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Academic Freedom Alliance Statement Regarding Maitland Jones

Organic chemistry professor fired because students at NYU thought the grades were too harsh


The Academic Freedom Alliance released a statement regarding the decision of New York University not to renew the contract of organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones.

Professor Jones retired from Princeton University after a celebrated career as both a scholar and a teacher. For the past few years he has continued to teach organic chemistry at New York University. Like many contingent faculty, he has worked on short-term contracts.

Organic chemistry has long been understood to be a gateway course for medical school and advanced study in chemistry. Those courses have long been regarded as among the most difficult courses offered at many universities and have traditionally been graded accordingly.

Professor Jones continued that tradition at NYU, but students responded not just by grousing or avoiding the course but by petitioning the university to make the course easier and to replace Professor Jones with someone else who might be compliant with those demands. NYU apparently responded by declaring that the customer is always right and that professors were expendable.

The academic freedom concerns raised by this case are complicated but real. Unfortunately, this is only the most high-profile case involving the most highly regarded institution of a phenomenon that has become all too common in American higher education. The AFA wrote in a similar dispute over grading standards at Truckee Meadows Community College involving a tenured professor who was threatened with dismissal for making his case to his colleagues over the objection of his dean.

There are important conversations to be had about grading and how students are challenged and assisted in difficult courses, but if university officials cave in to pressure campaigns mounted by students by terminating professors then the faculty will be unable to meet their responsibilities as their professional judgment dictates and the assigned grades will become even more meaningless. Unfortunately, American higher education increasingly relies on contingent faculty for a great deal of teaching, and the NYU case just highlights how vulnerable those professors are to the whims of administrators. The administration's action in this case sends a clear signal to other professors who do not enjoy tenure protections that they should take care not to rock the boat or to make the students unhappy.

From the statement:

Academic freedom is essential to higher education's core mission of pursuing truth and transmitting knowledge in accordance with the expertise and intellectual skills and virtues that are needed for this mission to succeed. Academic freedom must also protect the rights that teachers need to enable them to fulfill their responsibilities to their students, the institutions they serve, the academic enterprise writ large, and the nation that relies upon properly educated graduates. To meet these obligations, teachers must honestly and accurately assess the intellectual progress and performance of their students.

. . . .

Finally, NYU's decision, including the haste and summary manner in which it was reached, appears to be another example of the trend in higher education to devolve more academic authority from faculty into the hands of administrative entities whose backgrounds and expertise reside elsewhere than pedagogy, research, and the pursuit of truth. This clear trend of devolution has obvious and unfortunate implications for academic freedom and the public good.

Read the whole thing here.