In contrast to the folksy image of President George W. Bush ’68, the plain-spoken incumbent infamous for his malapropisms, Sen. John Kerry ’66 was often depicted as an effusive intellectual during last year’s presidential race. But according to newly released records, the two men graduated from Yale College with roughly the same grade point average.
A grade transcript attached to Kerry’s Navy file said he averaged a 76 during his undergraduate career, a time when Yale grades were strictly numerical. Bush averaged a 77 during his first three years and a roughly similar average under a short-lived non-numerical system introduced during his senior year, according to his Yale transcript published in a 1999 issue of the New Yorker magazine.
Still, Yale spokeswoman Gila Reinstein said those grades do not necessarily inform each man’s subsequent successes or failures.
“It’s hard to know how to make inferences from someone’s undergraduate record and see how it correlates to their accomplishments as an adult,” Reinstein said. “There may not be a correlation.”
Kerry’s grades were first reported by the Boston Globe this week after the Massachusetts senator gave the Navy permission to release his full file late last month. The Globe reported that the move was designed to silence critics who had alleged during last year’s presidential campaign that Kerry’s military or medical files may contain damaging information about his war record. The Globe reported that these naval records matched Kerry’s earlier statements and releases.
Kerry spokespeople said that while the naval records may not paint a flattering picture of Kerry’s study habits, they vindicate his military service in Vietnam, a record attacked by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth last year.
“The Swift Boat Veterans kind of made this their holy grail, but it turns out the file says just what he said it would,” spokeswoman April Boyd said. “In terms of grades, he talked about them when people brought them up, and he was honest.”?
Another spokesman, David Wade, said Kerry’s relatively low academic performance was a function of Kerry’s heavy involvement in campus life as the president of the Yale Political Union and a member of the debate team, as well as his participation on the soccer, fencing and hockey teams.
“Grades were utterly irrelevant in the campaign, but the lessons John Kerry learned at Yale in class, on the sports field and through campus activism remain invaluable today,”? Wade said.
Such a focus on extracurricular activities at the expense of grades was relatively common during the years Kerry and Bush attended Yale because student life was more insular, said University historian and professor emeritus of history Gaddis Smith, who was one of Kerry’s professors. According to the transcript obtained by the Globe, Kerry earned grades of 71 and 79 in two of Smith’s classes, but Smith said Kerry was “famous”? on campus by his junior and senior year.
“The whole idea of ‘big man on campus’ was part of the climate then, and you were a big shot if you were the head of one thing or another,”? Smith said. “My sense now, however, is that a majority of undergraduates couldn’t name the heads of most student organizations.”
Smith said both Kerry and Bush were in the bottom third of their respective classes, but he noted that Kerry’s selection as Class Day orator was indicative of the respect he earned from his classmates. During their undergraduate years, Smith said, a high grade point average was generally less important to Yale students than it is in today’s more meritocratic society.
“I’ve been teaching at Yale since 1961, but in the last 25 years I don’t think I encountered any students who were just total goof-offs,”? he said. “I think that people are working much harder and the admissions process is more selective.”?
Grade inflation — both at Yale and nationally — is also at least partly responsible for Kerry and Bush’s ostensibly low averages, Smith said. He estimated that the class grade average during their era was approximately a 78, versus a B-plus average he estimated for current classes. Reinstein said grade inflation is undeniable over the course of Yale’s history, but she said it has been comparable to that of peer institutions.