After students protest, NYU chemistry professor fired for grading too hard

October 4, 2022 • 10:30 am

A gazillion readers sent me a link to this NYT article, which I found horrifying. Others may not, and may characterize me as a grumpy old ex-professor who can’t change with the times. So be it; as Hitchens said, “I don’t need a second; my own opinion is enough for me.” But I think there will be plenty of seconds.

The article shown below recounts how New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr. , who was teaching organic chemistry as an adjunct professor after a tenured career at Princeton. Here’s a bit from his Wikipedia bio:

Jones’ field of expertise is reactive intermediates, with particular emphasis on carbenes. He has published extensively in the field of quantum organic chemistry, particularly focusing on the mechanism of quantum molecular reactions. His interest areas include carbenes, carboranes, and heterocycles. Over the course of almost forty years, he and his research group have published 225 papers, averaging some five papers per year or one paper per active group member per year. Jones is also the author of Organic Chemistry texts. He is credited with the naming of bullvalene, which is named after William “Bull” Doering, whom Jones was studying under during his time as a graduate student at Yale University.

After retiring from Princeton in 2007, Jones taught organic chemistry at New York University until spring 2022.

At Princeton he worked his way up to full Professor, holding that position at the school from 1973 until 2007, and then apparently retiring to teach at a variety of schools (not just NYU) throughout the world (see the Wikipedia bio).

Why was he fired? Apparently because he graded too hard and was not as “available” to students as they wanted. The students circulated a petition, and NYU canned Jones. (He’ll be okay, as he presumably has a pension from Princeton and was teaching at age 85 because he liked teaching.) His widely used book was Organic Chemistry by Jones and Fleming, now in its fifth edition.

Click on the screenshot to read:


Here are the details from the NYT. Note the article notes that Jones had considerable support from the chemistry faculty and some students students, and that even the students who petitioned against his teaching neither asked for nor expected his firing.

In the field of organic chemistry, Maitland Jones Jr. has a storied reputation. He taught the subject for decades, first at Princeton and then at New York University, and wrote an influential textbook. He received awards for his teaching, as well as recognition as one of N.Y.U.’s coolest professors.

But last spring, as the campus emerged from pandemic restrictions, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him.

Students said the high-stakes course — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.

The professor defended his standards. But just before the start of the fall semester, university deans terminated Dr. Jones’s contract.

The officials also had tried to placate the students by offering to review their grades and allowing them to withdraw from the class retroactively. The chemistry department’s chairman, Mark E. Tuckerman, said the unusual offer to withdraw was a “one-time exception granted to students by the dean of the college.”

Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, summed up the situation in an email to Dr. Jones, before his firing.

He said the plan would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills,” an apparent reference to parents.

Firm hand extended to the students? It sounds like a warm handshake to me! And, of course, the handshake also went to “those who pay the tuition bills”—the parents.  What the school is doing here is to further a decadeslong movement to regard students not as humans to be exposed to one’s specialized knowledge, as well as taught critical thinking and a respect and thirst for knowledge, but as consumers.  With tuitions going stratospheric, students and their parents have come to expect a number of amenities beyond teaching and learning, foremost among them a certificate that enables one to get a job after college. And to get that certificate, you need good grades.

This accounts for grade inflation, something that’s hit nearly every American university I know of, including mine. Here’s a bar graph from a site about the issue (see also here and here). “2” corresponds to “C”, which used to represent the “average grade, “3” corresponds to a “B”, and 4 to the highest grade, an “A.” As you can see, in just the last three decades the average grade has risen from a C+ to nearly a B+. This, of course, reduces the variation in grades that used to reflect achievement, and a way to determine who was doing better than others. As the variance decreases, the ability to ascertain merit—at least as reflected in grades—decreases as well.

Like the NYU students, everybody not only wants high grades now, but expects them. In one liberal-arts class I know of (not here), the professor, being woke, allows the students to grade themselves. What you think happened? The expected: of 60 students, 59 awarded themselves “A”s, and one more humble student gave him/herself a B+.


More from the NYT piece:

The university’s handling of the petition provoked equal and opposite reactions from both the chemistry faculty, who protested the decisions, and pro-Jones students, who sent glowing letters of endorsement.

“The deans are obviously going for some bottom line, and they want happy students who are saying great things about the university so more people apply and the U.S. News rankings keep going higher,” said Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who has worked closely with Dr. Jones.

