Firing A Professor for a “Hard Class” Sets a Scary Precedent for the Future of Education

Illustration by Diane Kim

Alex Dinofia

Contributing Writer

Just recently, Maitland Jones Jr., an established New York University professor (NYU), was forced to resign after 82 out of 350 of his students signed a petition in favor of his dismissal. Jones was a well-respected organic chemistry professor and many would associate him with writing one of the lead chemistry textbooks, Chemistry World. The chemistry department and higher education community was rattled by this news, leading to questions about accessibility and how such education will be perceived in the future. 

The petition stated, “We urge you to realize that a class with such a high percentage of withdrawals and low grades has failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority and reflects poorly on the chemistry department as well as the institution as a whole.”

When I first heard that Jones was fired because his class was too difficult, I could empathize with him. Attending UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) sheds light on how difficult it can be to teach challenging courses. In my opinion, firing a professor based on the rigor of a class seemed severe. 

I spoke to Professor Wainwright, a statistics professor at UCSB, to shed some light on the difficulty of teaching a course in STEM.

“Generally in academia, for somebody to lose their job like that it needs to be a pattern,” Wainwright said. “This could’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Jones publicly stated that he believed the pandemic stress played a big part in the students’ struggle. When classes moved online, Jones and other professors taped over 50 lecture videos that the university still uses today. Jones created two separate sections, one that focused on traditional sections and one that focused on problem-solving to encourage different learning methods. However, even with the videos and flexibility, students in 2020 were still struggling and 30 out of 475 of them petitioned to ask for extra help

This incident at New York University will have a lasting impact on schools around the country. Professors and university faculty have expressed concerns about the impact this may have on students and argue that colleges are losing their credibility. I would agree that colleges are starting to treat students like paying customers. Students expect that if they pay to attend a university, they should get what they paid for. 

Professor Wainwright provided a good analogy that depicts this scenario. He said, “I think of the service more like a gym membership, you are paying to go to the gym. If you are putting in a lot of work and getting a personal trainer, then you are going to get some good value out of it.”

I am scared for the future of education. The balance of a student-professor relationship is very fragile. There must be a certain power dynamic to create a healthy learning environment. The idea that schools are marketplaces has tainted schools on all levels. As part of the Gen-Z student body, I see a fervor of entitlement growing. Students typically blame the professor for bad grades. In reality, students should put in equal effort as the professor to see their work reflected in their grades.

Other chemistry professors are worried about the future of the medical field. They are worried that NYU might make the material easier for students. With that, many worry that if students aren’t challenged enough in these courses, they won’t be good physicians who can properly treat patients.

While there are two sides to a story, it is difficult to know the nature of the class from an outsider’s perspective. There is no way to know if the students’ claims were justifiable, but I think there is always some truth to a rumor. I would argue that at least a few of his students were right to be frustrated. As a student, I know what it is like to feel minimal support from the faculty. Especially in an extremely challenging chemistry course, students want to feel like they have support. Students absolutely should speak up when they feel they are not getting the help they need.

Maya Deak, a second-year UCSB student currently enrolled in an organic chemistry class, broke down what her professor-student relationship looks like. 

“My teacher provides multiple different office hours and resources to get help,” she said. “However, succeeding in the class comes down to making an effort myself to take advantage of these resources.”

Following Jones’s retirement, he spoke out about how he will move forward. Jones does not plan to get his job back. However, he wants to take action to make sure this won’t happen to anyone else.