The firing of an NYU chemistry professor caused a furor. Here’s what he had to say about it.

Everyone has an opinion on Maitland Jones Jr’s sacking New York Post believes it “should terrify every American.” A headline on the NBC News website proclaims that it “shows how low colleges have sunk.” On CNN, a columnist worries about a “dangerous precedent.” Meanwhile, a Los Angeles Times the contributor has a message for the students: “You will not get a grade. You have to earn it.”

New York Times First reported that Jones, a longtime professor of organic chemistry and author of a well-regarded textbook on the subject, had been given the ax by New York University. NYU refused to renew Jones’ contract in August, telling him he did not meet the university’s teaching standards. The decision followed a petition signed by a group of students in an organic chemistry course who complained that their grades did not reflect the effort they had put in.

The story touched on many issues related to higher education, including the challenges of teaching during a pandemic, the ease with which faculty can be fired, the importance of rigor in undergraduate curricula, and whether students do too. a lot of power. NYU took flak from all sides and fired back as well. A university spokeswoman said in a written statement that Jones was “hired to teach and was not successful.” The statement cited poor student evaluations and a high number of retakes.

For his part, Jones claims the university acted abruptly and unreasonably. He rejected NYU’s specific claim that, according to a spokesperson, Jones stopped finalizing the work of his current students and left everyone in the lurch. In fact, Jones said he submitted grades in May and wasn’t sure he would have access to the grading system after his contract renewal. Speaking of grades, Jones said 60 percent of his final grades in his senior year were A’s or B’s. He also said he had failed 19 out of 350 students in the class (most of those Fs were later turned into withdrawals, according to Jones).

I recently spoke with the professor about his long academic career, the remarkable furore surrounding his departure, and what he thinks of current students. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

I know you didn’t expect your career to end this way, as your story is seen as a parable of declining academic standards. How do you feel about it?

The honest answer is that it hurts. It’s definitely not like I scripted it.

You spent 43 years at Princeton before going to NYU in 2007. I’m interested in what taught you in the first place and what made you want to continue after you retire from Princeton.

It was this material that got me started and led to my research career. I learned mostly from a charismatic and rather difficult person, but from a fabulously good teacher. In turn, I wanted to show this love for the material to the next generations. And I wasn’t very good at first, but it got better. And as I got better, there were things I thought I was really good at, and that made me want to do it even more. And you know, if you scratch the surface of a successful faculty member—I think there’s no doubt that’s an accurate description, at least of my Princeton years—you’ll find a frustrated performer. So there was that. It’s a great audience when you think about it: smart, capable, slightly hostile. If you could beat them, you’ve really done something.

In your email to students informing them of your termination, you wrote: “Now, an unsolicited piece of advice: It’s very hard to be self-critical. It’s hard to take personal responsibility for failure, as all of us do at one point or another, but it’s an important life skill that’s wise to develop. Do you think the students who signed this petition could not take personal responsibility for their academic success in your class?

Of course, this is not the case for all of them, but for some it is. And in a way, that’s understandable, right? They are young and not very experienced in the world. How old are they? They are 18 and 19. I think the university administration also behaves the same way. I think they made a mistake. I think what they should have done was get the sides together. Instead, they just overreacted and now they don’t get it.

According to an NYU spokesperson, your course evaluations were “by far the worst among not only members of the chemistry department, but also among the university’s undergraduate courses,” and those evaluations accused you of being “repulsive, unresponsive, unsympathetic, and non-transparent in your grading.” .” I wonder how you would answer that.

When they said the grading system was opaque, it was anything but. The course syllabus had it written in black and white.

The evaluation process has unfortunately become devalued. This once very useful process is now just another social media opportunity. And I think that’s a shame. If I were in an administrative position, I would no longer rely on or pay much attention to student evaluations. My grades at Princeton were 4.8 out of 5, 4.9, things like that. Right from the start I found it very useful. Over time I think the usefulness has been lost and they are often very nasty, sometimes profane and difficult to watch. The good ones make your head swell and the bad ones make you angry. So there is no more profit from it.

To be honest, I have read a number of testimonials from your former students who say you are one of their favorite professors. What has been the reaction since Times piece appeared?

Most of it has been overwhelmingly positive. And it’s been good to come out of it, it’s connected me with a lot of people I’ve lost touch with.

Some have taken your firing as proof that the current generation of students is right and that greedy university administrators are willing to sacrifice rigor to appease them. Do you see it that way?

I would not like to comment on that.

Why not?

If I say yes, it will be interpreted to mean that I think all students are like that. And that’s absolutely not the case. Since the bottom has dropped out of some classes, the top is just fine. And indeed they are doing better than before because exams and so on have become easier, which is a shame. But I have to admit that there has been a certain amount of goofing around in my class, if you want to use the catchphrase, and kids who used to get 90s – which is a very, very strong grade – are now getting 100s. I’m worried that we’re not serving 10s or 20s the best of the percent. They shouldn’t get a hundred. They should get 92 and then see what those eight missing points were and learn from it. And they are perfectly capable of it.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the idea of ​​invention courses. I wonder what you think of the term.

I hate it because it implies intent. We have no intention of weeding out people. Absolutely not. The other side is that you really want to succeed in the professions for these people. You really want competence. You want doctors who are really good, and you want engineers who can build a bridge that lasts. And you want scientists who can – with a willingness to cliché – cross the line. At Princeton or NYU, every student in that class was successful. Maybe not from 92, but from success. I really don’t like the idea that, you know, we’re teaching these courses to root people out. We do not have. We teach these courses to bring them in.

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