NYU chemistry professor fired when students complain the course is too hard

A New York University professor has been fired after students circulated a petition blaming the academic for their poor test scores.

Recognized as one of NYU’s coolest teachers, Maitland Jones, Jr., 84, was accused by 82 of his 350 students of intentionally making organic chemistry coursework too hard and the university severed his contract in response.

“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, as reported by the New York Times. “We urge you to realize 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.”

Students accused Jones of reducing the number of midterm exams from three to two, removing the option of extra credit, eliminating Zoom access to lectures for those with COVID-19 and said Jones taught in a “condescending and demanding” tone.

Jones, who previously taught at Princeton and wrote a respected book on organic chemistry, defended his methods, blaming a decades-long loss of focus among students and difficulty reintegrating to in-class teaching post-COVID-19, as the cause for the students’ poor grades.

“Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote in a letter to the university protesting his termination, claiming grades fell even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams. “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff. We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”

Post-COVID, students seemed to have forgotten how to study at all, Jones said.

Another NYU chemistry professor, Kent Kirshenbaum, noticed increased cheating during online exams and adjusted scores accordingly, only to be bombarded by student complaints that “they were not given grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”

With the lifting of most COVID protocols in 2022, Jones and his fellow teachers hoped to see a return to some normalcy but students were less engaged and apathetic than before.

“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house,” Jones said. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.”

NYU officials tried to mediate the situation by offering students an opportunity to withdraw from the course, an unusual move once classes are underway, or have their work reviewed by other faculty, but students and their parents were not satisfied.

Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, alluded to money as the driving factor in Jones’ firing in an email sent to the professor after the petition was circulated.

“[The plan will] extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills,” Walters wrote.

Faculty and students defended Jones and chastised the university for its handling of the situation.

“I teach at NYU and don’t think this guy should have been fired. One of many problems with insanely expensive private education is that institutions have an incentive to treat the student as customer and not student who needs to learn certain things,” Elizabeth Spiers Tweeted.

Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who has worked closely with Dr. Jones, confirmed Spiers’ view.

“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 U.S. News rankings keep going higher,” Arora said.


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