Decisions regarding the hiring and firing of professors seldom make headlines. At most, a tale about a professor suspended for using the N-word may appear in an academically oriented outlet. But headlines in big-city dailies? Not so much.
Yet, this is exactly what occurred when New York University summarily fired Professor Maitland Jones, Jr., a distinguished chemist who previously taught at Princeton, after 82 students (a quarter of the total) in his organic chemistry class complained about his tough grading and teaching style. Even the British tabloid, The Daily Mail, featured the story.
But why the brouhaha over a commonplace incident, one that does not involve the hot-button topics of race or sex? Most importantly, who is the culprit? This is not as clear-cut as it might initially appear.
The prime suspects would seem to be the students who signed the letter of complaint, many of whom are probably lazy, spoiled, and intellectually fragile. If this were a criminal investigation, the unhappy students are holding smoking guns. Case closed.
More, however, may be involved, and alternative hypotheses warrant consideration. One might reasonably inquire if NYU knowingly admitted students interested in STEM fields who were incapable of passing organic chemistry—if so, who admitted them? Were these disgruntled undergraduates disproportionately underqualified affirmation-action admits? If so, that makes government officials, together with NYU admissions officers, contributing factors in Professor Jones’ termination.
An important question is whether Professor Jones ignored or, most likely, did not receive what we might call “the talk,” a ritual familiar to countless academics in which you are encouraged to relax academic standards. Here, for instance, your chair expresses “concern” about your teaching. Perhaps you give too many assignments, or you sharply question students in class. After some chit-chat, you and the chair agree to make some adjustments to keep the peace, and the matter passes. Nobody is fired.
The possibility of such “talks” to faculty may be the more serious scandal here, not the firing of a hard-nosed distinguished professor. Conceivably, Professor Jones did not get “the talk,” and taught the course as if he were still at Princeton decades back. Perhaps the NYU administrator in charge of hiring adjuncts was asleep at the wheel when Jones was brought onboard. Professor Jones might have been taken aside before the contract was signed and told the score—“some of our undergraduates may struggle with your course, but retention is important at NYU, so we hope you take this into account.” At that point in the negotiations, Professor Jones, being a man of high standards, might have declined the offer. Maybe next time, lessons learned, NYU will hire a less distinguished adjunct to teach organic chemistry, one who is willing do whatever it takes to keep his job.
The necessity of retention becomes apparent when we realize that NYU is a private school with sky-high tuition ( $58,168, but with other expenses, the total cost of attendance is as much as $83,250 per year)—not everyone can pay such hefty fees. It’s hard to kick out students willing to pay such prices. Nor does the university have an especially large endowment given its size, which could otherwise subsidize expenses. No wonder, then, that “client satisfaction” has likely replaced the old “look to your right, look to your left …” policy.
Further, add the high cost of running the school. NYU’s top administrators are well-paid, while its professors earn about double what other professors in New York City earn. Then there’s the bureaucratic overhead for promoting diversity and inclusion, along with centers for LGBT+ and the like. With all these financial obligations, it’s no wonder that a few disgruntled students able to pay the high tuition can cause trouble for a distinguished professor. Bills must be paid, and NYU hardly needs the reputation of a place where students routinely flunk out.
Nor is Professor Jones totally blameless for his termination. A professor of organic chemistry should know that you cannot get blood from turnips, so adjusting to what students can learn comes with the job. All professors accept the need to teach at an appropriate level, and maybe he should have made mid-course corrections as he noticed the dreadful quiz results, drop-out rates, and spotty class attendance. As a gung-ho football coach might put it, Jones should have “gotten with the program.”
But there may be a larger scandal here far beyond the particulars of Professor Jones’ dismissal. Top American universities may be running low on intellectual talent, and, quite rationally, are probably concealing this shortfall by bending the grading curves. Today’s NYU students are, conceivably, just dumber than those at Princeton, where Professor Jones once taught a half century back, so he was tossing pearls to swine. This decline is not mere speculation—for five consecutive years, ACT scores have fallen, and they are now at their lowest level in 30 years. No wonder more than 1,800 colleges and universities no longer require standardized test scores for admission—who wants to hear the bad news? Professor Jones was pursuing mission impossible, so to speak.
Parents may also be accomplices here by raising lazy youngsters and pushing them into schools where they are in over their heads intellectually. In fact, the entire student advising industry exists to exaggerate the academic abilities of college applicants, but reality arrives when they struggle to master a rigorous course in organic chemistry. Professor Jones’ students are innocent by virtue of innate intellectual incompetence that was covered up by parents who “just wanted to help” junior.
Most controversial of all, as schools attract more women and fewer men, it should come as no surprise that troubles erupt in challenging fields like organic chemistry. Kay Hymowitz recently explained how young males are abandoning college, leading to fewer enrollees with the exceptional math and analytical abilities necessary to excel in demanding science courses. Given the disparate abilities of men and women (men dominate the very top), Professor Jones is just the unfortunate victim of a wider dysgenic trend. The admissions office might also be guilty by virtue of pushing gender equality at the expense of necessary intellectual ability. The ghost of Larry Summers and his comments about women and science lurks here.
Then there’s today’s woke mania. Why should nerdy white males enroll in schools like NYU, given campus hysteria over “white privilege,” “toxic masculinity,” and all the rest? Or where “science” is belittled as just a “European” way of acquiring knowledge? Why spend a small fortune and work long hours only to be demonized as racists whose very presence excludes worthy women and people of color? Perhaps the NYU administration should have abandoned its diversity mania and its penchant for grievance-based majors to fill the classroom with more super-smart Asians willing to work hard in organic chemistry? Terrible optics, to be sure, but Professor Jones may have had fewer problems. The bill for attacking merit as a subterfuge for advancing “whiteness” may be coming due.
Conceivably, Professor Jones’ tribulations might have been avoided if top NYU leaders frankly acknowledged that with the supply of top intellectual talent declining, NYU required downsizing. Quality, not quantity. It would be no different than what has occurred at firms like GM and GE. But fewer enrollees yield less tuition income and, eventually, fewer donating alumni. Such a purge is thus hardly an attractive option for NYU’s growth-minded, well-paid administration.
Truth in advertising may be the only practical solution when the likes of Professor Jones try to teach tough subjects. If students insist on gut courses, administrators should supply them and label them as such. The Chemistry Department might thus offer both Organic Chemistry and “General Organic Chemistry,” or, better yet, an entirely new major called “Chemistry Studies.” Chemistry Studies majors may then earn an advanced degree in “Medical Studies,” where they can demonstrate the link between racism and mortality. Employment opportunities for those with such degrees are bountiful, and the Ford Foundation may recruit them. Yes, enrollments in real organic chemistry will decline, but at least hard-nosed professors need not fret about e-mails from global warming–obsessed students triggered by the term, “carbon.”
In sum, Professor Jones’ firing reflects a multitude of factors, not just a bunch of malcontent students. It’s a crime scene with so many suspects.
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