The latest brouhaha in higher education arose when New York University fired an organic chemistry professor teaching huge numbers of students, Maitland Jones, Jr. The headlines are revealing: “Top Med School Putting Wokeism Ahead of Giving America Good Doctors” proclaimed a column written by Dr. Stanley Goldfarb (former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine) and Laura Morgan in the New York Post. Another Post column by Dr. Goldfarb was arguably even stronger: “NYU’s Firing of Prof. Maitland Jones Jr. Should Frighten Every American.”
Legendary Harvard Law professor and commentator Alan Derskowitz, writing in Newsweek, piled on: “Colleges Are Now A Breeding Ground for Mediocrity, Not Meritocracy.” Dr. Jillian Horton, writing in the Los Angeles Times, chimed in with an op-ed entitled “Listen up college students, You don’t ‘get’ a grade. You have to earn it.” Keith Whittington, writing for the Academic Freedom Alliance, noted that Professor Jones was, as is traditionally the case in organic chemistry, a tough grader, which led to over 80 students (out of 350) “petitioning the university to make the course easier and to replace Professor Jones with … someone else … compliant with these demands. NYU apparently responded by declaring that the customer is always right and that professors were expendable.”
Professor Jones is not your average professor. He held an endowed chair at Princeton for four decades, going to NYU only after retiring. His research was prodigious—over a lifetime, he had around 100 students co-author academic papers with him. As Princeton’s Office of the Dean of the Faculty put it upon his retirement there in 2007, “it is his devotion to excellent teaching in the context of outstanding research that is the signal strength of Mait’s career at Princeton.” He was a hard grader too. A 1988 Princeton graduate who played football, Luis Javier Castro, was told by Jones, “You are not here to play football. That’s not what your priority is.” But, Castro added, “He was tough but fair.”
What NYU appears to be doing—watering down the organic chemistry course in order to make it easier to get a good grade—has been going on in higher education for decades. Scholarly papers suggest that the average American university student spends nearly one-third less time on academic pursuits in recent times compared with what their counterparts did a half century or so earlier. That fits my own experience. Grade inflation contributes mightily to an environment where students get higher grades with far less work. The most common grade used to be “C”; now, it’s “B” and even “A” in some schools and majors. Federal time use data suggest that the typical eighth grader spends more time on academics than the average college student. All of this comports with broader national data showing a huge number of able-bodied Americans simply not working—the Great Resignation in action.
Most controversies over fired professors involve First Amendment–type matters—outspoken faculty members saying things inconsistent with the ideological conformity that many in academia, including a vicious DEI Gestapo, are trying to enforce. This is different. Dr. Jones served NYU on annual non–tenure track contracts. He has no strong legal argument for continued appointment, and at age 84 was approaching voluntary full retirement anyhow. His crime? He is demanding. He noted that attendance was often below 50 percent, and few students visited him during office hours—not even attempting to improve their mediocre performance.
Historically, good performance in scientific courses has been considered important by medical schools. Students with poor grades, it is argued, make poorer doctors, potentially not saving lives that highly qualified physicians might have. If schools water down academic standards, instead requiring students to sign statements similar to loyalty oaths that proclaim their support of diversity and inclusion, they likely reduce the pool of highly qualified students available to perform well in med school and save lives in their postgraduate years. If we have sociology or gender studies majors who do poorly academically, society does not suffer unduly. But inadequately trained doctors are a problem, especially in a nation where life expectancy has been falling for several years in a row and is below that of many other industrialized nations.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the affaire Jones is the evidence of a sharp decline in faculty power; increasingly, faculty are viewed as hired hands marginally more important than the custodians, but less so than the diversity apparatchiks. Faculty are, figuratively, a dime a dozen, so much so that the number of new PhDs is starting to decline sharply, as too many of them end up doing barista-style work or become part of a poorly paid, vocationally insecure academic underclass.
Historically, faculty appointments and firings were almost exclusively the prerogative of the permanent faculty. One account I read suggested that there were senior chemistry faculty at NYU who opposed the decision to discontinue Maitland Jones’ contract. Yet it is non-faculty administrators who seemingly call the shots. Educational success for an NYU professor is apparently defined by student popularity, not by learning criteria. More broadly, medical school applicants nationwide are frequently asked about their views on “systemic racism” and other woke concerns—but what does that have to do with the practice of medicine?
Again, higher education has lost sight of Job One: providing high-quality vocational training, wisdom, knowledge, civic virtue, and other attributes that make people successful in life. But academic success and vocational excellence require commitment and hard work, qualities that NYU seems willing to sacrifice in order to keep peace on campus.
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