There you go. Although Jones did grade hard (the average on one test was 30%), and you might attribute the low grades to the pandemic, which has been used as a partial excuse for nonperformance (and, to be sure, it is harder to learn via Zoom lectures), Jones says the “loss of focus” started well before that:

Dr. Jones, 84, is known for changing the way the subject is taught. In addition to writing the 1,300-page textbook “Organic Chemistry,” now in its fifth edition, he pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.

After retiring from Princeton in 2007, he taught organic chemistry at N.Y.U. on a series of yearly contracts. About a decade ago, he said in an interview, he noticed a loss of focus among the students, even as more of them enrolled in his class, hoping to pursue medical careers.

And Jones did try to make adjustments for remote learning:

After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.

That was not enough. In 2020, some 30 students out of 475 filed a petition asking for more help, said Dr. Arora, who taught that class with Dr. Jones. “They were really struggling,” he explained. “They didn’t have good internet coverage at home. All sorts of things.”

The professors assuaged the students in an online town-hall meeting, Dr. Arora said.

Many students were having other problems. Kent Kirshenbaum, another chemistry professor at N.Y.U., said he discovered cheating during online tests.

When he pushed students’ grades down, noting the egregious misconduct, he said they protested that “they were not grades that would allow them to get into medical school.”

There’s the rub. The students feel that they are entitled to grades that get them into medical school and a lucrative career.  Tell me, do you want doctors to be brought up in a system like this? Do you want doctors who aren’t chosen for their performance either before or in medical school. Or would you be happy with a random sample of applicants?

Even after Covid restrictions eased, Jones’s students seem to have lost interest, something that other faculty I know have noticed.

By spring 2022, the university was returning with fewer Covid restrictions, but the anxiety continued and students seemed disengaged.

“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house,” Dr. Jones said in an interview. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.”

Students could choose between two sections, one focused on problem solving, the other on traditional lectures. Students in both sections shared problems on a GroupMe chat and began venting about the class. Those texts kick-started the petition, submitted in May.

“We are very concerned about our scores, and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” the petition said.

Now the students did complain about other aspects of Jones’s teaching, like reducing the numbers of exams and failing to offer extra credit (I never did that), but Jones has what seem to be reasonable explanations for these accusations. Read the article.

The article also reports, inadvertently, something that I see as disastrous. I’ve put it in bold below:

The entire controversy seems to illustrate a sea change in teaching, from an era when professors set the bar and expected the class to meet it, to the current more supportive, student-centered approach.

Dr. Jones “learned to teach during a time when the goal was to teach at a very high and rigorous level,” Dr. Arora said. “We hope that students will see that putting them through that rigor is doing them good.”

James W. Canary, chairman of the department until about a year ago, said he admired Dr. Jones’s course content and pedagogy, but felt that his communication with students was skeletal and sometimes perceived as harsh.

“He hasn’t changed his style or methods in a good many years,” Dr. Canary said. “The students have changed, though, and they were asking for and expecting more support from the faculty when they’re struggling.”

Well, you should listen to what students say, but just because they demand something doesn’t mean professors have to relinquish it. After all, who has more experience in pedagogy? But I’m not saying that faculty are always right. But I don’t see that, in this situation, Jones did anything wrong.

Other beefs: the article mentions “that Dr. Jones had been the target of multiple student complaints about his “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension and opacity about grading.”

But are course evaluations, which are heavily conditioned by the grades students get, a good way to evaluate teaching? We used to have a booklet with ratings available to all students, but that has been abandoned because of the overt hostility. When I was a young faculty member at the University of Chicago, full of desire for reform, I set up a system in which faculty in biology would randomly visit the classrooms of other faculty, in their departments, observe their teaching, and evaluate them. That fell apart because of the logistics and because faculty didn’t really want to be observed in the classroom by their colleagues. But really, when teaching is evaluated for promotion or tenure, who better to do it than other faculty, who also evaluate research performance and service?

Here John Beckman, a spokeperson for NYU, addresses “stumble courses” that have a higher percentage of lower grades.

. . . “Organic chemistry has historically been one of those courses,” Mr. Beckman said. “Do these courses really need to be punitive in order to be rigorous?”

What he’s really saying here is that rating students by grades, is a “punitive” practice.  I could counterargue that “it’s also rewarding to the students who do better,” but the fact is that grad schools need objective ways to evaluate students, and although grade-point averages aren’t perfect, they’re better than letters of recommendations (almost 100% positive), though perhaps not as good as Graduate Record Examinations (GREs).

