New York University’s firing of professor Maitland Jones Jr. after student complaints about poor grades have lit a fuse among parents who say lowering academic standards in American schools is not doing students any favors.
Jones, an award-winning professor of organic chemistry, taught for four decades at Princeton before NYU. Princeton University’s dean of faculty credited him pioneering a new way of teaching which emphasized problem-based learning rather than a “lecture-memorize-regurgitate facts” style.
But last May, 82 of Jones’ 350 NYU students signed a petition against him, arguing that the course was too hard and blaming Jones for their poor test scores. Organic chemistry has a notorious reputation in academia for its rigorous subject matter.
“We are very concerned about our results and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” the petition reads, according to the New York Times. “We urge you to realize… that a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to prioritize student learning and well-being and reflects poorly on the chemistry department as well as the institution as a whole.”
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Jones reportedly made accommodations for his students, including attempts to make his exams easier, and told the university that the pandemic had exacerbated the students’ already apparent lack of focus. University deans terminated Jones’ contract before the start of the fall semester.
The officials also offered to review the students’ grades and allowed them to retroactively withdraw from the class.
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The New York Times said the situation raised several questions about the state of academics for Gen Z, including whether universities should ease the pressure on students in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and how universities should respond to the growing number of student complaints against professors.
Parents of education advocacy groups answered these questions in Fox News Digital interviews.
“Because the stakes are so high and not all students are equipped to become doctors, sometimes you have to make ‘cuts,'” Ashley Jacobs of Parents Unite told Fox Digital. “Instead of lowering standards, we should raise them as well as our expectations. Shouldn’t a goal of education be to help each student reach his potential? To do this would require teaching students to expect more from themselves and not to blame others when things are too hard. Perhaps we should also have a conversation about the role of professors in higher education. The sage on the stage model seems to be replaced by one who must entertain his clients in exchange for positive reviews.”
Army of Parents founder Elicia Brand took a similar view, arguing that today’s academic institutions are too concerned with “catering” to young people.
“The dismissal of Professor Maitland Jones Jr. is indicative of the problem our nation faces with many academic institutions catering to and turning away idealistic young adults who are undereducated, easily offended and entitled, and who do not will do a lot as productive members of our society as a result,” Brand told Fox News Digital. “When we pay for an education at a reputable university, we should expect quality professors to intellectually challenge our students and help them grow by pushing them to stretch beyond what is practical and comfortable. Doing something less , will not result, is positive result.”
“Instead, universities and K-12 public schools support the idea that a good work ethic and high expectations are racist, lowering the standards of education to accommodate this popular ideology,” Brand added. “Don’t be surprised when we have a generation of adults dependent on government and America’s productivity and decline on the world stage. Instead of firing professors like Maitland Jones Jr., we should be hiring more like him to fend off the soft bigotry of low expectations that infect academia today and push our students to reach their full potential. Let us never forget that today’s students will be tomorrow’s decision-makers, impacting all of our lives.”
In a statement responding to the backlash, NYU defended its decision to let Jones go, saying he was simply “not successful.”
“NYU generally disagrees with and is disappointed in the way the matter of Professor Jones has been characterized publicly,” NYU President Andrew D. Hamilton said in a statement to Fox News Digital.
“What this was about was NYU’s expectations for high-quality, effective teaching,” Hamilton said later. “This professor was hired to teach this very course, and was not successful – that’s the bottom line. NYU has lots of hard courses and lots of hard graders among the faculty – they don’t end up with results that raise questions about the quality and effectiveness of their teaching, as this class did. Among the many things a university should stand for—including academic freedom, academic rigor, and a robust research enterprise—one of them should be good teaching. Good teaching should Be not pitted against rigor as an excuse for bad teaching; good teaching and rigor are perfectly compatible, and the latter is not a threat to the former at NYU.”
Some social media users argued that the professor could have done a better job adapting the course material as the poor grades continued, including some critics who claimed to be his former students, while many more agreed with the parents who criticized the university for its handling of the situation.
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The debate about academic standards extends across the country. Parents in Fairfax, Virginia, recently called for a “fair grading system” at schools across the district in an effort to combat “institutional bias,” according to internal FCPS communications obtained by the Washington Examiner. The intention was reportedly to eliminate racial disparities in grades.
“Taking away rigorous academic instruction and evaluation is the opposite way to fix American education,” Parents Defending Education President Nicki Neily tweeted about the report.
Educators have also blasted policies they believe lower expectations, including the controversial zero-grading policy, which prohibits teachers from giving students grades below 50% even if a student failed an assignment. Supporters of the policy argue that giving students too many zeroes could make it nearly impossible for them to pass. But educators like Daniel Buck, an English teacher and editor-in-chief of Chalkboard Review, have argued that the “no-zero” rule removes the incentive from students.
“There is no perfect approach to grading; – all systems have their own trade-offs – but this idea that we’re just going to cut off the grading scale halfway is a patently idiotic idea,” he later added.
Cornell law professor William Jacobson cited the NYU incident and the trend toward “equality” learning in his bid for the “collapse” of academic standards.
“We are witnessing a collapse in credit standards throughout academia, with moves to eliminate the SATs and LSATs from admissions along with the kind of lowering of academic standards that occurred with the NYU chemistry course,” Jacobson told Fox News Digital. “This breakdown may be partly to blame for the pandemic’s shift to distance learning, but the fundamental problem is much deeper. In the name of ‘equality’, we demonize achievement and adopt an ‘everyone gets a trophy’ attitude even in STEM. A campus culture that focuses on student sentiments, is becoming unable to maintain standards. The consequences for the future of the country are dire as we are or will be graduating students who elsewhere in the world would flee. This is becoming a national security concern.”