NYU’s Firing of a Chemistry Professor Caused a Furor. Here’s What He Has to Say About It.

Everyone has a take on the dismissal of Maitland Jones Jr. An op-ed writer for the New York Post believes it “should frighten every American.” A headline on NBC News’s website declares that it “shows how low colleges have sunk.” Over at CNN, a columnist worries about a “dangerous precedent.” Meanwhile, a Los Angeles Times contributor has a message for students: “You don’t ‘get’ a grade. You have to earn it.”

The New York Times first reported that Jones, a longtime professor of organic chemistry and the author of a well-regarded textbook on the subject, had been given the ax by New York University. NYU declined to renew Jones’s contract in August, informing him that he had failed to meet the university’s teaching standards. That decision followed a petition signed by a group of students in his introductory organic-chemistry course, who complained that their grades hadn’t reflected the effort they’d put in.

The story touched on a host of hot-button issues in higher ed, including the challenges of teaching during the pandemic, the ease with which non-tenured faculty members can be fired, the importance of rigor in undergraduate curricula, and whether students wield too much power. NYU took flak from all sides — and fired back as well. In a written statement, a spokesman for the university said Jones had been “hired to teach, and wasn’t successful.” The statement cited poor student evaluations and a high number of withdrawals.

For his part, Jones maintains that the university acted abruptly and unwisely. He pushed back on NYU’s specific allegation that, according to the spokesman, Jones “ceased the final grading of his current students’ work and left everyone in the lurch.” In fact, Jones said, he turned in his grades in May and wasn’t sure he would have access to the grading system after his contract wasn’t renewed. Speaking of grades, Jones said that 60 percent of the final marks in his last course were A’s or B’s. He also said that he had failed 19 of the 350 students in the class (most of those F’s, according to Jones, were later changed to withdrawals).

I spoke recently to the professor about his lengthy academic career, the remarkable furor around his departure, and what he thinks about students today. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

I know this isn’t how you expected your career to end, with your story being seen as a parable about declining academic standards. How do you feel about that?

The honest answer is that it’s painful. It’s certainly not how I would have scripted it.

You spent 43 years at Princeton before going to NYU, in 2007. I’m curious what drew you to teaching in the first place and what made you want to continue after you retired from Princeton.

It was this material that turned me on and led me to my research career. I learned from an overwhelmingly charismatic and quite difficult person, but a fabulously good teacher. I wanted, in turn, to show that love of material to the next generations. And I wasn’t very good at the beginning, but I got better. And as I got better, there were things I thought I could do particularly well, and that made me want to do it even more. And, you know, if you scratch a successful lecturer — I don’t think there’s any doubt that that’s a proper description, at least of my Princeton years — you find a frustrated performer. So there was some of that, too. It’s a great audience when you think about it: smart, capable, slightly hostile. If you could win them over, then you’ve really done something.

In your email to students notifying them that your contract had been terminated, you wrote the following: “Now a piece of unsolicited advice: It is very difficult to be self-critical. It is hard to accept personal responsibility when we meet failure, as each of us will at some point, but it is an essential life skill you would be wise to develop.” Do you think the students who signed that petition were unable to take personal responsibility for their academic performance in your class?

It won’t be true of every single one of them, of course, but it’ll be true of some of them. And in a way, it’s understandable, right? They’re young people, and they’re not very experienced in the world. How old are they? They’re 18 and 19. I guess it’s also the case that I think that the university administration is behaving the same way. I think they made a mistake. I think what they should have done was to get the parties together. Instead, they just overreacted, and now they can’t own up to that.

According to an NYU spokesman, your course evaluations were “by far the worst not only among members of the chemistry department but among all the university’s undergraduate science courses,” and those evaluations accused you of “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension, and opacity about grading.” I’m curious how you’d respond to that.

When they said the grading system was opaque, it was anything but. It was written down in black and white on the course syllabus.

The evaluation process has been sadly devalued. That once-very-useful process is now just another social-media opportunity to vent. And I think that’s a pity. Were I in the administration’s position, I would no longer lean on or pay much attention to, frankly, student evaluations. My evaluations at Princeton were 4.8 out of five, 4.9, stuff like that. Early on I found it very useful. Over time I think that usefulness has disappeared, and they’re often very nasty, sometimes profane, and they’re hard to look at. The good ones swell your head, and the bad ones make you angry. So there’s no more profit in it.

To be fair, I’ve read a bunch of accounts from former students of yours who say that you were among their favorite professors. What’s the reaction been like since the Times piece was published?

Most of it’s been enormously positive. And it has been a good thing to come out of this, that it’s connected me with a lot of folks that I’ve lost contact with.

Your dismissal has been viewed by some as evidence that the current generation of students is entitled and that craven university administrators are willing to sacrifice rigor in order to placate them. Is that how you see it?

I would like to not comment on that.

Why not?

If I say yes, that’s going to be interpreted as I think that all students are like that. And that’s absolutely not the case. As the bottom has fallen out of some of the class, the top is just fine. And indeed, they’re doing better than they used to do because the exams and so on have become easier, which is a shame. But I have to admit there’s been a certain amount of dumbing down, if you want to use the stock phrase, in my class, and the kids who used to get 90 — which is a very, very strong grade — are now getting 100. I worry that we’re not serving the top 10 or 20 percent very well. They shouldn’t be getting a hundred. They should be getting 92 and then looking at what those eight missing points were and learning from that. And they’re completely capable of doing that.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the idea of weed-out courses. I wonder what you think about that term.

I hate it because it implies intent. We have no intent to weed people out. Absolutely not. The other side of that is you really do want a success in the professions coming down the line for these people. You really do want competency. You want doctors who are really good, and you want engineers who can build a bridge that’s going to stand up. And you want scientists who can — cliché alert — push the frontier. At Princeton or NYU, every single student in that class was capable of success. Maybe not of a 92, but of success. I deeply dislike the notion that, you know, we teach these courses in order to weed people out. We don’t. We teach these courses in order to bring them in.

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