Decisions and Dismissals | Ariana Thompson
Over the weekend, news dropped that well-known professor, Dr. Maitland Jones Jr., was fired from his position in the Organic Chemistry program at NYU. Acclaimed for his work on numerous textbooks, having spent decades teaching in his field, and even recognized as one of the university’s “coolest professors,” it’s hard to imagine what could motivate New York University to let such an accomplished teacher go from his job. So what would it take to dismiss him? Apparently 82 signatures.
Citing “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading”, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him, resulting in his termination. The decision has brought a lot of criticism, especially from those involved in the chemistry department of other universities. Paramjt Arora, a chemistry professor at Princeton had this to say: “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”.
Other responses blamed the students for the decision. Claudia M. Reed responded to the decision saying, “Instead of weeding out the students who failed to make the grade, N.Y.U. invoked the increasingly popular American response: If the goal is too hard to reach, move the goal posts. The article said those who fail organic chemistry might not be admitted to medical school. That’s good news. If I were hospitalized with a possibly fatal illness, would my doctor decide that finding a correct diagnosis was just too hard?”
A case like this might seem insignificant at first, but it's important to recognize what it signals about the future of higher education as a whole. With the ever-increasing price of tuition and costs associated with going to college, universities are showing more willingness to accommodate student’s demands, even to the point where they are willing to disrespect professors or fire them for perceived slights against students.
It’s also important to take note of Maitland Jones’ position as an untenured teacher at his school. While Jones isn’t exactly hard up for positions, NYU’s decision signals a shift in the power dynamic between teachers and students that may not be for the better. In weighing the opinions of students so much more heavily than staff, colleges take away teachers’ freedom to regulate their own courses and teach their classes in their own distinct style.
Jones himself attributes his dismissal to decreased work ethic in young people; he writes, “The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, in the last two years, they fell off a cliff, we now see single digit scores and even zeros.” Those who agree with Jones claim that while college students have higher academic ability, they lack the capacity to face adversity and come out on top.
While Jones may not necessarily need his job at NYU, there are many who do. Untenured staff are essentially at the university’s discretion, making them very vulnerable to being fired, especially considering the competitiveness of their job market. So while this may only be a one time decision, let's hope that it doesn’t signal too large a change in that field.