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Screenshot/Elizabeth Redden/Inside Higher Ed
Let’s start with the easy part first: if New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr. for maintaining high standards in his organic chemistry class, every professor in America should be outraged. And we should be scared, too, because it now seems like many of us can lose our jobs if we demand too much from our students.
But the news coverage of this sad episode—and the Twitterstorm about the same—focused too much on Jones and not enough on NYU. Put simply, what was the university doing to help students succeed in his course?
I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that many of our universities let students sink or swim, especially in large “weed-out” courses like the class Jones taught. We call them that because we expect a certain fraction of students to fail. And the ones who do come disproportionately from minority and underprivileged communities.
Even more, as a study published last month showed, underrepresented minority students are less likely to pursue a degree in STEM fields after getting a low grade in an introductory course. So it isn’t just that underrepresented minority students receive worse grades in these courses; they’re also more likely than other students to leave STEM fields altogether, even after you control for their academic preparation in high school.
That, too, should concern every American faculty member. To be clear, I don’t think we should lower our standards to allow more students—whatever their backgrounds—to skate by. Rather, we should assist them in meeting the kind of high standards that Maitland Jones reportedly set.
That’s what David Laude did at the University of Texas, where he proved that more people will rise to the mark if we provide them the proper support. Like Jones, Laude is a prominent chemistry professor. And for many years, large numbers of students flunked his freshman survey course.
Initially, Laude took a kind of grim pride in that. He was holding these kids accountable, damn it! And if they didn’t make it, it was their own damned fault. As recounted in the journalist Paul Tough’s invaluable book, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us (Mariner Books, 2019), Laude even participated in a time-honored ritual of weed-out courses: he would ask two or three students to stand on the first day of class and then announce that it was statistically probable that one of them would fail.
But the ones most likely to do so came from low-income families and attended public high schools with few advanced classes, as Laude realized when he looked at his grade distribution. Many were first-generation college students. They reminded him of his younger self: born into a working-class family, he had barely passed freshman chemistry. Rather than assuming that a consistent fraction of students would fail, he started to wonder how he could help them succeed.
Like any good scientist, he devised an experiment to find out. He placed students who came to college with low SAT scores into a smaller section of his course, where they also received extra support from tutors and advisers. But the content they studied was identical to what Laude taught in his regular large-group course: same textbooks, same lectures, same tests.
The result? The students in the smaller section earned the same average grades as those in the regular lecture course. Even more, they graduated three years later at a higher rate than the students in the larger section did.
You don’t have to be a brain surgeon—or an organic chemist—to see why. Laude didn’t water down the course material for the underprivileged students, in any way; rather, he developed new ways to assist them in learning it. Other universities have followed suit, radically reducing student failures by providing tutors, advisers and smaller classes. They have also instituted digital “nudges,” such as text messages offering to help people who have failed an exam and video testaments by successful students describing their initial struggles.
Although this “student success movement”—as its adherents call it—is still in its infancy, we already have data suggesting that its interventions can have powerful effects. What we don’t have is a shared institutional commitment to student success itself. I’m talking about you, and me, and everyone else who works in higher education. If we were truly dedicated to students’ academic growth, we wouldn’t need a special “movement” devoted to it.
That brings us back to Maitland Jones, who was dismissed after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition claiming—among other things—that his organic chemistry course was too hard and their grades were too low. Admirably, Jones spent more than $5,000 of his own money to create video lectures to assist his students. But they simply didn’t study enough, he told The New York Times; indeed, he said, many of them didn’t know how to study at all.
Why not? What skills are they lacking, and what has NYU done to remedy that? That’s not on the university, you might reply; it’s on the students, to better themselves. And if they don’t, well, they should go do something else.
To which I say: if that’s your view, dear professor, you should go do something else. Seriously. We should all be part of the student success movement, seeking to enhance academic learning and achievement. That doesn’t mean we should lower our standards; it means that we should commit to finding ways to help our students meet them. And if that’s not your jam, we don’t want you. At least I don’t.
Full disclosure: I taught at NYU for 20 years, but I never met Maitland Jones. I didn’t observe his classes, review his student ratings or sit on a committee evaluating him. But I also wrote a book about college teaching, based on archival research at 59 different institutions. And at each one, I discovered, there were professors who were widely recognized as exceptional.
One of them was Maitland Jones. A relative who took organic chemistry with him at Princeton told me that Jones was the best teacher he ever had, hands down. “He was the person who taught me to think,” the relative wrote me last week, after Jones’s dismissal hit the press. “His exams were always synthetic insofar as they required you to apply what you had learned and to create knowledge that was new to you.”
Jones retired from his tenured position at Princeton in 2007 and taught at NYU after that, on a series of yearly contracts. Especially since the COVID pandemic began, he told the Times, student performance on his exams has plummeted; predictably, students evaluated his course harshly. An NYU spokesman told the Times that Jones had the worst student evaluations of “all the university’s undergraduate science courses” and that he was the subject of student complaints about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading.” In a note terminating his contract, a dean said that Jones’s instruction “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.”
And what “standards” are those, exactly? To keep the paying customers happy, or to enhance their learning? If NYU dismissed Maitland Jones for his high standards—and for failing too many students who didn’t meet them—it should be deeply ashamed. But so should the rest of us, wherever we teach, for failing to do everything we can to help our own students succeed.