The Graves of Academe: NYU Professor Fired For Maintaining High Standards

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The Graves of Academe: NYU Professor Fired For Maintaining High Standards
Students complained his course was too hard.
By Hugh Fitzgerald

Maitland Jones is an eminent professor of chemistry who taught for 40 years at Princeton University without incident. He is the author of a standard textbook on the subject of Organic Chemistry, a notoriously difficult subject that pre-med students must master. His Wikipedia entry notes that “over the course of almost forty years, he and his research group have published 225 papers. He is also the author of Organic Chemistry texts.” It adds:

He established his Jones research Lab at Princeton during 1964 to 2004. During this time, he published papers with 63 undergraduates, 30 graduate students and 34 postdoctoral fellows and visitors.

He was a beloved professor who allowed students at all levels working in his labs to share in the prestige of being co-authors on the papers in which he was the principal investigator.

After retiring from Princeton in 2007, Jones taught organic chemistry for 15 years, on a contract basis at NYU, again without incident, until this year. He continued to teach for so long after his retirement from Princeton because he loved his subject and he loved teaching. His good students appreciated him, in their comments online: “Professor Jones is great. His course is challenging, but also fun, and teaches the subject (organic chemistry) at a very sophisticated level. Thumbs up.”

But his contract at NYU was not renewed in 2022, after students circulated a petition complaining that his course and tests were too hard. Jones said that the students’ ability to study and learn had declined dramatically after the interruption of in-person classes because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The students who signed the petition complained of Jones’ grading policy, his supposed condescension in tone (presumably provoked by those whining about “how hard the reading is”), dismissiveness (a response to questions that showed the student had not been keeping up with the work), and lack of extra help during the COVID-19 interruption of in-person learning, were only 82 out of a total of 350 in his lectures. They blamed Professor Jones for being “too hard.” But he was not “too hard’ for those who diligently came to class, or watched the lectures on YouTube when in-person learning was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. He was not “too hard” for those who attended class, took lecture notes, did the reading as required, and studied hard, all 268 of them.

A report on this scandalous affair can be found here: “NYU chem professor says he was fired after students complained class was too hard,” by Ben Kesslen, New York Post, October 4, 2022:

New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr. because his organic chemistry course was “too hard.” The man wrote the textbook on the subject, now in its fifth edition, and had been a star teacher at Princeton. He went out of his way to tape his lectures, at his own cost, to mitigate some of the attendance problems attributed to the pandemic.

Yet students revolted because they feared, according to the New York Times, that “they were not given the grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”
The professor, meanwhile, saw a different problem: “They weren’t coming to class. … They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.” But the school terminated his employment rather than the students, who are on track to become physicians despite struggling to get into med school.…

The leadership at most American medical schools have adopted many of the same tenets of critical race theory invading education for K-12 students. It calls for diversity above meritocracy and makes being sure a med-school class has racial diversity the No. 1 priority. That would be fine if meritocracy and diversity could be co-existent, but increasingly, they can’t. To get around this conundrum, admission standards are being abandoned; there has even been an initiative to do away with organic chemistry as a pre-med requirement, with schools like Harvard considering it.…


If test results don’t give the desired results, with not enough “diversity” among those who pass them, or too many students of all backgrounds are failing, then the fault — as the case of Professor Jones reveals — lies not with the students but with the professor who insists on maintaining the high standards that he has always demanded of students. But many of today’s students rebel against those standards; they lack the impetus, or the ability, to properly prepare. According to Prof. Jones, some of his students, skipping class, did not even bother to watch the videos of his lectures that he had prepared for them, to be seen on YouTube. Some were unable during his lectures to tear their eyes away from their smartphones, as they scrolled down through stories and messages. Whose fault is that level of distraction? Clearly, in our brave new academic world, it’s the fault of the professor if students don’t pay enough attention. It’s his fault if he isn’t being entertaining enough to keep the attention of students riveted.

Professor Jones, who insisted on maintaining high standards, should not have been discharged. He ought instead to be applauded, and emulated, for refusing to lower his standards. He rejected the leveling spirit of the age. And those complaining students, who did not manage to pass his course, now have their hollow victory. They will be admitted to medical schools, but insufficiently prepared in organic chemistry; eventually, their substandard performance will catch up with them, hopefully before they start treat patients.

Students fail for a variety of reasons. Some are simply lazy. Some are distracted by social media. Some simply lack the intelligence to master the material. These explanations overlap; they are not mutually exclusive. Why should these students now be allowed to punish the professor who did not dumb down his teaching? What theory justifies such an absurd result? If students fail, it is they who, not always but almost always, should pay the price. Remember, of the 350 students who took Maitland Jones’ course, 268 out of 350, that is 77% of the total class – did pass, and only 23% failed. Had Professor Jones failed 90%, there might indeed be a case that he was simply too hard a grader, but not when 77% passed. Professor Jones should not have been let go; it’s the students who failed who should be required to retake the course, given one more chance to pass it. And if they still can’t? Too bad.

Everywhere In academe we see standards falling. Faculty members, well aware that that how they fare at the “Rate My Professors” site (where students anonymously praise or blame their teachers, and assign them numerical grades from 1 to 5), may affect everything from the likelihood that they will be granted tenure, to their course assignments, to their salaries. Many can’t resist trying to win the students’ favor. They want to become not merely their instructors but their “friends.” I knew of a teacher up for tenure who used to bring brownies to the students in his freshman seminar, hoping that this would help his ratings on “Rate My Professor.” And it may have worked: several students reported that “he really cares for his students.”

The firing of Professor Maitland Jones by NYU has exposed a great deal about what is wrong with American higher education. Students are seen by the universities to whom they pay enormous sums less as people to be educated and more as “clients” who must have a satisfactory experience. Students’ judgements of their professors are given too much importance, resulting in changes in behavior among some professors who are willing to relax standards – lighter course requirements, easier grading — in order to win student approval.

Students who fail no longer blame themselves as they once would have done, but too often nowadays, blame the professor himself. Like those who wanted Professor Jones to be fired because he was “too hard,” they do not accept personal responsibility for their academic failures. Who is to judge if a course is “too hard”? We know that Professor Jones taught, quite successfully, for forty years at Princeton, with no complaints about his being “too hard.” And he had also been teaching NYU students who, until this year, had not complained. Professor Jones blames several factors: the COVID-19 pandemic that for two years played havoc with in-person learning, and what he sees as a deepening sense of entitlement among students, which is evident in the belief that “If I take the course, then I deserve to pass.” This, of course, was said long ago by a character in Alice In Wonderland who, after the Caucus Race, declared that “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” That character was the Dodo. And the Dodos of Higher Education are now in the saddle, and ride mankind.

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