According to the paper, Jones was fired in a note from the dean of science that said that Jones’s performance “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.”

I’ll let one reader, who read the article, give the response that I would:

Thanks for the article! It was chilling. Absolutely chilling. These are tomorrow’s doctors, the people who will treat my kids when they’re older adults, and who will treat grandchildren if I have them. Organic Chemistry is a weed-out course–OF COURSE. As it SHOULD BE. Guess what? Not everybody who wants to be a doctor is capable of being a doctor. But now giving accurate grade is “punitive.”
Sometimes it’s a good thing for a student to not get into medical school, for the correlation between performance in grad school and med school with being a good doctor is surely positive. That’s why medical schools—well, at least until recently—had high standards for who was admitted, and weeded out students based on pre-med-school performance. After all, it’s patients’ lives at stake, and in such a field merit must surely be given the highest consideration.


This is why we shouldn’t adhere to the Dodo’s Dictum from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.”  Although merit is being widely debased as useless or even racist, I think that rational people realize that abjuring merit can only lead to disaster.

In the case of Jones, letting the students run the show will also drive teaching faculty out of colleges as well as deterring professors from teaching “rigorously:

Nathaniel J. Traaseth, one of about 20 chemistry professors, mostly tenured, who signed the letter, said the university’s actions may deter rigorous instruction, especially given the growing tendency of students to file petitions.

“Now the faculty who are not tenured are looking at this case and thinking, ‘Wow, what if this happens to me and they don’t renew my contract?’” he said.

Dr. Jones agrees.

“I don’t want my job back,” he said, adding that he had planned to retire soon anyway. “I just want to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

NYU’s behavior was reprehensible.

69 thoughts on “After students protest, NYU chemistry professor fired for grading too hard

  1. There’s an old story about a pre-med student who constantly complained about the courses he had to take and what he was supposed to learn. After asking his organic chemistry professor why he had to take organic chemistry, the professor replied, “To insure that people like you don’t become doctors.”


  2. At Penn State we require peer review of teaching for tenure and promotion. One problem is that they all tend to be very positive. Any mildly critical comments seems to doom the chances of promotion. It is kind of like what has happened to letters of recommendation (as opposed to tenure letters, which tend to be more discerning as they are confidential).

    1. What should happen is at the three-year review, the Chair should take the professor aside privately and inform him or her that their teaching needs improvement, and perhaps provide some mentoring to effect that. (Most schools have people who specialize in improving teaching.)

      1. Well, if organic chemistry can’t be used to separate those that have the ability to succeed in medical school from those that should not attend, may I propose Physical Chemistry as an alternative course?

  3. This is a sad and unacceptable way for an accomplished professor to end his career. It’s heartbreaking and it’s wrong.

    When I was teaching in the 1980’s and 90’s, the faculty occasionally talked about various grading schemes. We were not seeking uniformity, and we all understood that the method of evaluation was to be left up to the professor. Some of my colleagues employed a strategy wherein a certain percentage of grades were A, another percentage B, etc.—a relative scale. I kept to an absolute scale. Sometimes I gave out more A’s than other times. Sometimes I gave quite a number of C’s. My thinking, in holding to an absolute scale, was (and is) that the professor is the expert and that he or she should be the one who determines the standard. Relative grading strategies let the student population determine the grades. It seemed to me that determining the standard was *my* responsibility.

    My “History of the Earth and it’s Life” course was never a weed-out course for pre-meds—although there we’re pre-meds in the course. When I had a particularly good class, the students earned a lot of A’s and B’s. It was fun to give out those high grades. The students earned them.

  4. Poor babies. I guess I’m now the old man who used to walk 20 miles to school, through knee deep snow, uphill in both directions. I’m reminded of the first couple of years of chemistry and physics on an engineering track in the 80’s. Class sizes from 100 – 200, average exam scores in the 30s – 40s, endless complaining from many of the students. But back then the complaining didn’t get teachers fired. Just got the students offers of help, which most never availed themselves of.

    1. I guess I’m now the old man who used to walk 20 miles to school, through knee deep snow, uphill in both directions.

      You were lucky. I used to dream of knee deep snow. I had to crawl 40 miles across the scorching desert sand and scale a 500 foot cliff in both directions all without water. Then I’d be flogged for 24 hours by my maths professor for not being able to write ζ correctly.

