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New York University chemistry professor fired after students petitioned classes were 'too hard'

By NICK GARCIA Published Oct 06, 2022 12:12 pm

A renowned organic chemistry professor from New York University (NYU) got fired after students signed a petition lamenting that his classes were "too hard."

According to a New York Times report on Oct. 3, university deans terminated Maitland Jones Jr.'s contract before the start of fall semester (September), as students last spring (January to May) complained about their poor test scores.

Eighty-two of Jones's 350 students raised concerns about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension, and opacity about grading.”

NYU spokesman John Beckman told the Times that Jones’s course evaluations “were by far the worst, not only among members of the chemistry department, but among all the university’s undergraduate science courses.”

The 84-year-old Jones, however, defended his standards.

He taught chemistry for decades, then at Princeton University and at NYU, under a series of yearly contracts. In other words, he isn't tenured.

He wrote the authoritative 1,300-page textbook Organic Chemistry, already on its fifth edition, as well as 225 research papers with his group. He was also named as one of the NYU's "coolest" professors in 2017.

The Times also noted that Jones pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.

In fact, Jones exercised leniency throughout the pandemic, reducing the difficulty of his exams. Yet he said students still "misread" exam questions "at an astonishing rate."

Jones also taped 52 organic chemistry lectures during the pandemic, yet students still asked for "more help." He said students "fell off a cliff" in the last two years, scoring single digits and even zeroes during exams.

Worse, the Times reported that his co-faculty discovered cheating online.

When Jones became stricter in grading after the cheating incidents, some students weren't attending in-person classes though restrictions already loosened by spring. Those at home weren't also watching the online lectures, he said.

Jones also reduced midterm exams from three to two, but students still criticized it, as it meant less chances of offsetting low grades.

They also accused him of trying to conceal course averages, not offering extra credit, and removing Zoom access to his lectures, the Times reported.

Jones's organic chemistry colleagues, mostly tenured, defended him in a letter to university officials, saying his firing lacked due process and may set a precedent "that could undermine faculty freedoms and correspondingly enfeeble proven pedagogic practices." A faculty member also expressed concern that what happened to Jones could happen to them.

“I think this petition was written more out of unhappiness with exam scores than an actual feeling of being treated unfairly,” said Zacharia Benslimane, a teaching assistant who's now a doctorate student at Harvard University. “I have noticed that many of the students who consistently complained about the class did not use the resources we afforded to them.”

A former student of Jones, who's now at Brown University, also found him "likable and inspiring."

The students who signed the petition were "surprised" that Jones was fired, saying they didn't ask for it and didn't think it's possible.

In any case, Jones doesn't want his job at the NYU back, noting he had planned to retire soon anyway.

“I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else," he told the Times.