Cum Laude. Latin translation: with honor. The epitome of scholarly distinction. The acme of a superbly-executed undergraduate career.
With this semester winding down, a select group of seniors are laboring over final theses, fine-tuning lab reports and opening the doors to culminating performances — all with the hopes of securing those two striking Latin words (three if they are lucky: Magna Cum Laude, “with great honor,” or Summa Cum Laude, “with highest honor.”)
Others are sitting tight with the knowledge that, with their 3.5 GPA, they have already nailed it — and that they have done so without having bothered with any of that tiresome thesis / lab / performance work.
How much is an honors distinction worth at Cornell?
Clearly, it means different things within different colleges. And for that reason, the process of garnering this admirable accolade at our school is downright baffling. In the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and the School of Hotel Administration, Latin honors distinguishes students who have undertaken unique research that terminates in an honors thesis.
In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering, the summa / magna / cum laude marking is based on exclusively on GPA. Students in these colleges can opt to write a thesis — in which case they will graduate “with distinction in research” in CALS or with “Honors” in Engineering.
The College of Human Ecology, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning do not offer Latin honors at all. But students can graduate “with honors” if they write a thesis — and “with distinction” for securing a GPA above a certain baseline.
These variances are too great to exist within a single university. And these discrepancies diminish the worth of the honors award.
There is a difference between spending a senior year slaving away over an 80-page research summary and achieving the necessary combination of B+s and A-s required to secure a 3.5 GPA — both of which are enough to merit Cum Laude in different colleges.
A lot about the Cum Laude standing is and should be left to the discretion of different colleges and different majors — the GPA requirement for admission into the honors program, the length of the final thesis, whether or not a preparatory pro-seminar is required, etc. should all be left up to the individual college on account of the discipline. But all colleges should offer Latin honors. And the dividing line between Cum Laude and not should be the same across the board. That dividing line should rest on unique research, culminating in a final honors thesis.
The value of the Cornell Cum Laude is tainted when some students can achieve it with a spattering of high marks. Cornell should reserve the distinction for those who act as producers, rather than simple consumers of academic knowledge.
A Cornellian should have to go above and beyond to walk away with an extra distinction. Conferring a Cum Laude on someone who meets only the most basic requirements of the school — completing distribution requirements and receiving fairly good grades — undervalues what should be a real honor.