Firing Professor Jones: A Whodunit

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.

[Related: “Are Woke University Policies Killing People? They May Soon”]

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.

[Related: “A Failure to Communicate?”]

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.

Image: Adobe Stock

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

10 thoughts on “Firing Professor Jones: A Whodunit

  1. Many of the “organic chemistry” students could not do basic arithmetic. We are talking about adding fractions and solving simple algebraic equations. According to the author of this article, the professor should have taught elementary grade level math if the professor knew that the “students” were not prepared for the class.

    That is not an acceptable evaluation of the professor’s-or any professor’s-job.

    1. What is your source for the assertion about the math skills of the NYU organic students?

      I find it very unlikely that they would have made it through the prerequisite freshman chem course without being able to use algebra, including applied simultaneous equstions, adding of algebraic fractions, and quadratic equations.

      The math needed for key organic is actually quite a bit less. That is a really interesting thing about org.

      1. Apparently you are unaware that the two fastest growing classes on college campuses today are remedial math and remedial english. It is a bit naive to automatically assume those students had the necessary math skills.

      2. I didn’t make an assumption, I asked for a source. But you should ponder what I said about getting through the prerequisite freshman chem course, which has tougher math demands than organic. Whatever problems the students were having with organic, I doubt that they were mainly about math.

        I do suspect that Professor Jones may not have been the right guy for the time of covid. His grading was not really that strict, but he seems not to have handled the human element very well. It is telling though that so many of the Chemistry faculty at NYU came to his defense.

  2. Comrade Bob: One very important word apparently missing in your article is “covid.” I suspect also missing from Professor Jones’ reckoning about
    his ill-fated class.

  3. Much like when a police officer is accused of misconduct, they do have to publicly support him regardless. And there is the institutional standard — an engineering course taught at Salem State (a former normal school) ought not be the same as one taught at MIT.

    Reality is that we don’t have enough qualified students to fill all the seats and no one mentions that the same thing happened in the 1930s — for different reasons but institutions survived because they lowered their standards.

    I’ve long felt that professors ought to have to first teach in high school, where you have to teach the students you get and not the ones you would like to have. And where the student you flunk this year will be in your class next year.

  4. The author writes:

    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.

    Intellectual talent will come from overseas, or our Asian immigrant community, particularly in STEM. I was at a STEM area talk last month and I looked around and 80-90% of the attendees (mostly grad students) were Chinese (whether US born or from overseas I couldn’t tell). Any the lingua franca of the thousand or so programmers who power Meta/Facebook is Mandarin. As long as the US can continue to attract these people (and there are a lot–more than enough to fill all of our STEM slots), there will be no issue with “talent”. The larger problem is that probably most Americans have no idea how things work (phones, internet, etc)–not not knowing how to design an integrated circuit, but overall. And not thinking its important.

  5. The other aspect of this is that every college in the country expanded to enroll more Millennials, often borrowing to build fancy new buildings.

    Gen Z is a much smaller generation, with the bottom falling out in 2026 when the children not born in 2008 not going to college. Half of the colleges in the country will either fail or merge.

    Academic standards absolutely will drop and with faculty unions supporting this (to preserve jobs), the individuals attempting to preserve standards will live in interesting times.

    Perhaps, eventually, some institutions will become known as better than others.

  6. Reality is that you will teach the best student you have ever taught your first year as 100% of this students you have ever taught are in that cohort.

    The next year there is a 50% chance, and it goes downhill from there. Throw in the fact that undergrads become grad students and then professional colleagues and it becomes very easy to hold current students to higher standards than those you initially taught.

    Hence my null hypothesis that Jones was holding students to an objectively unreasonable standard. Perhaps the.student complaints were merely the excuse for the dean to make a decision that ought to already have been made.

    I’m not saying this is the case — I’ve never observed the man’s teaching — but I think we do need to address the null hypothesis that an objective & neutral observer would agree with the students.

    A broken clock is right twice a day and it’s theoretically possible that the students are right. What are the curriculum standards for the course, and is he exceeding them?

    And are the standards being applied equally to all students regardless of race?

    1. I think it is very telling that a huge fraction of his colleagues in Chemistry at NYU seem to have agreed with him.

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