Why was this esteemed professor fired?

Apparently because his organic chemistry course was difficult (“too hard,” some students said).

Organic chemistry, of course, is supposed to be difficult. So there must be more to the story than that.

But what is the rest of the story?

First of all, let’s look at Stephanie Saul’s New York Times article about the situation:

Students Were Failing, and Professor Lost Job

In the field of organic chemistry, Dr. Maitland Jones Jr. has a storied reputation. He taught the subject for decades, first at Princeton and then at New York University, and wrote an influential textbook. He received awards for his teaching, as well as recognition as one of N.Y.U.’s coolest professors.

But last spring, as the campus emerged from pandemic restrictions, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him.

Students said the high-stakes course — known for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Jones for their poor test scores.

The professor defended his standards. But just before the start of the fall semester, university deans terminated Jones’s contract.

The officials also had tried to placate the students by offering to review their grades and allowing them to withdraw from the class retroactively. The chemistry department’s chairman, Mark E. Tuckerman, said the unusual offer to withdraw was a “one-time exception granted to students by the dean of the college.”

Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, summed up the situation in an email to Jones, before his firing.

He said the plan would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills,” an apparent reference to parents.

The university’s handling of the petition provoked equal and opposite reactions from 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 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?

How hard should organic chemistry be anyway?

Well, let’s look at a tiny sample of comments: just four out of the literally thousands of comments that this article engendered. There’s this one:

What a completely one-sided article that fails to take a nuanced view in favor of punching down and bashing the spoiled entitled crybaby kids who can’t take failure.

And then there’s this comment, which seems to suggest that no course should be difficult. Why? Because tuition is so high!:

Why don’t we talk first about the fact that today it costs $75,000 a year for a kid to go to NYU in tuition, room, and board.

Amplified here:

A university certainly can be an institution that prides itself on separates the wheat from the chaff based on merit and hard work, on a mission of public interest to produce the best and brightest. Professor Jones is 85. If he was 18 when he went to college, it would be 1955, when a year of college, adjusted for inflation, would have cost around $10,000 in today’s dollars. You can afford to flunk a kid at $10k a year.

You can’t charge a kid $75k a year and pretend to be a university. At that price, any educational mission you may have becomes a cruel joke. It’s no different from Trump University – a transparent commercial transaction. You’re taking their money in exchange and giving them a degree four years later. The colleges have sold out to the highest bidders, and have become businesses. So it’s no wonder that they don’t have students anymore. They’re turned their students into customers, so they shouldn’t be surprised when they behave like customers

I could go on, but I won’t.

Categories: Teaching & Learning