cardinals brought together by the pope a month after his election in March to advise him on reforming the Vatican’s labyrinthine bureaucracy.

Precisely who will serve on the advisory commission and what authority it will have remained unclear. But Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the only American among the eight cardinals advising the pope, said Thursday that it would include priests, men and women from religious orders and lay people with expertise in safeguarding children, and that it would offer advice on pastoral care rather than judicial functions. That seemed to signal that it would not make proposals for exposing or punishing abusive clerics.

—Elisabetta Povoledo and Alan Cowell,
The New York Times