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Maitland Jones Jr.
credit: hindustantimes

As regular readers know, I’ve taught high school and college. I have been, for many years, explaining all the greatest teacher in the world can do is provide the best opportunity for learning their abilities and resources allow. The rest is up to students, and K-12, parents. College is quite another matter. So long as a teacher is doing this, and so long as they are conducting themselves professionally, the reality of this simple statement holds true.

Obviously, some teachers are better than others. They establish a professional rapport with their students, enjoy being with them, and enjoy teaching. Such teachers inspire students capable of being inspired to greater heights of achievement. Such teachers also demand a great deal of their students, more than most teachers do, always understanding not everyone has the same intellectual abilities, nor the same motivation. Even so, they do their best to help each student learn as much as they are capable of learning.  This is their part of the implied contract.

It should go without saying, but these days it can’t, that teachers cannot be student’s middle to late age homies. They must be educated, responsible adults with a very specific mission, and very specific responsibilities. They can like, even love, their students, but there must always be professional barriers between them, for everyone’s good.

I’m sure, gentle readers, you see the underlying principles: equality of opportunity and merit. Students who do not do the work do not learn, and they are given the grades they deserve, as do students who do the work and learn a great deal. This, of course, has nothing to do with “equity,” which demands equal outcomes regardless of effort and accomplishment. Which outcomes? In “equitable” education, everyone gets an “A.”

With this in mind, let’s explore the plight of former NYU Professor Maitland Jones Jr. The James G. Martin Center posted this article in December of 2022:

As long as college students are considered entitled customers, their complaints about their professors will be taken seriously by administrators. That’s because happy students boost college applications, affect the closely-watched U.S. News & World Report annual rankings, and are part of the corporatization of higher education.

The latest example involves Maitland Jones Jr. and his organic chemistry course at NYU. When 82 of the professor’s 350 students signed a petition charging that his course was too hard, the deans terminated his contract and allowed students to withdraw from the class retroactively. This highly unusual step ignited an equal and opposite reaction from both the chemistry faculty, who protested the decision, and pro-Jones students.

Jones, a tenured professor, taught at NYU for four decades, and actually wrote the book on organic chemistry.

The controversy surrounding Jones has far-reaching implications for higher education today as it attempts to handle its Gen-Z student body. There was a time when college administrators paid little attention to student dissatisfaction. Their opinions were largely written off as a sign of their immaturity. But things have changed because of the high stakes involved. Students believe that they are entitled to all A’s while putting in little effort because they are paying soaring tuition. Not surprisingly, professors who have not yet achieved tenure are reluctant to disappoint students out of fear that poor ratings will be used against them. In contrast, tenured professors simply dig in their heels, citing lowering standards.

When I taught college back in the late 80s, there was no question who was in charge, nor did students imagine their complaints would prevail when they did not do the work and received accordingly poor grades.

Although learning is the shared responsibility of students and professors, students are the easier target. They study only 13 hours per week on average, or less than two hours per day in a typical semester, according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses. That’s half as much as their peers in the early 1960s. More than 80 percent of their time, on average, is spent on work, clubs, socializing, and sleeping. No wonder they struggle to master rigorous work, particularly in the hard sciences and math.

The role that professors play in learning is far more nuanced. Old-timers with tenure cite the importance of maintaining high standards when they refuse to concede that their instruction might not engage students. Yet high standards and effective pedagogy are not mutually exclusive. Lecturing, which remains the most widely used method in many higher-ed disciplines, reduces students to passive stenographers. During the pandemic, Jones and two colleagues taped 52 organic chemistry lectures to reach failing students. But these lectures, for which Jones personally paid more than $5,000, were insufficient. In 2020, 30 students filed a petition asking for more help. It may never have occurred to Jones that he was partly to blame.