  5. A quick internet search shows a cost of about $310,000 (tuition, fees, living expenses etc) for a 4yr degree at NYU. Do we really expect people to attend that university, put in 4 years of intellectual work, shell out that kind of dough (or take on that amount of debt) in return for the equivalent of a Gaylord Focker 9th Place Ribbon?

    I never took Organic Chemistry, I did take Chem 101 at UMKC, and was lucky to get a very low (but passing) C. I’m not happy with that, I struggled to make sense of even the basics and I frankly did not deserve even that high a grade. Everyone has their limits, and at the time, that was mine. The question is, are you seeking knowledge and understanding, or just a diploma and trying to essentially buy a job?

    To quote the late Julius Sumner Miller,
    “The best must be made to reach, and it will serve them all their lives!”

  6. This is why we shouldn’t adhere to the Dodo’s Dictum from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.” Although merit is being widely debased as useless or even racist, I think that rational people realize that abjuring merit can only lead to disaster.

    Unfortunately, rational people do think we can eliminate merit based systems in many (or all) societal entities. Some have written best selling books arguing (i.e. using reason) that the role of merit should be greatly discounted. In some cases it may be irrationality driving the stupidity, but more often ideology is responsible.

    1. After reading the article and some of the replies, I must say that I’m not entirely surprised but I’m also outraged and saddened to observe that a distinguished professor should be summarily terminated from his position because of unreasonable complaints from students.
      Unfortunately, this sea change is happening throughout the nation, and students are now being treated as consumers who pay a small fortune in tuition and expect to graduate with attractive job opportunities, regardless of their progress in courses or lack thereof.
      I would be alarmed to know that I was being treated by a doctor who was not well-qualified and there are probably many examples of this in the medical profession as well as other disciplines across the board.
      I taught at a state university in California for 25 years and am now retired after experiencing the same kind of issues that Dr.Jones had. I must admit that I’m grateful and relieved about leaving academia at this point because I don’t see much hope for change….I was fortunate to go to schools where the quest for knowledge and excellence was the gold standard and we rose to the occasion, regardless of the challenges we encountered. There was no such thing as grade inflation and although we grumbled at times about a class being hard, we persisted and did the work because we wanted to do our best….it was NOT about money and getting a job and never being held accountable.

  7. Why would organic chemistry be a useful ‘weed-out’ course for someone with the ambition to become a clinician? I would argue that empathy and ethics are far more important bars. The other issue is I don’t think you can blame the universities or the students. You have a system where students buy, at great cost, tuition and if they fail they have zero return. So your problem lies in fee paying. Countries where there are no fees or they are far more modest have less grade inflation (I know this as we measure every year on every course in the University) and what inflation there is can largely be ascribed to changing what is measured. When costs are far lower, the effect of failing is lesser. Also, the experience in the UK, which has transitioned from free to loans and fees from a small contribution to the full amount, the ideological mantra that this would focus students on their work is manifestly wrong – the opposite has happened, due in large part to students now having to take ends meet.

    1. I would rather have a competent doctor with a poor beside manner than an empathic doctor that was mediocre at medical skills. And I think any doctor who you ask about who they’d prefer to take care of them would give the same answer. ‘Ideally, a doctor should have both, but with medicine, competence ranks with me WAY above empathy.

    2. Ethics are very difficult to test. But you are right in the sense that a general practitioner needs very different skills from someone in research. Also, nowaday, up-to-date evidence based guidelines for all kinds of diseases and diagnostics are at everyone’s fingertips — looking things up should be encouraged. I remember reading a book about a Dutch doctor’s experiences in New Guinea (when this was still a colony). He trained an illiterate assistant to perform appendicitis operations, and at that specific task, the man was as good as any modern surgeon with many years of medical school.

    3. What you have identified is a problem, but I don’t think it’s the problem here. The problem here is that some students feel they are entitled to a better grade than they’ve earned.

      I do think money is a factor here too, but it isn’t the money that the students feel they’ve lost for no return, its the money that the schools feel they will lose if their enrollment numbers go down. This trend towards universities treating higher education like any other money making big business is producing spoiled brat students that are being granted merit that they have not earned, because in a service industry “the customer is never wrong.” When they whine the schools give them what they want because they think they can make more money by doing that.

      Education is another one of those things that should not be left to “the invisible hand of the market.” Like so much in our screwed up society the wrong incentives are entrenched. The goal for education should be the best education possible, not making the most money. When the primary incentive is to make money you trend towards all sorts of bad stuff that leads to lower quality education. The charter school industry in the US is a great example, and this NYU incident fits the same mold.

