Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
The dismissal of a renowned chemistry professor from NYU after a spate of student complaints about his teaching has reinvigorated a series of long-standing questions about the modern academy: Are academic standards dropping? Are professors and administrators too beholden to students’ fragile emotions – and their parents’ tuition dollars? And what’s wrong with kids these days, anyway?
The basic outline is this: According to an article in the New York Times, Maitland Jones Jr. is one of the nation’s top organic chemistry professors. He was tenured at Princeton, wrote an influential textbook, retired and went on to teach at NYU on an annual contract basis, where he won awards for his teaching.
This year, though, he was sacked – after 82 of the 350 students in his course signed a petition because, they said, their low scores demonstrated that his class was too hard. A spokesman for the university told the Times in defense of their decision to terminate Jones’s contract that the professor had been the target of complaints about “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading. It’s worth noting that according to the Times, students expressed surprise that Jones was fired, which their petition did not call for. (Full disclosure: I was an adjunct in the NYU journalism department in the Spring 2022 semester).
For his part, Jones says that he noticed a decline in student ability about a decade ago. He made his exams easier; an unusual number of students still did poorly on them. Then, the pandemic hit. “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” Jones wrote in a grievance letter to NYU. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”
Jones isn’t alone in observing this dynamic. A great many experts in education have observed and quantified grade inflation and lowered academic standards. And the pandemic does seem to have turbocharged existing problems, while creating brand-new ones. Remote learning was a spectacular failure.
Students who completed their high school years during the pandemic, Jones observed in the Times report, seem to have no idea how to study. And some of the student complaints laid out in the petition might strike those of us who went to college in the Before Times as a bit unrealistic: They noted that Jones did not offer extra credit and that he did not make his lectures available via Zoom.
Jones was also, according to some students, harsh, sarcastic and dismissive; he did not seem to be the kind of professor who went out of his way to help struggling students, expecting them instead to work as hard as necessary to meet his exacting expectation. Student evaluations of his course were predictably low, the university said.
There has been a shift in the past decades toward a more student-centered learning experience, and that’s a good thing. Harsh grading practices simply for the sake of it do not align with the goal of any educational institution, which should be to help students learn. It sounds like Jones was unnecessarily harsh on students, and that the university had what was perhaps a missed opportunity to work with him to improve both his interactions with students and their performance.
And with many more young people going to college and the stakes so much higher – income gaps between those with a college education and those without are striking and elite colleges in particular are seen by many as a tried-and-true pathway to financial wellbeing – it makes sense that a more-competitive educational environment has produced many more high-achieving students at institutions like NYU.
But as students have become more academically successful, there is also some evidence that they have become less resilient, more anxious and less able to cope with life setbacks – like failing organic chemistry.
In a vacuum, this case is perhaps not such a big deal. Jones told the Times that he doesn’t want his job back. His position was far different from many non-tenured or non-tenure-track scholars these days at universities that increasingly rely on contingent adjunct labor. Jones, by contrast, spent a career as a tenured professor and likely wasn’t teaching out of financial necessity. And one has to imagine that if a newer female professor who did not have Jones’s clout received such abysmal student evaluations, she would have been cut loose long ago.
But this case nonetheless raises important questions, chief among them how much power students, who universities seem to increasingly think of as consumers (and some of whom think of themselves that way), should have in the hiring, retention and firing of professors. Many studies, for example, have found that students hold female professors to higher standards than male ones, giving them worse evaluations for the same performance. Professors of color are similarly penalized.
And NYU seems to have given away the game when Marc A. Walters, the director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, wrote an email to Jones before his firing. Quoting from that email, the Times said that Walters explained to Jones that a plan allowing students to have their grades reviewed or to withdraw retroactively from his class was a way to “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills.”
There are real consequences, though, to making higher education primarily palatable to those paying tuition bills – particularly when it comes to courses like organic chemistry, which are intended to be difficult. Future medical students do in fact need a rigorous science background in order to be successful doctors someday. Whether or not Jones was an effective teacher for aspiring medical students is up for debate, but in firing him, NYU is effectively dodging questions about the line between academic rigor and student well-being with potentially life-and-death matters at stake.
Students shouldn’t have to feel unmitigated stress or despair over their academic fates and what their grades mean for their futures, nor should their feelings determine their grades or their instructor’s job security. Guiding students and faculty through the difficult terrain between those realities is the job of the university itself, and in firing Jones, NYU has shirked that duty.
Turning education into a consumer product rather than a public good also subjects educators to the whims of the consuming public. At elite and largely left-wing universities like NYU, populated by students who are used to getting straight As in high school, that may manifest as dissatisfaction with lackluster grades.
But at many other institutions across the US, treating education as a consumer product very well may result in even greater scrutiny of what educators are teaching, impinging on academic freedom. We’re already seeing conservative book bans and demands for teachers to hew to a right-wing worldview in the classroom. College administrators who fold to student complaint or the fear of parental demands only increase the risk that the professors they employ will not be able to do their jobs fully and appropriately and freely.
The role of a university is indeed to help its students learn, and in this case, it sounds like there is much NYU could have done differently. But students are not helped by universities that cave to parental pressure because parents are the ones writing the tuition checks, and they expect their child to get into med school. Doing so sets up a dangerous precedent for academic freedom, particularly for middle-of-the-road public universities in conservative states, who don’t have the freedom or elite status of private ones. And accommodating parental demands above academic rigor doesn’t help students in the long term, either – it may help them get good grades, but it also sets back their transition into adulthood.