The NY Times reports that after 82 students signed a petition complaining that his organic chemistry course was too hard, NYU terminated Maitland Jones' contract.
The university’s handling of the petition provoked equal and opposite reactions from both the chemistry faculty, who protested the decisions, and pro-Jones students, who sent glowing letters of endorsement.
“The deans are obviously going for some bottom line, and they want happy students who are saying great things about the university so more people apply and the U.S. News rankings keep going higher,” said Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who has worked closely with Dr. Jones.
In short, this one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body. Should universities ease pressure on students, many of whom are still coping with the pandemic’s effects on their mental health and schooling? How should universities respond to the increasing number of complaints by students against professors? Do students have too much power over contract faculty members, who do not have the protections of tenure?
And how hard should organic chemistry be anyway?
Jones is the author of a widely used textbook on organic chemistry and was known for trying to turn the subject away from memorization and toward “problem solving.” He retired from Princeton in 2007 and has been teaching at NYU on a series of year-long contracts.
About a decade ago, Jones said in an interview, he noticed a loss of focus among the students, even as more of them enrolled in his class, hoping to pursue medical careers.Petitioning against Dr. Jones started in 2020:
“Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote in a grievance to the university, protesting his termination. Grades fell even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams.
The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, he said. “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”
After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.
“We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” the petition said.
The students criticized Dr. Jones’s decision to reduce the number of midterm exams from three to two, flattening their chances to compensate for low grades. They said that he had tried to conceal course averages, did not offer extra credit and removed Zoom access to his lectures, even though some students had Covid. And, they said, he had a “condescending and demanding” tone.
“We urge you to realize,” the petition said, “that a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority and reflects poorly on the chemistry department as well as the institution as a whole.”
I'm not writing to mock these students, but to ask these questions: what does it mean to make student learning a priority? And should we continue with the old tradition of “weed out” classes that are made intentionally difficult?
The people who fired Jones questioned his demanding style, saying that he rather austerely set a high bar and asked students to meet it rather than engaging with them and encouraging them. Students had changed, said the Dean, and Dr. Jones failed to change with them. Is that a real thing, or is it just a code for lowering standards?
If, as studies suggest, students just don't work as hard as they used to, what should a university do about that? Lower its standards? Change its approach? Or just fail a lot of students until they start putting in more time? And can a university dependent on competing for students afford to be tougher than other places?
I think this is another sign that American higher education is in a grim place, with no obvious routes toward improvement.