    4. There are several other layers of medical care specialists, to all of which the empathy and ethics apply to the desire to provide care (nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants, etc.). There must be value added above that with the contribution of an MD, who commands a significantly higher salary and level of responsibility and accountability. I think most people expect that added value to be a higher level of scientific knowledge and ability to grok the molecular fundamentals of physiology and disease.

    5. Organic Chemistry is useful as a weed-out course for pre-meds because it weeds out stupid people, and the party types who are unwilling to put in the work necessary to get a good grade.

    6. To understand biology, you must have a thorough grounding in organic chemistry. To understand physiology, you must have a thorough grounding in biology. To understand pharmacology, you must have a thorough grounding in all of the above. To understand metabolism, anatomy, disease mechanisms,you must have an extremely firm grounding in all of the above.

      The study of medicine is an intense and fast paced study of science. It combines all of the sciences (except maybe astronomy, and computer science). If a person cannot keep up the pace, they cannot be a physician. Becoming a fully licensed physician requires 7 years of post graduate education. Slowing the pace would add many more years.

      We all have different talents

  8. So did they fire him also because he’s old and doesn’t need a job as much as young faculty? Weak and wrong, is how I see it.

    “Students said the high-stakes course — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school …”

    Well I like to think that’s a distinction with a difference – premed students v. … not pre-med.

    … also, what is it with organic chemistry’s _reputation_among_ students_ as a course? That course alone has – in my experience – the most … notorious reputation. Almost a love-it-or-hate-it reputation.

    FWIW – I don’t want to divulge much personal info, but I’m in the “love” category.

    1. Despite my poor showing, I’d place myself firmly in the “love” category as well. I just felt like I’d missed some key bit of info and fell behind and stayed lost, but that did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the course and certainly not the lab. Granted, I’d probably appreciate it more if I understood it better! Still, we must find a way to move beyond the obsession over GPA and instead have a a desire for education. What you put into it, what you get out of it, and what you do with it matters, GPA and a piece of paper does not…but then I remember we live in a shallow world of cosmetic surgery and Instagram filters; not exactly one that values anything of real substance.

      At least we also live in a world where I can enjoy Periodic Videos, Sixty Symbols, Crime Pays but Botany Doesn’t, and Nick Zentner. Doesn’t quite make up for it, but it helps.

  9. As a retired professor and long-time teacher of a “stumble” course (Genetics), this is overall quite appalling. And in truth, I stumbled a bit over Organic when I was an undergraduate (although I kept my copy of Morrison and Boyd as a reminder). But I do think it’s worth considering why today’s students feel so much more entitled to good grades than they did in my time. Some of the answer, I hypothesize, lies in the rise of social meritocracy in the past 40 years, with merit associated with wealth and income. If NYU students don’t make it into medical school (as many no doubt shouldn’t), they will consider themselves (and by others ) to be losers and of less value, rather than people with talents that should be directed elsewhere. Again I want to plug the book I’m currently reading – “The Tyranny of of Merit: What’s become of the Common Good?” by Michael Sandel. He explores these issues in depth.

      1. A wee, true saga in re o n e organic chemistry examination … …

        I remember my own father’s coming to my university STAT OFF OF HIS TRACTOR at 5:00pm one afternoon and TWO & 1/2 HOURS’ DRIVING TIME ONEWAY for him and staying with me all night long. To help me study and p a s s an organic chemistry examination so that I would not blow my grade point average
        and make me ineligible ( IF blown ) to apply to veterinary medical school … … It is a saga, that deal of his, that I NEED TO WRITE UP and SUBMIT SOMEWHERE. Since, before he did that deed, I was, brain – wise, headed in to flunking that examination and … … to destroying my GPA. Fall y1973.

        O yeah = thus, as well: After remarking over the telephone wire that I was hooking hydrogens willy – nilly and whimsically here and there and had had NO idea
        as to what any o’ANY o’THAT all meant formulae – wise, I never asked Daddy, in my telephone call to him that afternoon, to come. Upon the other end of the wire,
        I just heard him tell me to hang right up and to hold on, that he was heading, right then, to the car to gas it up. And come. I truly do need to write THAT one up.

        Its title shall be ” Just K N O W this one thing: the valence of carbon is … … F O U R ” = his last words to me … … when I left my apartment at 7:30am the next morning to go sit inside ISU’s Gilman Hall for that 8:00am examination.


