Legendary Chemist Fired for Being a Hard Grader
A complicated case out of NYU.
Reporting for NYT, Stephanie Saul sets up an age-old query, “At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?“
In the field of organic chemistry, 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 — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.
The professor defended his standards. But just before the start of the fall semester, university deans terminated Dr. 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.”
On its face, this is simply unconscionable. Absent evidence that Jones was singularly incompetent as a teacher or wildly harsh in his grading, it’s simply unheard of to overturn grades in this manner. Beyond that, it practically encourages students to file more grievances and puts not-so-subtle pressure on the entire faculty to lower standards. And one surely doesn’t fire a distinguished professor because he’s a hard grader.
After some quotes from administrators and faculty that add little light, Saul sets up the bigger questions:
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?
Before delving into the particulars:
Dr. Jones, 84,
Wait a minute. He’s 84?! Maybe he’s just out of touch with today’s students? Or just too damn old to be in front of a classroom?
is known for changing the way the subject is taught. In addition to writing the 1,300-page textbook “Organic Chemistry,” now in its fifth edition, he pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.
Hmm. He revolutionized the way the entire subject was taught? And focused it on practical application rather than memorization? That sounds like a good thing.
After retiring from Princeton in 2007, he taught organic chemistry at N.Y.U. on a series of yearly contracts. About a decade ago, he 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.
And he wasn’t actually “fired” in any meaningful sense. Despite his illustrious career, he’s simply an adjunct with no expectation of renewal. Still: he’s still updating a widely-used textbook. That would seem to entitle him to preferential treatment in the adjunct pool.
“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.
To ease pandemic stress, Dr. Jones and two other professors taped 52 organic chemistry lectures. Dr. Jones said that he personally paid more than $5,000 for the videos and that they are still used by the university.
That seems . . . above and beyond. And they’re using his lectures, which he recorded on his own dime, after terminating his services? That seems . . . unethical?
That was not enough. In 2020, some 30 students out of 475 filed a petition asking for more help, said Dr. Arora, who taught that class with Dr. Jones. “They were really struggling,” he explained. “They didn’t have good internet coverage at home. All sorts of things.”
So, this was at the height of the pandemic, not last spring? Still, 30 students out of 475 isn’t a lot.
The professors assuaged the students in an online town-hall meeting, Dr. Arora said.
Many students were having other problems. Kent Kirshenbaum, another chemistry professor at N.Y.U., said he discovered cheating during online tests.
When he pushed students’ grades down, noting the egregious misconduct, he said they protested that “they were not given grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”
Now, this is a different professor altogether. But, I’m sorry, if you’re caught cheating on exams, getting into medical school is your last concern. You’re lucky to be allowed to stay in school.
By spring 2022, the university was returning with fewer Covid restrictions, but the anxiety continued and students seemed disengaged.
“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house,” Dr. Jones said in an interview. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.”
That comports with what I’ve heard anecdotally from around academia. Hell, even our students— mid-career professionals with six-figure incomes—were less engaged and generally whinier last year than they have been historically. Still, I’m not sure how far Jones should reasonably have been expected to accommodate that. If students aren’t doing the work, they’re going to fail what has always been a very hard course—one designed to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Students could choose between two sections, one focused on problem solving, the other on traditional lectures. Students in both sections shared problems on a GroupMe chat and began venting about the class. Those texts kick-started the petition, submitted in May.
The students were allowed to pick which method they’d be tested by? That’s . . . beyond generous.
“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.
It sounds like they very much were.
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.
So, if he changed the assessment method during the course, deviating from what he published on the syllabus, they have a legitimate bitch. If he simply changed it from previous iterations of the course, it doesn’t seem wildly unreasonable. Still, more assessments are likely better in such a demanding course.
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.
Offering extra credit in upper-level classes is unheard of in my experience—but I’ve never taught organic chemistry and don’t know what the norm is at NYU. I’m not sure what the rationale for removing Zoom access was, although I can attest that hybrid—where most students are in class and some are dialing in remotely—is the worst of all worlds from a teacher’s perspective. For the sort of lessons I teach, I’d say pure remote is maybe 85% as effective in person. But it’s really, really hard to pay attention to the computer screen to keep remote students engaged while conducting a live seminar.
I have no insights into Professor Jones’ tone but would not be shocked if he came across as condescending to whiny undergrads who didn’t do the work. And I’d be disappointed if he weren’t demanding.
“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.”
Indeed, nobody is even applying to NDU anymore. I’m surprised they haven’t shut the place down, to be honest.
Dr. Jones said in an interview that he reduced the number of exams because the university scheduled the first test date after six classes, which was too soon.
Before my current job, which is unusual in that we have 16 conference groups all following the same curriculum with different sets of faculty, I’ve never taught at an institution that set a schedule for any exams other than the final. But I suspect Jones’ judgment on the matter is sound.
On the accusation that he concealed course averages, Dr. Jones said that they were impossible to provide because 25 percent of the grade relied on lab scores and a final lab test, but that students were otherwise aware of their grades.
I believe him. It seems offhand that he could have provided running averages of the lab scores but I just don’t know what the practice is in his field. Our courses tend to weigh seminar contribution rather heavily and, while counseling is designed to keep students apprised as to where they stand, we don’t put out interim grades.
As for Zoom access, he said the technology in the lecture hall made it impossible to record his white board problems.
That doesn’t shock me at all. Few schools, indeed, were set up to deliver remote instruction until the pandemic and I doubt NYU invested the resources to equip lecture halls to do so in a hybrid environment. During fully remote instruction, I suspect Jones and colleagues were able to use a small camera at their workstation to show how to work problems.
Zacharia Benslimane, a teaching assistant in the problem-solving section of the course, defended Dr. Jones in an email to university officials.
