The Gaudino Option Initiative begins:

We, as faculty and students, believe that not all students are taking full advantage of the educational opportunities that Williams has to offer as they select their 32 courses that will define their undergraduate studies. Many students here at Williams are overly conscious and concerned with their GPAs. As a result, some allow that concern (sometimes compounded by pressures from their families) to influence their curricular decisions. Unfortunately, there are students who would like to explore areas outside of their specializations (beyond their divisional requirements) but instead embrace a somewhat myopic view of their education and do not risk leaving the confines of their intellectual comfort zone.

All perfectly reasonable. But there are many things that Williams could do to make students less “conscious and concerned with their GPAs,” especially the sort of talented students whose course choices are of the most interest to faculty like Ed Burger.

1) Replace the valedictorian as a Commencement Speaker. There are at least 10-20 Williams students who, at the end of sophomore year, have a realistic chance at being valedictorian. You can be sure that they want that position and that this desire affects their course choices. Making the valedictorian less important makes these students more likely to “to engage in areas outside their strengths.” Replace the “valedictorian speaker” with an “academic speaker” — naming suggestions welcome — someone chosen by a faculty committee who represents the “highest standards of Williams academics.” Instead of just basing this selection on GPA, the faculty committee could use (and make public) whatever set of standards it most wants to encourage among elite students. If you want more smart students to: take tutorials, write theses, explore 300-level courses in departments/divisions outside their majors or whatever, then select the academic speaker using those criteria.

2) Allow a faculty committee to make the summa cum laude designation, based on an overview of the student’s entire academic career at Williams, not just their GPA. Here (pdf) is the current breakdown of latin honors:

35% of the graduating class — Bachelor of Arts cum laude or higher
15% of the graduating class — Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude or higher
2% of the graduating class — Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude

At the end of sophomore year, there are at least 50 students with a realistic chance at graduating summa. You can be sure that they want that position and that this desire affects their course choices. Making summa less dependent on GPA and more a function of other academic achievements makes these students more likely to “to engage in areas outside their strengths.” Create a faculty committee (probably a different one that the one that chooses the academic speaker) which selects the summas. Use (and make public) whatever set of criteria you want to encourage among elite students. In fact, to the extent that faculty want “to encourage students to engage in courses of interest beyond their area of
focus or “expertise”,” all they need to do is to make such an engagement (with some concrete guidance on how to achieve it) a requirement for graduating summa. That will cause the top 25-50 students in every Williams class to behave exactly how Ed Burger wants them to. Each year, besides publishing the list of summa graduates, the committee would release a detailed (but anonymous) discussion (just as the honor committee does) about what factors caused it to select some students over other students.

3) Prevent departments/programs from using GPA cut-offs for any purpose. Consider a typical example from Classics:

In order to write a thesis, students normally must have a minimum GPA of 3.3 in their major courses and must submit a thesis proposal before the end of the spring semester of their junior year that earns departmental approval.

Many/most departments have a similar requirement. Why? If Williams wants students to focus less on their GPAs (an policy with which I agree), then we need to make GPAs less important. The same applies to WEPO:

In making its decisions, the Admissions Committee of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford University takes student GPA into account, expects all applicants to have demonstrated capacity for rigorous independent work and extensive essay writing, and looks favorably on those students whose intellectual maturity, curiosity and enthusiasm would best prepare them for a demanding course of study in Oxford.

Lots of Williams students want to go to WEPO but there are only a limited number of spots. Instead of awarding those spots (partially) on the basis of GPA, admit students who do not “embrace a somewhat myopic view of their education.”

If you want behavior X, then you need to encourage behavior X. If you don’t want behavior Y, then you need to stop rewarding behavior Y. Provide students with fewer rewards for maintaining a high GPA and they will worry less about their GPA. Honor students who engage in curricular risk taking and Williams will get more risk taking.

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