The firing of New York University (NYU) chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. after students complained about one of his organic chemistry classes has prompted concern and dismay among others in the academic chemistry community.
As revealed in an Oct. 3 article in the New York Times, Jones was dismissed at the beginning of the fall semester after the university received a petition from 82 of his 350 students last spring complaining about low grades and the difficulty of an organic chemistry course taken by many nonmajors.
“I’m very disturbed by it being a decision made by the dean’s office, not by the Chemistry Department,” says David Schuster, an emeritus chemistry professor at NYU. Schuster says he has been in touch with several of his former colleagues and current Chemistry Department members at NYU, all of whom object to the university’s action.
The news “was startling on many levels,” says Eric Jacobsen, a chemistry professor at Harvard University who teaches organic chemistry classes. Jacobsen is also an NYU alumnus, having graduated with a BS in chemistry in 1982. “Almost immediately,” he says, “people reached out to me and asked me, ‘What happened to your school?’ ”
This is not only an NYU story, Jacobsen says. He notes that Jones, who retired from Princeton University in 2007, was a nontenured professor working at NYU under an annual contract. “I don’t know if there are other instances of nontenured teaching staff dismissed over complaints from students,” he says. “I imagine that happens more often than we think.”
NYU’s decision to dismiss Jones, who is 84, was particularly notable because of his prominence in the field, Jacobsen says. “They did something good initially, bringing in one of the world’s best teachers to teach primarily premed students.”
Jacobsen adds that there needs to be a better way to evaluate professors than the current one, which relies heavily, if not entirely, on student evaluations.
He and others also note that Jones’s dismissal highlights a common—and some say problematic—system of teaching organic chemistry in which chemistry majors and nonmajors take separate classes. The latter group, often heavily populated by premed students who are required to take the course, is seen as focused primarily on grades. Many who signed the petition at NYU were premed students.
Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a chemistry and computer science professor at the University of Toronto, says the student petition points to a “premed culture” that needs to change. Jacobsen, on the other hand, says he views the challenge of teaching a nonmajor course as a welcome opportunity to get premed students engaged in a field vital to their intended career.
Aspuru-Guzik points to the problem of a “TikTok generation” whose habits have been impacted by time spent online at the expense of textbook study. He also sees the university’s action as a threat to academic freedom.
He cites La libertad de cátedra, a constitutionally protected right in Spain and his native Mexico that ensures professors have the freedom to teach according to their own convictions and standards. “The principle is that the professor defines the course, his space, and the grading scheme,” Aspuru-Guzik says. “It is very usual to think the university is on your side all the time. More and more when there is a problem, the university’s move is to protect the university and not the professor.”
Mark Tuckerman, the head of NYU’s Chemistry Department, confirms that the decision not to renew Jones’s contract was made against the department’s recommendation. “My specific recommendation to the deans was that Mait should be reappointed,” he says. “Our plan was to assign him to teach only the chemistry major sections of organic chemistry, which is where he shines. He has high standards, and that is something the majors specifically respond very well to.”
In a written statement, NYU says Jones’s course evaluation scores “were by far the worst not only among members of the Chemistry Department but among all the University’s undergraduate science courses.” Defending its decision not to renew his 1-year contract, NYU refers to “multiple student complaints about his dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension, and opacity about grading.”
NYU chemistry professor Paramjit Arora is critical of the university’s handling of a complex situation but also expresses sympathy for the students. “I have complained enough in my youth and now in middle age that I generally support all sorts of kvetching,” he says in an email. “To me, the issue here is not about the students writing a petition—it is about the administration’s overreaction. NYU deans chose not to take a nuanced approach to analyzing this situation.”