Today the NY Times published a surprisingly interesting story about the current state of academia. The focus is one professor at NYU, Maitland Jones, who has long been considered one of the top professors in the field of organic chemistry. Jones taught at Princeton until 2007 and then moved to NYU where he had a year-to-year contract. His textbook on the subject is now in its fifth edition. But this year Jones was fired after a group of about 80 students started a petition claiming his class was too hard.

…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…

“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…

“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.”

NYU was clearly bending over backwards to please the complainers. They even offered to let students retroactively withdraw from the class, meaning low grades would not be on their record. But from Professor Jones’ perspective his teaching hasn’t changed all that much, the students have.

“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.

Apparently this course has a reputation of being a “weed out” class for students who want to become doctors. A fellow chemistry professor at NYU argued that students who couldn’t pass Jones’ class probably shouldn’t be allowed to become doctors. “Unless you appreciate these transformations at the molecular level, I don’t think you can be a good physician, and I don’t want you treating patients,” he said.

I can’t find a copy of the student petition, just the few excerpts mentioned by the Times. The tone of those excerpts sounds a lot like the sort of woke hyperventilation about student well-being we’ve seen a lot in the past few years. So I wonder whether the rest of the petition had more of that.

In any case, Times’ commenters are once again sounding more rational than NYU and its Gen Z students. Here’s the top comment with over 1,600 upvotes.

One of the students complained that the grades did not reflect the time and effort they put in.

That perspective misses the point. In life you are graded for results rather than effort. The students better understand that pretty soon.

The #2 comment is from a fellow professor who sides with Dr. Jones.

I’m a college professor and echo Dr. Jones’s observations about students having increased difficulties with concentration the past decade or so, beginning with the advent of smartphones and the ubiquity of social media. And although, in my experience, students are doing better mentally this year, they are still struggling in the wake of covid.

From this article, Dr. Jones sounds like a brilliant, deeply dedicated (still teaching at age 84!), if demanding professor. I would, however, amend Marc Walters’ statement to say that the university would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the customers and those who pay the tuition bills.” That’s really what we’re talking about: pleasing customers, getting good reviews, maintaining high U.S. News rankings, etc.

I, for one, hope I don’t receive medical care from a doctor who couldn’t pass a tough undergraduate organic chemistry course.

One more from another professor in a different field.

I taught a language that is difficult for English speakers to learn.

One year, the first test of the second semester came back with scores in an upside-down bell curve. The students either wrote a nearly perfect exam or missed almost everything. Very few were in the middle.

I asked the “A” students each to write an anonymous paragraph about how they had studied for the test. I collected these paragraphs and compiled them into a single handout.

When the class saw the handout, some of the students who had done poorly said things like, “But that’s a lot of work!”


Teaching mostly at small colleges that prided themselves on giving students individual attention, I had generous office hours and offered review sessions before the finals. I put certain aspects of the course on a self-paced basis.

Guess who showed up for the office hours and review sessions. The students who were already doing well. Guess who zoomed through the self-paced part of the course. The students who were already doing well.

Doing poorly in a class should be a reason not to go into certain fields. A student who can’t hack organic chemistry does not belong in medical school. A student who can’t hack calculus shouldn’t go into engineering. These courses should not be simplified for their sake.

Alternatively, we could just make sure that everyone gets a good grade so no one has their feelings hurt. But good luck relying on one of those doctors or engineers.

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