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SOM brings back the bell curve

Debates about changes to the grading system in Yale College gripped campus at this time last year. Now, the conversation has shifted to the School of Management.

It all started with an e-mail that SOM senior associate dean Anjani Jain sent to students on February 24. He announced that the school's current grading system—which evaluates students on a scale of "Distinction," "Proficient," "Pass," or "Fail," and only lists grades of "Distinction" on students' transcripts—will be regularized under a bell curve in which all but the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent of students in each course receive grades of "Proficient." The school will also create a fifth grade designation to fall between "Distinction" and "Proficient." 

SOM administrators and professors will implement the new system this fall for the class of MBA and Master of Advanced Management students who will matriculate then. 

Students and alumni had mixed reactions to the changes—but, according to a March 5 Yale Daily News article, all were displeased with the top-down nature of the administration's decision. Robert King ’14MBA circulated a petition protesting the change and garnered signatures from a quarter of SOM students, according to the News, but he said he questioned whether the administration would respond to the backlash.

Since then, SOM dean Edward Snyder traveled to Washington, DC, on April 7 to meet with alumni and address concerns about the grading changes. Though the changes are here to stay, he said the faculty struck one element of the new system from their plans: student transcripts will not include all grades a student has received, but will rather list just the top two grade designations. In addition, administrators will solicit student and alumni feedback on the nomenclature of the new system before its implementation this fall.

In another News article last week, Snyder said he was glad that the school was able to respond to feedback on the new system. "While the initial process was not sequenced correctly and did not have the right broad-based engagement of alumni and students from the outset, I'm very pleased with this [new] outcome," he said.

But the administration's response has done little to ease the concerns of students and alumni. Gitendra Chitty ’02MBA told the Daily News that he views the amendments to the grading change "as purely an attempt to pay lip service to our dissatisfaction with no substantial change. It was basically to say, 'This is the best we will do and if you're not happy, then tough luck.'"

Students and alumni quoted in the Daily News said they were concerned that the bell curve, which will make it impossible for all students to earn grades of "Proficient" or above, will force professors to assign unfairly low grades to students who don't deserve them. Others said they fear the new system will place undue emphasis on grades and shatter the camaraderie and collegial atmosphere that SOM has cultivated since its inception.

Responding to some of these concerns, Jain told Bloomberg Businessweek that the bell curve will conform to existing realities at the school. In large courses, he said roughly 10 percent of students typically do noticeably better than the rest while roughly 10 percent do noticeably worse. If the numbers look different in the future, the school can always adjust the curve, he said.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under School of Management
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