“I think this petition was written more out of unhappiness with exam scores than an actual feeling of being treated unfairly,” wrote Mr. Benslimane, now a Ph.D. student at Harvard. “I have noticed that many of the students who consistently complained about the class did not use the resources we afforded to them.”
Lazy students complaining about the consequences of their actions? I am shocked to hear of such a thing.
Ryan Xue, who took the course, said he found Dr. Jones both likable and inspiring.
“This is a big lecture course, and it also has the reputation of being a weed-out class,” said Mr. Xue, who has transferred and is now a junior at Brown. “So there are people who will not get the best grades. Some of the comments might have been very heavily influenced by what grade students have gotten.”
There are rumors that this is more common than one might think. Indeed, some studies show that student evaluation of teachers is almost entirely a function of grades and social biases.
Other students, though, seemed shellshocked from the experience. In interviews, several of them said that Dr. Jones was keen to help students who asked questions, but that he could also be sarcastic and downbeat about the class’s poor performance.
That’s very professorial of him. Those who get doctorates and go on to teach are, shockingly enough, passionate about their subject and tended to be pretty good at it in school. One imagines that’s especially true for those who spend their careers at elite institutions like Princeton and NYU. It’s not the least bit surprising that they would be depressed when students who sign up to take upper-level courses don’t put in the work or simply aren’t up to the task.
But here’s the thing: if you can’t get through undergrad org chemistry—and I would have struggled with it—aren’t cut out for medical school. And that’s okay! There are lots of other careers available to graduates of elite universities.
After the second midterm for which the average hovered around 30 percent, they said that many feared for their futures. One student was hyperventilating.
So, here, I simply lack context. I was known as a hard grader when I taught undergrads. I likely still am. But I’ve never had averages that low. Again: this is intentionally a weed-out class. But what were other sections—those not taught by Jones—averaging? And was this simply one bad section or were most of his sections doing poorly?
But students also described being surprised that Dr. Jones was fired, a measure the petition did not request and students did not think was possible.
Well, again, he wasn’t technically fired—he just didn’t get another one-year contract. But if he’s getting more than his fair share of student complaints, it’s not that surprising.
The entire controversy seems to illustrate a sea change in teaching, from an era when professors set the bar and expected the class to meet it, to the current more supportive, student-centered approach.
Dr. Jones “learned to teach during a time when the goal was to teach at a very high and rigorous level,” Dr. Arora said. “We hope that students will see that putting them through that rigor is doing them good.”
James W. Canary, chairman of the department until about a year ago, said he admired Dr. Jones’s course content and pedagogy, but felt that his communication with students was skeletal and sometimes perceived as harsh.
“He hasn’t changed his style or methods in a good many years,” Dr. Canary said. “The students have changed, though, and they were asking for and expecting more support from the faculty when they’re struggling.”
It’s been twenty years since I taught undergrads but this certainly comports with everything that I’ve read. Steven Taylor, who has not only continued teaching but has been in university administration, would have better insights. I’m not sure I like the idea that professors are supposed to be emotional support animals for whiny teenagers. But if that’s what the job has become, it’s up to faculty to adapt.
N.Y.U. is evaluating so-called stumble courses — those in which a higher percentage of students get D’s and F’s, said John Beckman, a spokesman for the university.
“Organic chemistry has historically been one of those courses,” Mr. Beckman said. “Do these courses really need to be punitive in order to be rigorous?”
I don’t know what that means, exactly.
Hard courses are going to be hard. Since certain courses have shown themselves to be stumbling blocks, it’s perfectly reasonable to set up support systems to help students who haven’t previously struggled work through both the material and their anxiety. But, at the end of the day, there has to be a standard.
I would be fine with a policy that “stumble courses” allow a nonpunitive withdrawal of some sort, even after the fact. They could show on the transcript as an audit, for example. That way, students who got weeded out of the chemistry or pre-med majors could simply learn what they’re not good at and move on. But there has to be a way to signal to students that they’re on the wrong path and to allow professional and graduate programs to identify those likely to succeed.
Dr. Kirshenbaum said he worried about any effort to reduce the course’s demands, noting that most students in organic chemistry want to become doctors.
“Unless you appreciate these transformations at the molecular level,” he said, “I don’t think you can be a good physician, and I don’t want you treating patients.”
That . . . seems reasonable to me.
In August, Dr. Jones received a short note from Gregory Gabadadze, dean for science, terminating his contract. Dr. Jones’s performance, he wrote, “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.”
Dr. Gabadadze declined to be interviewed. But Mr. Beckman defended the decision, saying that Dr. Jones had been the target of multiple student complaints about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading.”
Dr. Jones’s course evaluations, he added, “were by far the worst, not only among members of the chemistry department, but among all the university’s undergraduate science courses.”
So, again, student evaluations are well-understood to be loaded with bias. Students may well be holding his age and mannerisms against him unfairly. Still, consistently abysmal ratings are a red flag.
Professors in the chemistry department have pushed back. In a letter to Dr. Gabadadze and other deans, they wrote that they worried about setting “a precedent, completely lacking in due process, that could undermine faculty freedoms and correspondingly enfeeble proven pedagogic practices.”
Nathaniel J. Traaseth, one of about 20 chemistry professors, mostly tenured, who signed the letter, said the university’s actions may deter rigorous instruction, especially given the growing tendency of students to file petitions.
“Now the faculty who are not tenured are looking at this case and thinking, ‘Wow, what if this happens to me and they don’t renew my contract?'” he said.
Alas, I strongly suspect the administration will view that as a feature, not a bug.
Dr. Jones agrees.
“I don’t want my job back,” he said, adding that he had planned to retire soon anyway. “I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
So long as they keep students happy, it won’t.