The author fails to acknowledge lecture, and discussion, are essential to college education.  Are teachers no longer able to expect students will actually pay attention?  Read the text?  Take notes?  Ask pertinent questions?  Visit a professor during office hours if they don’t understand?  What will replace lecture and discussion?  Group work?  Making collages?  Giving book reports?  Holding Marxist struggle sessions?  The article does not provide any actual evidence Jones was in any way deficient in his instruction. There is no evidence of Jones’ failure to adhere to the college handbook, or to uphold any professional standard.  If NYU was like my school during the Covid crazy years, he had no option but to teach online. Everyone knew that kind of instruction was substandard, but administrators forced teachers to pretend otherwise, and generally, to grade with little regard for accomplishment.

In the final analysis, Jones created his own downfall for two reasons: He was not able to transfer his formidable research expertise in organic chemistry to the classroom, and he failed to develop a solid rapport with his students. (According to NYU’s student newspaper, ‘There are dozens of comments across social media warning students about taking Jones’ class dating back more than a decade.’) If Jones had been able to achieve only one of these two goals, he likely would not have been terminated. Research has shown that students rank ‘caring’ professors quite differently from ‘uncaring’ professors. Could it be that Jones’s inability to connect with his students was more important than his rigid standards?

The article fails to understand an important distinction: the difference between respect and deference. Students these days have unlimited self-respect and demand professors “respect” them because of their unlimited self-respect, untainted by character and accomplishment. Respect is best defined as appreciation for the character and accomplishments of others. It is earned; it cannot be demanded. At the very least, every college student owes every teacher deference—duties owned because of one’s position. It’s clear at least 82 of Jones’ students didn’t understand, and likely didn’t care about, this important distinction, nor did the administrators at NYU. What, pray tell, had Jones’s students done to earn anyone’s respect in an organic chemistry classroom? Who would take such a class thinking it to be on the same intellectual level as a “studies” class?  What, precisely, enables students to know if an organic chemistry course is “too hard?”  What is their basis of knowledge, their basis for comparison with an organic chemistry course that is not too hard?  How is “too hard” to be measured, and who gets to establish the parameters for measurement?

Jones also set himself up for dismissal by violating what higher-education researcher George Kuh calls the “disengagement compact” between faculty and students: ‘I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.’ Simply put, this tacit agreement means that professors won’t make students work too hard for a high grade as long as students give professors high marks in evaluating their courses. But Jones seems to have wanted it both ways. He refused to lower standards at the same time that he came across to his students as aloof. This lethal combination led to his termination.

How dare Jones demand attention and accomplishment!  How dare he expect students taking a hard science course to actually put in the time and effort necessary to master the material! And once again, the author of the article provides no evidence whatever that Jones “came across to his students as aloof,” nor does he provide any evidence of any other sort of microaggressing malfeasance.

Whether NYU acted appropriately, however, is another story. Administrators today are highly attuned to student feedback. But in handling the complaints against Jones, they overreacted. Instead of summarily firing him, they should have offered him assistance to improve his instruction. By allowing students to retroactively withdraw from his class and then terminating him, they established a dangerous precedent.

Indeed they did, and the author isn’t helping. Once again, the author provides no evidence, not even student whining, that would lead one to think Jones needed “assistance to improve his instruction.” Obviously, the majority of Jones’ students did not consider Jones’ instruction to be objectionable. What appears obvious is a portion of Jones’ students objected to having to learn the content of a hard science class, a class absolutely vital to anyone going into medicine or any related scientific discipline.  If they were not considering such a career, why take that class?  They whined, and the University administrators caved in, thus sending the very clear message merit has no place in their university, studying is unnecessary, and academic standards likewise don’t matter. What is an NYU diploma now worth?

Unless and until students are required to pay appropriate deference to teachers, little or no learning can take place, particularly in college. Even in my lowly, mid-sized Texas high school, students behaving as these did would not only not be heeded, they’d absolutely not be coddled. If a teacher wasn’t meeting professional obligations, that would be professionally handled, but the proper, professional relationship between teachers and students was always enforced.  Can not even that K-12 standard be expected of college students?

Where all this will lead is still unknown. But if the past few years are any indication, higher education may soon be unrecognizable.

It already is unrecognizable, and the actions of fools like those in charge of NYU have made it so.