Martin Jarrie

Martin Jarrie

On a blustery December night, in the midst of end-of-term papers and problem sets, more than 100 students put aside their laptops to attend a standing-room-only parliamentary debate in Whig Hall.

Only one topic could rile so many students during one of the busiest times of the school year: grade deflation. They came to hear Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel, the public face of the University’s grade-deflation ­policy, take part in a rare debate with students.

No other issue in recent memory has continued to exasperate for so long even the most apathetic Princeton student. Finally, the angry mob would have a chance to speak directly to power — or so it seemed.

With jackets and ties and gavel-pounding, the Senate convened the debate. It looked to be Princeton’s version of Great Britain’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the decades-old House of Commons tradition, with Malkiel as the verbal piñata. But to the disappointment of many, Malkiel’s role was to provide opening remarks on the grading policy’s history and rationale. Four student debaters would square off on the issue instead.

Daniel Rauch ’10 questioned Malkiel’s assertion that grades at Prince­ton had become less meaningful until the policy was implemented. “Are people running about Yale and Harvard with a less meaningful experience?” Rauch asked.

“The grades you get in college matter for only about two years. It’s really pretty marginal,” countered Dan May ’11, speaking in support of the policy.

The debate turned out to be a rehashing of the seemingly age-old arguments for and against grade deflation, but one might have thought otherwise standing in Whig Hall. The audience wasn’t shy about laughing, cheering (which the Senate frowned upon), and heartily shouting, “Hear! Hear!” Students were passionate about the impact they believe grade deflation is having on undergraduates, from increased competition, discouragement, and closed postgraduate opportunities. Just two of the 20 or so audience members who spoke were in favor of grade ­deflation.

Campus media showed up and a Press Club member live-blogged the event, which took place more than five years after the faculty voted to approve grade deflation by a two-to-one ratio.

The issue has garnered renewed student interest in recent months. In September, the administration boasted that the proportion of A-range grades had fallen below 40 percent for the first time since grade deflation began. In November, the University presented data that appeared to show steady acceptance rates among Princeton ­students to top law and medical schools. But more than 70 percent of the student body named the grading policy as one of their top sources of unhappiness in survey results released in December by the Undergraduate Student Government.  

“There are still hundreds and hundreds of Princeton students with 3.5 G.P.A. and above. There are slightly fewer than there used to be, but there are still hundreds and hundreds of them,” said Malkiel, who answered ­student questions at the end of the debate.

USG vice president Michael Weinberg ’11 said there is a lack of data on the policy’s impact. “We do not know how students at our peer schools have fared,” he said in an e-mail. “There should be a strong data-collection effort to create a more holistic picture, especially for students seeking employment, but I am under the impression that this is not the case.” (Full disclosure: PAW writer Brian No is the USG’s ­ U-Council chairman, representing undergraduates in the USG Senate and on the Council of the Princeton University Community.)

Students pressed Malkiel on why Princeton remained the lone institution among its peers to have a grade-deflation policy, fearing that employers and schools won’t understand the University’s grading policy despite informational letters that the dean’s office sends out. “It’s like Princeton is pretending they’re speaking English, but it has changed the meaning of all the words,” Brendan Carroll ’11 said to laughter.

“Why haven’t the other Ivies followed suit? It’s hard work,” Malkiel responded. “It took us five years of hard work before the department chairs said we need to change gears.” She reported, however, that two Ivy League schools recently had asked for Princeton’s materials on the grade-deflation policy. Malkiel declined to name the schools.

At the end of the event, students who didn’t rush off to study voted with their feet, dividing themselves on opposite sides of the room. Opponents of grade deflation, unsurprisingly, won by a 61 to 9 tally.

Was Malkiel surprised by the lopsided outcome? “No,” she answered.

By Isabel Pike ’11

Over the past century Firestone Library has acquired about 500 manuscripts written in Ge’ez, an ancient African language that today is spoken only in Ethiopian Orthodox Church services. The collection includes religious documents and “magic scrolls” — illustrated textual amulets worn on the body for personal protection — and few have been translated into English.

But that could change this spring as a group of 15 undergraduate and ­graduate students meets twice weekly to study Ge’ez, a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew and Arabic.

Wendy Laura Belcher, assistant professor in the comparative literature department and the Center for African American Studies and a driving force behind the noncredit course, said that translating the manuscripts could be an exciting aspect of the class. “One of the great projects of the 21st century is providing access to the vast African archive in indigenous languages,” said Belcher, who grew up in Ethiopia, the daughter of an American physician.  

Some students are taking the class because of their interest in religion, others for their interest in Africa. 

Leah Samaha ’10 developed an interest in African literature during spring break last year when she went to Ghana as part of an English course.  

“For many African countries, oral storytelling was the main way to preserve stories,” Samaha said. Ge’ez, a scholarly and liturgical language since the fourth century, “interested me because it was a written script that dates back so far,” she said.  

For other students, Ge’ez strikes closer to home.  

“My interest in the language is intrinsic to my identity,” said Melekot Abate ’11, who remembers going to Sunday Mass each week with his family in Addis Ababa and listening to the priests chant in Ge’ez.

Abate said that offering the course is an important step for the University, where Kiswahili is the only African language currently taught. “It is essential that Princeton expose its students to the many brilliant contributions that non-Western civilizations have made to humanity,” he said.

Leading the course is Loren Stuckenbruck, a Princeton Theological Seminary professor whose interest in Ge’ez stems from his study of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Stuckenbruck said the scrolls “preserve only fragmentary remains of major and influential writings which are fully preserved only in Ge’ez.”

(Note: The online version of this story provides the full title and name of Professor Wendy Laura Belcher.)