  10. So many thoughts on this one! First, i think in person instruction is imperative to certain subjects. Next, that one kid should not be a doctor.

    My own experience has me chafing at this as well. I found O Chem very challenging. When I got a low grade on my first exam I was heartbroken. I had attended every lecture & completed every assignment – shouldn’t that translate to an excellent grade, I wondered? I went to see my professor to see what else I should be doing. I had been working part time, about twenty hours a week. Professor told me to quit and use that time to study O Chem instead. I did, and my grades improved dramatically. At the end of the course she congratulated me on getting over the hump, and said not everyone can. It’s a hard subject that can require a lot of effort.

  11. I’ve experimented with various approaches to grades. One such effort included giving more open book / open note exams. What I’ve discovered, I believe, is that poor reading comprehension is a bigger problem in need of attention. Students struggle to understand the questions on the exam and the source texts to which they look for answers.

    Grade inflation would decrease if we were better at teaching young people how to read.

    1. I think the rise in social media is partly to blame. Students don’t seem to be able to read extended texts anymore – you have to break everything down into chunks. And they want you to provide everything for them – lectures have to be recorded in case a student misses them, you have to post your PowerPoint slides.

      I tell students about my experiences as a student in the mid-80s. In intro physics, the lecturer would fill the board with equations which you had to copy down as quickly as possible, because once he was done, he’d erase it and start to fill it up with equations again. If you missed a class, you had to find someone else in the class who’d been there to get their notes off of them.

  12. Good students should demand the end of grade inflation. A long time ago as an undergraduate I took a course on the Progressive Era with a very tough grader. In those days, privacy was unheard of in regard to the posting of grades. The grades were posted on the professor’s office door. In any case, out of a class of about 30, the professor gave only 2 “A”s. I got one of them and through graduate school it was the grade I was most proud. If two-thirds of the class had received an “A”, it would have meant nothing to me.

    1. > Good students should demand the end of grade inflation.

      It’s nice to dream. Unfortunately once we reach that point, it’s impossible to tell who the ‘good students’ are, and anyone demanding the end of grade inflation will be viewed as an exclusionary elitist. I’ve seen that type of anti-intellectual anti-elitism in Central Europe (the German term for ‘nerd’ is ‘Streber’, someone who tries too hard, undermines solidarity, and is viewed as backstabbing his fellow students). I’ve seen similar anti-intellectual sentiment in Western Asia/North Africa.

      The most we can hope for is a few inflation-free institutions.

      With all that said, there is a lot of evidence in support of a paradigm shift to proficiency-based education, which is based on the question “Did you master all required lessons?” rather than “How did you compare with your classmates?” or “How well did you master the lessons?”. In one of my hobbies, I climbed the ranks to a (non-practicing) professional level. I struggled with one of my more practical classes, until I finally passed. If a student does not pass, he does not pass… until he eventually meets requirements. At that point, grades could be broken down to “Pass” and “Did not pass yet”. In professional and technical education, that paradigm is much more widespread.

      How well you perform in class should reflect your final grade, rather than an arbitrary limit of 2 A grades per class. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing here is not that, either. These students want participation trophies without demonstrating mastery of the field. (Wait, am I still allowed to say ‘mastery’ and ‘Master’s degree’?)

  13. I took Organic Chem so long ago that I remember virtually nothing but this mantra: “the Grignard Reagent works in dry ether” (but I long since forgot what the Grignard reagent is or what it does). I managed to pass Organic with a C, and in time I arrived at the position myself of teaching a different stumble course (Genetics) to later generations of pre-med students. I learned a couple of things from this experience. (1) The pre-dent students are often more intensely focused on grades, if possible, than the pre-meds. (2) Some of the best, and certainly most interesting, students were those who were not pre-med, but were taking the course because of what they used to call interest. I hope this motivation can still be found in Academia, but perhaps it is being replaced by other drives—which I suppose can be deduced from posts in social media.

    1. At UCL (London) we had what were known as ‘dental transfers’ – the two or three top students in first year dentistry were offered the chance to swap into medicine starting in the second year of the five year course. They hadn’t done as much physiology or biochemistry, and their anatomy was all dental (but in much more detail than our coverage of the head and neck*) but it didn’t seem to hold them back.

