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Tipsheet

NYU Professor Fired After Students Complained His Class Was Too Difficult

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

A chemistry professor at New York University claimed he was fired after 80+ students complained that his course was too difficult. 

In an interview with The New York Times, organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. said that 82 of his 350 students had signed a petition against him when he returned to campus after pandemic lockdowns. Reportedly, students claimed that his course was too hard and ended, for many students, dreams of going to medical school.

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Jones, 84, defended his standards, but NYU reportedly ended his contract right before the start of the fall semester. The move “provoked equal and opposite reactions” from school community members. Colleagues and students sent letters of endorsement to the school, noting that Jones previously taught at Princeton, authored a 1,300-page textbook and accumulated several awards for his teaching. He is known for “changing the way the subject is taught.” 

Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who worked closely with Jones, told the Times that “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.”

Jones told the Times that he noticed a loss of focus among his students around a decade ago, noting that they were misreading exam questions at an “astonishing” rate. Jones reduced the difficulty of his exams, but test scores still fell. 

Once the pandemic hit, scores “fell off a cliff,” he said, noting that students score single digits and zeroes and don’t know how to study. Jones and other colleagues spent thousands to tape lectures to send to their students. 

Kent Kirshenbaum, one of Jones’ colleagues, told the Times he discovered that students cheated during online exams. 

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Students in GroupMe chats began venting about Jones’ classes, which allegedly kick-started the petition (via the Times):

“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.

The students criticized Dr. Jones’s decision to reduce the number of midterm exams from three to two, flattening their chances to compensate for low grades. They said that he had tried to conceal course averages, did not offer extra credit and removed Zoom access to his lectures, even though some students had Covid. And, they said, he had a “condescending and demanding” tone.

“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.”

Zacharia Benslimane, one of Jones’ colleagues, said the petition was “written more out of unhappiness with exam scores than an actual feeling of being treated unfairly.” Bensliman is a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. He added that many students who complain about Jones’ class “did not use the resources we afforded to them.”

Ryan Xue, a former student, said that Jones was “likable and inspiring.” He described organic chemistry as a “weed-out” class. 

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John Beckman, a spokesman for NYU, said that the university is currently evaluating “stumble courses,” where most students score less-than-average grades. 

“Organic chemistry has historically been one of those courses,” Mr. Beckman said. “Do these courses really need to be punitive in order to be rigorous?”

Jones said he doesn’t want his job back, but he doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else.

About 20 chemistry professors signed a letter to the school pushing back on the decision. Nathaniel J. Traaseth, one of the signers, said the school’s actions would “deter rigorous instruction” going forward.

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