Maitland Jones Jr. was a professor of chemistry at Princeton University. In 2007, he semi-retired and began teaching organic chemistry at New York University on an adjunct basis.
Not anymore: NYU has fired Jones after students circulated a petition protesting that his class was too hard.
But according to Jones, the students weren't putting in enough effort—and had become disengaged, anxious, and indolent as a result of the pandemic.
"They weren't coming to class, that's for sure," said Jones. "They weren't watching the videos, and they weren't able to answer the questions."
Jones is profiled in a recent New York Times article that chronicles his firing. The piece also raises uncomfortable questions about elite institutions of higher learning and their utter devotion to appeasing unreasonable student demands. Organic chemistry is the bane of medical students everywhere, precisely because it is such a hard class. But many doctors would argue that that's the point: The class is designed to act as an effective gatekeeper, preventing underqualified students from entering the field of medicine.
"This article made my skin crawl," tweeted Alice Dreger, a bioethicist and former professor of medical humanities.* "We aren't going to end up with good doctors by letting undergrad pre-meds pass organic chem because universities want to protect their US News rankings."
According to The New York Times, 82 of Jones' 350 students signed the petition last spring; it alleged that too many of them were failing and that this was unacceptable. The students cited emotional and mental health complaints to make the case that Jones ought to make the class less difficult.
"We urge you to realize 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," the petition read.
The Times article suggests that throughout the pandemic, Jones made a number of accommodations for struggling students. He reduced the difficulty of his exams, but students were still failing them.
"Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate," said Jones.
The article does note that the petition never called for Jones to be fired. But the university evidently decided that the best way to resolve the situation was to turn him loose.
His departure is certainly a loss for NYU's academic caliber. After all, Jones is a lion in the field of organic chemistry, publishing 225 papers in his 40-year career. He literally wrote the textbook, "Organic Chemistry," which weighs in at 1,300 pages.
"[Jones] learned to teach during a time when the goal was to teach at a very high and rigorous level," Paramjit Arora, a professor of chemistry at NYU and former colleague of Jones told The Times. "We hope that students will see that putting them through that rigor is doing them good."
NYU clearly feels differently about the matter.
"NYU had in Professor Maitland Jones a faculty member with a one-year appointment specifically to teach organic chemistry," wrote John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, in a statement to Reason. "In one of his organic chemistry classes in the spring 2022 there were, among other troubling indicators, a very high rate of student withdrawals, a student petition signed by 82 students, course evaluations scores that were by far the worst not only among members of the Chemistry Department but among all the University's undergraduate science courses, and multiple student complaints about his dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension, and opacity about grading."
So, what exactly would be the argument for renewal of this appointment? NYU has lots of hard courses and lots of tough graders among the faculty - they don't end up with outcomes like this. Surely, among the many things a university should stand up for - including academic freedom, academic rigor, and a robust research enterprise - one of them should be good teaching. Good teaching shouldn't be pitted against rigor as an excuse for poor teaching; good teaching and rigor are perfectly compatible, and the latter is not a threat to the former at NYU.
But the question isn't whether students deserve good teachers—of course, they do—but whether good teachers should feel compelled to pass students who fail to demonstrate mastery of an extraordinarily important and complex subject matter.
"Celebrated organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. had high standards, and we can't have that in 2022," writes the leftist author and teacher Freddie deBoer. "NYU students—who are, by any rational measure, some of the most privileged people on planet earth—organized a petition and got him fired. I hope you never get treated by one of the doctors who emerges from this mess."
*CORRECTION: The original version of this piece mischaracterized Alice Dreger's former position.
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