New York University’s firing of Professor Maitland Jones Jr., following student complaints about poor grades has lit a fuse under parents who say the lowering of academic standards in U.S. school is doing students no favors.
Jones, an award-winning professor of organic chemistry, taught for four decades at Princeton before NYU. Princeton University’s dean of faculty credited him with pioneering a new way of teaching that emphasized problem-based learning over a “lecture-memorize-regurgitate facts” style.
But last May, 82 of Jones’ 350 NYU students signed a petition against him arguing that the course was too hard and blaming Jones for their poor test scores. Organic chemistry has an infamous reputation in the academic world for its rigorous subject matter.
“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 read, according to 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.”
Jones reportedly made accommodations for his students, including attempts to make his exams easier, and told the university that the pandemic had exacerbated the students’ already apparent lack of focus. University deans terminated Jones’ contract before the start of the fall semester.
The officials also offered to review students’ grades and allowed them to withdraw from the class retroactively.
The New York Times said the situation raised several questions about the state of academics for Gen Z, including whether universities should ease pressure on students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how universities should respond to the increasing number of complaints by students against professors.
Parents of education advocacy groups answered those questions in Fox News Digital conversations.
“Because the stakes are so high and not all students are equipped to become doctors sometimes you have to make ‘cuts,’” Ashley Jacobs of Parents Unite told Fox Digital. “Instead of lowering standards we should be raising them as well as our expectations. Shouldn’t an objective of education be to help each student reach his or her potential? To do this would require teaching students they should expect more from themselves and not blame others when things are too hard. Maybe we should also have a conversation about the role of professors in higher education. The sage on the stage model seems to have been replaced by one that is supposed to entertain its customers in exchange for favorable reviews.”
Army of Parents founder Elicia Brand had a similar view, arguing that today’s academic institutions are too preoccupied with “catering” to youth.
“The firing of Professor Maitland Jones Jr. is indicative of the problem our nation is facing with many academic institutions catering to and churning out idealistic young adults who are under-educated, easily offended and entitled, and who will do little as productive members of our society as a result,” Brand told Fox News Digital. “When paying for an education at a reputable university, we should expect quality professors to intellectually challenge our students, helping them to grow by pushing them to stretch beyond what is convenient and comfortable. Doing anything less, will not result is positive outcome.”
“Instead, universities and K-12 government schools are supporting the notion that a good work ethic and high expectations are racist, lowering standards of educations to account for this popular ideology,” Brand added. “Don’t be surprised when we have a generation of adults dependent on the government and America’s productivity and value drops on the world’s stage. Instead of firing professors like Maitland Jones Jr., we should be hiring more like him in order to stave off the soft bigotry of low expectations that is infecting academia today and pushing our students to reach their fullest potential. Let us never forget that today’s student will be tomorrow’s decision maker, impacting all of our lives.”
In a statement responding to the backlash, NYU defended its decision to let Jones go, saying he simply “wasn’t successful.”
“NYU generally disagrees with and is disappointed by the way the matter with Professor Jones has been characterized publicly,” NYU President Andrew D. Hamilton said in a statement to Fox News Digital.
“What this was about NYU’s expectations for high quality, effective teaching,” Hamilton later said. “This professor was hired to teach this particular course, and wasn’t successful – that’s the sum of it. NYU has lots of hard courses and lots of tough graders among the faculty – they don’t end up with outcomes that raise questions about the quality and effectiveness of their teaching, as this class did. Surely, among the many things a university should stand up for – including academic freedom, academic rigor, and a robust research enterprise – one of them should be good teaching. Good teaching shouldn’t be pitted against rigor as an excuse for poor teaching; good teaching and rigor are perfectly compatible, and the latter is not a threat to the former at NYU.”
Some social media users argued the professor could have done a better job adapting the course material as the poor grades persisted, including some critics who alleged to be his former students, while many more agreed with the parents who slammed the university for its handling of the situation.
The debate over academic standards spans the country. Parents in Fairfax, Virginia, recently sounded off on an “equitable grading” system at schools across the district in an effort to fight “institutional bias,” according to internal FCPS communications obtained by the Washington Examiner. The intent was to reportedly eliminate racial disparities in grades.
“Gutting rigorous academic instruction and evaluation is the opposite way of fixing American education,” Parents Defending Education President Nicki Neily tweeted of the report.
Educators have also blasted policies they believe to be lowering expectations, including the controversial no-zero grading policy, which bans teachers from giving students grades below 50% even if a student did not turn in an assignment. Proponents of the policy argue that giving students too many zeroes can make it near impossible for them to pass. But educators like Daniel Buck, an English teacher and editor-in-chief of the Chalkboard Review, has argued that the “no-zero” rule takes incentive away from students.
“There is no perfect approach to grading; –all systems carry their own trade-offs — but this idea that we’re going to just cut off the grading scale half way is a patently idiotic idea,” he later added.
Cornell law professor William Jacobson cited the NYU incident and the trend toward “equity” learning in his take on the “collapse” of academic standards.
“We are witnessing a collapse in merit standards throughout academia, with movements to eliminate the SATs and LSATs from admissions together with the sort of lowering of academic standards that took place with the NYU chemistry course,” Jacobson told Fox News Digital. “This collapse may be partially blamed on the pandemic switch to remote learning, but the fundamental problem is much deeper. In the name of ‘equity’ we are demonizing achievement, and taking an ‘everybody gets a trophy’ attitude even in STEM. A campus culture that focuses on the feelings of students is becoming incapable of holding to standards. The implications for the future of the country are serious, as we are or will be graduating students who elsewhere in the world would flunk out. It’s becoming a national security concern.”