Review: This fired chemistry teacher shows what’s at stake in academia

Editor’s note: Jill Filipovic is a New York-based journalist and author of “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


The firing of a prominent NYU chemistry professor after a flurry of student complaints about his teaching has reignited a series of long-standing questions about modern academia: Are academic standards falling? Are teachers and administrators too concerned with the fragile emotions of students, and the tuition dollars of parents? And what happens to children today?

The basic outline is this: According to a New York Times article, Maitland Jones Jr. is one of the nation’s leading organic chemistry professors. He was tenured at Princeton, wrote an influential textbook, retired, and went on to teach at NYU on an annual contract, where he won awards for his teaching.

This year, however, he was fired; after 82 of the 350 students in his course signed an application, they said their low scores proved his class was too hard. A university spokesperson told the Times that the decision to terminate Jones’ contract was based on the professor’s “complaints about grade rejection, non-responsiveness, condescension and opacity.” It is worth noting that according to the Times, the students expressed surprise that Jones was fired, which he did not ask for. (Full disclosure: I was a teaching assistant in NYU’s journalism department during the spring semester of 2022.)

For his part, Jones says he noticed a decline in student skills about a decade ago. It made the exams easier; An unusual number of students still did poorly. Then the pandemic hit. “For the past two years, they fell off a cliff,” Jones wrote in a letter of complaint to NYU. “Now we see single-digit scores and even zeros.”

Jones is not alone in observing this dynamic. Many education experts have observed and quantified grade inflation and lowered academic standards. And the pandemic seems to have turbocharged existing problems, creating brand new ones. Distance learning was a spectacular failure.

Students who finished their high school years during the pandemic, Jones observed in the Times report, appear to have learned how not to. And some of the student complaints laid out in the petition seemed a little unrealistic to those of us who went to college at Before Times: They noted that Jones didn’t offer extra credit and didn’t make his lectures available via Zoom.

Jones was also, according to some students, tough, sarcastic and dismissive; he didn’t seem like the kind of teacher who would go out of his way to help struggling students, expecting them to work hard enough to meet their exacting expectations. The university anticipated that student evaluations of his course were low.

In recent decades there has been a shift towards a more student-centered learning experience, and that’s a good thing. Harsh grading practices are simply not consistent with the purpose of any educational institution, which should be to help students learn. It appears that Jones was unnecessarily harsh on students, and that the university may have had a missed opportunity to work with him to improve interactions with students and their performance.

And with so many more young people going to college and the stakes so much higher – the income gap between those with and without a college education is striking, and elite colleges in particular are seen by many as a tried and true path to financial well-being. it makes sense that a more competitive educational environment would have produced many more high-achieving students at institutions like NYU.

But as students become more academically successful, there is also some evidence that they become less resilient, more anxious, and less able to deal with life setbacks (such as failing organic chemistry).

In a vacuum, this case might not be such a big deal. Jones told the Times he doesn’t want his job back. His position was very different from that of many non-degreed or non-tenure-track researchers in universities that increasingly rely on contingent supplementary work. Jones, in contrast, made a career as a tenured professor and was probably not teaching out of financial necessity. And one has to imagine that if a new female teacher who wasn’t influenced by Jones received terrible student evaluations, she would have been let go long ago.

But this case nonetheless raises important questions, chief among them how much power should students have over the hiring, retention, and firing of faculty, whom universities increasingly treat as consumers (and some of them think so). Many students, for example, have observed that students hold female teachers to higher standards than male teachers, and give them worse evaluations for the same performance. Teachers of color are also punished.

And NYU seems to have given the game away when Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, wrote an email to Jones before he was fired. Quoting from that email, the Times said Walters explained to Jones that the plan, which allowed students to review grades or retroactively withdraw from his class, was “a way of extending a soft but firm hand to students and tuition payers.” invoices”.

However, there are real consequences to making higher education especially palatable to those who pay the tuition bills, especially when it comes to courses like organic chemistry that are meant to be challenging. Future medical students need a rigorous science background to someday become successful doctors. Whether Jones was an effective teacher for aspiring medical students is debatable, but by firing him, NYU is effectively avoiding questions about the line between academic rigor and student welfare, potentially life-and-death issues.

Students should not feel stressed or hopeless about their academic fate and what their grades mean for their future, nor should their feelings determine their grades or their teacher’s job security. It is the job of the university itself to guide students and faculty through the difficult terrain between these realities, and in firing Jones, NYU has abdicated that duty.

Making education a public good rather than a consumer product also makes educators subject to the whims of the consumer public. At elite and largely left-leaning colleges like NYU, full of students who are used to being straight like they were in high school, that can be frustrating with poor grades.

But at many other US institutions, treating education too closely as a consumer product can lead to even more scrutiny of what educators teach, undermining academic freedom. We’re already seeing conservative book bans and demands for teachers to force a right-wing worldview into the classroom. College administrators who employ teachers who respond to student complaints or fear of parental demands increase the risk that they will not be able to do their jobs fully, adequately, and freely.

A university’s mission is to help students learn, and in this case, it seems NYU could have done it differently. But students are not helped by universities that are under pressure from parents, who write the tuition checks and expect their children to get into medical school. Doing so sets a dangerous precedent for academic freedom, particularly for middle-of-the-road public universities in conservative states that lack the freedom or elite status of private ones. And accommodating parental demands over academic rigor does not help students in the long run either; it may help you get good grades, but it also delays the transition to adulthood.