      *I’m afraid pretty much all I remember of oral anatomy was a helpful rhyme that described how the lingual nerve descended over the parotid duct and then looped superiorly and medially around it alongside the musculature under the tongue:

      The lingual nerve took a swerve
      Over the hyoglossus
      Said Wharton’s Duct “I’ll be fucked
      The bugger’s double crossed us!”

    2. When I took Organic back in the mid 70s the class was mix of ChemE and chemistry students. You could identify the pre-med chem students because when the tests were returned they would swarm the professor at the end of class, begging for extra points. We called this Brownian Motion.

  14. Life has always been a toxic popularity contest. I think that many idealists in the West were sheltered from that fact. We like to pretend that high school dynamics are in our personal and collective past. In the age of social media, it’s become undeniable that humanity never left high school. It seems like the people who are in denial about the popularity contest are the ones who are becoming tools of people who have tried to dominate the system – and human nature. The worst aspects of human nature, the ones have been with us since the very beginning, are only being magnified now. I can’t be optimistic about our prospects as a species. Sorry for the buzzkill.

  15. There’s a heavily-commented post on this at the Residency sub at reddit today. Very much pro-student. The majority seem to feel that physicians don’t need to know organic chemistry anyway, and that something’s wrong with the course or the teacher if that many people are doing badly.

  16. While a prof at the local community college I prepared the SACS evaluation for introductory Psychology. I did the report since I had a good background in statistics. I found the grading practices of all of my fellow instructors to be appallingly easy. Many of them gave more A’s than any other grade. .I found this to be ridiculous and spent a great deal of time discussing this in the report for the state. However, nobody ever did anything to correct the situation. Now I am retired and do not care what they screw up.

  17. Organic has always been a weeder, everywhere. I had to take a year’s worth with lab, for my Bio degree (never any interest in med school though) and it sucked. I got Cs and C+s and the exam averages were always less than 50%.
    And it was a total waste of my time. How to add phosphate groups to a benzene ring–and the giy’s name who figured it out–really has zero to do with biology or medicine. Anything relevant was reviewed in the first week of Biochem.
    But hey, we weren’t signing any petitions about it.

    1. I still remember we had to know the structure of Juvenile Insect Hormone for a test. And, yes, the labs… I do still have my textbook. Must go down and check if it’s the one Jerry mentioned. Itks about 3” thick.

  18. Really disturbing to me. When I took 3 Organic Chem courses at Stanford in the 70s, the grading was all on a curve: 15% As, 35% Bs, 35% Cs, 15% Ds and Fs. I was extremely proud of my B+s. (I did manage one A, I believe, in another Chem).There was also another system iirc in which the median grade was automatically a C.

    As a high school math teacher I had parents pounding my desk demanding A+ for their little darlings in Calculus, because they “needed” the grades for university.

    1. I remember several years ago hearing of a middle school teacher (science or math) eventually acquiescing to the pressure from a parent to (unfairly) adjust the grade upward for the parent’s student. The teacher’s reflection on the event was to the effect, “Life is short.” She had reached the point that it was not worth further pursuing. Who was/is prepared to critique her on the matter? As the “Old Marine” once said to me, “Everybody rides the bucking horse better than the guy riding it.” One is reasonably tempted to should “Fie!” on continuing to teach.

      1. So glad I retired before covid. Miss the little buggers, but not the parents and the admin,
        I may have posted this before, but one parent, after hearing that her little darling had 100% plagiarized the 10%-worth term paper for Data Management (12th grade), said only “What about university?”

  19. My understanding heretofore has been that the content and assessment of organic chemistry instruction is dictated by the American Chemical Society, and that ACS considers the rigor of courses in its assessment of a program’s suitability for continued affiliation. In which case, pandering to students could be the death knell for a department. Is this not, or no longer, the case?

  20. I absolutely loved Organic Chemistry and I still have my Morrison & Boyd, too, along with Lehninger Biochemistry. I recall failing my first term test, as did many of the class. I think it’s a subject where, yes, you do have to memorize a lot—just like med school—but if you keep at it, you start to access the rhythm of it and your rudimentary skills unlock a deeper understanding that doesn’t rely on memory so much. After all these years, I still recall how much it felt like learning to play the piano, except compressed into two semesters. When I started to play piano again after retirement, sure enough, I thought, “This is like CHM 240!”

    I agree with the anecdote that O Chem is to keep people like you from becoming doctors. The communication skills including how to fake empathy (kidding!, sort of) can be taught. People who excel only in those skills, though, will find themselves in disciplines where all they do is talk, empathize, and follow guidelines written by someone else. That way lies burnout.

