By Nathan Richendollar '19
After four score and seven years, the Dean’s List is history, and so is the Honor Roll. This year, for the first time since 1929, Washington and Lee University’s best students were not honored on either the Dean’s List or the Honor Roll, but on the new President’s List, as many students discovered this summer. A worry among the faculty that grade inflation, increasing student quality, or some amalgamation of both would render the Dean’s List meaningless drove the shift in university policy.
“We were at 50%, approaching almost 60% of students [on the Dean’s List],” said University Registrar Scott Dittman during a Spring Term interview.
Though the Registrar’s office does not disclose the mean GPA of W & L students, the median for current students hovers around 3.4, the cut-off term GPA for the old Dean’s List (the old Honor Roll had a cut-off of 3.75 term GPA). However, as Professor Davies always says, “We live in a nominal world, but we care about real things.” In short, grade inflation made some adjustment to the old GPA cutoff system necessary, just as it was in the mid-1960s (before which time the Dean’s List cutoff was a 2.0!), in order to ensure that when students are recognized by the university, it signifies real academic excellence, not grade inflation.
Such an adjustment came in the form of eliminating the Dean’s List and Honor Roll, as suggested by the Faculty Committee on Courses and Degrees, commonly referred to simply as “C and D.” This committee handles, “anything on the undergraduate curriculum,” according to Dittman. Once the proposal was made to abolish the old lists, the faculty decided to replace them with something else.
“There’s lots of colleges that don’t do anything like a Dean’s List or Honor Roll,” noted Dittman, “but we weren’t willing to do away with student recognition.” Thus, the President’s List emerged as an alternative. Once C & D formally proposed the substitution, the faculty voted on the measure by simple majority and instated the President’s List. But what are the specifics of this new system and how does it differ from the old one?
Most obviously, the name has changed. But it has changed for a grammatically sound reason. The Dean’s List was so named and the apostrophe therein so placed because, once upon a time, this great university had but one lonely Dean. No more. We have a myriad of Deans, from the Dean of the Williams School to Associate Deans to the Dean of the College. So, keeping the name without moving the apostrophe to the other side of the ‘s,’ which would look silly (A “Deans’ List?”), didn’t make sense. But despite our multitudinous Deans, there is still only one President of the University (in accordance with Hamilton’s advice in Federalist no. 70), hence the name change.
Secondly, the new system is not based on a set GPA cut-off, but simply recognizes the highest 30% of students in each class, whether the minimum qualifying GPA is a 2.99 or a 3.8 (the current minimum to make the president’s list would be approximately 3.6 in the freshman and sophomore classes, 3.68 in the junior class, and 3.65 in the senior class, respectively). This flexible measure is meant to safeguard against grade inflation, no matter the cause. From now on, the best three-tenths of Washington and Lee’s students will be recognized, not students above a certain GPA. The 30% number did not come out of thin air, however. This figure is meant to synchronize the proportion of students honored each year with the 30% of each class that graduates with distinction (top 5% summa cum laude, next 10% magna cum laude, next 15% cum laude) and get students acclimated to that proportion before graduation day.
Third, the President’s List is not calculated every semester, but yearly, and the list itself is not released until midsummer following the academic year, as we experienced this summer. This way, the registrar’s office will have time to factor in grades earned during spring term (for which there was previously no Dean’s List because it is only four weeks long) rather than only using the fall and winter terms. The intention of this is to reward and incentivize year-long performance rather than short-term achievement. The President’s List is still public in the same fashion as the old Dean’s List on the University website, and according to Dittman, “There will be hometown press releases,” to boot.
The last difference is the manner in which a student’s presence on the President’s List is recorded. Previously, Dean’s List and Honor Roll distinctions would appear on a student’s transcript, but the new President’s List will not. Instead, the university gave each student who made the list a “printed, official-looking certificate, appropriate for framing,” along with a “digital certificate in secured PDF form.” To the concern that if employers see a gap in a student’s presence on the President’s List (a hypothetical student makes it all four years, but the list hasn’t come out yet for their senior year by the time they apply for jobs, making it look like they dialed back their senior year), Dittman remarked that the President’s List is supposed to be a recognition of academic achievement, “not a qualification for any position outside the university.” Besides, he observed, someone in that category would still be able to show the employer their transcript, which would show they continued to get good grades through their senior year.
Thus ends the era of the Dean’s List, the latest casualty of grade inflation, and thus begins the reign of the President’s List.