NYU students get chemistry teacher fired for failing his class: Is it really his fault?

“He hasn’t changed his style or methods in a good many years,” said former department head in interview

Gino Spocchia
Tuesday 04 October 2022 16:10 BST
Related video: Joe Biden gives charged speech on campus sexual assault

Questions have been raised about the dismissal of a New York University (NYU) chemistry teacher who was fired after students complained about their grades and submitted a petition about the difficulty of his course.

Chemistry teacher Maitland Jones Jr was informed of his dismissal in August, just before the start of this university year, The New York Times reported this week.

In a petition crafted last spring, 85 of Dr Jones’s 350 students argued that Dr Jones had been responsible for their poor test scores. In a series of bullet points, the students claimed that the professor had possessed a “condescending and demanding” tone and was reducing their chances of success.

“We urge you to realise,” 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.”

Dr Jones was also accused of offering no extra credits, removing Zoom access to lectures when some students had Covid, and removing an exam, the Times reported.

He denies those claims. The professor said he even paid $5,000 of his own money to record lectures that the institution currently uses and “reduced the number of exams because the university scheduled the first test date after six classes, which was too soon.” As for Zoom access to lectures, Dr Jones claims that “technology in the lecture hall made it impossible to record his white board problems.”

While the 85 students were a minority of the 350 class, the university offered the students – one of whom was said to have “hyperventilated” about their grades and chances of getting into medical school – the chance to withdraw from the course of have their grades reviewed, according to the report.

The chairman of the university’s chemistry faculty then cited concerns from tuition fee bill payers (i.e. parents of students) when dismissing the professor in August, as well as the poor student performance on his course, sparking letters of support from DrJones students and staff members, the Times reported.

New York University in New York, New York
New York University in New York, New York (Getty Images)

About 20 colleagues of Dr Jones reportedly wrote in a letter to the faculty head to contest the termination of Dr Jones’s contract. They alleged it set “a precedent, completely lacking in due process, that could undermine faculty freedoms and correspondingly enfeeble proven pedagogic practices.”

Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor and former colleague, said to the Times: “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 US News rankings keep going higher”.

Others, including former department head James W Canary, said in an interview that while he admired Dr Jones, his communication could have been better with students and was sometimes harsh.

“He hasn’t changed his style or methods in a good many years,” Dr Canary told the Times. “The students have changed, though, and they were asking for and expecting more support from the faculty when they’re struggling.”

Responding to the report on Twitter, another NYU professor said she did not believe lowering standards would help American universities or student’s chances of getting accepted into medical school.

“I don’t think universities should respond to it by lowering standards re: what constitutes understanding the material, especially in highly technical classes. That does the opposite of preparing students for the fields they want to enter,” wrote Elizabeth Spiers, a journalism professor, in a Twitter thread on Monday.

She continued: “And if universities dumb down the quality of education because capitalism demands that parents get their moneys’ worth, and view their moneys’ worth as whatever gets junior a good grade, that undermines the mission of higher ed. That said, there are a lot of graduate programs where I think grading undermines learning. Organic chem is not one of them.”

Speaking about the dismissal, Dr Jones told The Times that the poor results of some students was part of an ongoing trend in students increasingly struggling to focus or perform in exams that he said he reduced in difficulty.

“In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote in a letter of grievance to the university amid complaints. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”

Having been near retirement age, Dr Jones added: “I don’t want my job back. I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

New York University students walk through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village
New York University students walk through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village (Getty Images)

In a statement to The Independent on Tuesday, a NYU spokesperson dimsissed the findings of the Times article and Dr Jones’s response tp the situation.

“This was not a case of a professor being ‘fired’ because students complained about grades. This was a case of a professor who, hired on a one-year contract specifically to teach a course, did not meet our standards for pedagogy and did not have his contract renewed,” the university said.

“NYU had in Professor Maitland Jones a faculty member with a year-long appointment specifically to teach organic chemistry, and in one of his organic chemistry classes in the spring 2022 there were, among other troubling indicators, a very high rate of student withdrawals, a student petition signed by 82 students, course evaluations scores that were by far the worst not only among members of the Chemistry Department but among all the University’s undergraduate science courses, and multiple student complaints about his dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension, and opacity about grading.”

It continued: “Nor does it reflect well on Professor Jones’ commitment to students that when he learned that his appointment was not to be renewed, he ceased the final grading of his current students’ work and left everyone in the lurch. In short, he was hired to teach, and wasn’t successful.”

A study from the Brookings Institution in January found that Covid had resulted in a drop in educational performances in the US as a result of staff shortages, missed lessons, closures and mental health – among other factors.

The Independent has approached Dr Jones for further comment.

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