    Organic Chem is a brutal course. But I still recall it, and internship, as the two formative events in my professional life. Two essential bookends to medical school.

    1. That’s funny, I was gonna say organic chemistry is like music some how – learning not just the notes the reading in the instrument, but also the players, the composers history, … and at some point, like you said, there’s a big layer of memorization beyond which is the more interesting stuff – like music too – where through practice it just sort of pops in your head.

      I think this psychological factor might account for the love it or hate it relationship.

      1. ^^^The grammar is not what I wanted – let this be my lesson to write by hand, or pay extra attention to proofreading.

    2. I must have burned my Organic text, but do still haveWhite, Handler, and Smith Principles of Biochemistry as well as James Watson Molecular Biology of the Gene. Biochem and Molecular Bio were/are much more fun than Organic Chem.

  21. Some professors do have “higher” standards which may be out of line with a school norm. Usually it’s dealt with at examiners meetings or the like or some other mechanism to ensure reasonable consistency across courses. Sacking someone is ludicrous especially as a response to student complaints. If there was anything to them the measures I mentioned should have been used to resolve them.

    1. > Some professors do have “higher” standards which may be out of line with a school norm.

      … or with a government norm. I know that NYU is a private university, so my comment does not apply to this case in particular, but it is interesting to see which public universities fall under various Ministries of Education – to the extent that their respective governments have the power to set the curriculum and grading standards. Some governments also claim the power to regulate curriculum and grading in private programs. I have not seen that latter trend spread to the US, but as public voucher programs spread, it may be inevitable. It’s a complex question, and I’m undecided how it should play out.

      The big factor I occasionally mention is that a simple ‘pass’ varies from field to field, test to test, and is not determined by comparison with fellow students or an arbitrary percentage of points. There are classes and tests where a 100% score should be required, others where a 90% should be acceptable. I’ve seen too many different systems where the claim is that 65%+, 60%+, or even 50%+ is passing, regardless of discipline. That is utterly absurd. Test authors are then forced to develop tests to artificially bring ‘correct’ scores in line with an arbitrary passing percentage.

  22. When my husband was teaching music at Queens College in NYC, he failed a student, who then complained to the dean, who then called in my husband. He said to him: why did this student fail? To which my husband replied: Because I failed him. He never learned to read music. Failing students means possible drop outs which means less revenue for the college. Great system: blame teachers, not students, for failing students.

  23. First things first. According to google, annual undergraduate tuition at NYU is $55K. If you are going to charge that amount of money, you have to answer to the students. This nonsense about professors creating standards only works if your tuition is more in-line with incomes. You charge $55K, and you’ve sold your soul to the devil, and now you have to live with it. And let’s face it, professors have benefited from this devil deal with good salaries and tenure.
    Second, the relationship between competence in organic chemistry and competence as a medical doctor always struck me as more a belief system than a scientifically derived truth rooted in data. I’ve certainly seen my share of PhD students who could not pass a hard physics PhD qualifying exam, but turned out to be better physics researchers than most of their peers.
    Third, universities and medical schools have been making academic competence exceptions for decades for certain ethnicities. According to my sister, a medical doctor, these exceptions have negative medical consequences. But, still, these exceptions persist. If academia makes academic competence exceptions for some, why not for all?

    1. “If you are going to charge that amount of money, you have to answer to the students.”

      By firing faculty?

      1. One should not confuse academic arguments with economic arguments. This particular professor was hired under a teaching contract. His teaching methods threatened the university’s financial bottom line. Therefore, it makes economic sense for the university to either (1) not renew the contract, or (2) terminate the contract. Academic arguments are sidelined or irrelevant when the university charges $55k per annum.

    2. If my alma mater ever started showing racial competence exceptions I’d never give them another dime.

  24. Since much of medical training depends heavily on memorization, it makes sense for an undergrad course of that sort (like Organic Chem, or for that matter any foreign language) to serve as a weed-out filter. It is true that most of the content is superfluous for medicine or most of biology, except that one needs elementary acquaintance with org chem as a language to follow propositions about biochemistry.

  25. I would wager that there’s more to this story. The professor wasn’t fired only because of these kids protesting bad grades & some hard line in the classroom. I bet he pissed off someone important, someone he never should have crossed. Some long-standing feud that came to this ending. This protest was the excuse but not the reason.

    Of course, I know nothing of organic chemistry. I majored in English.

  26. It strikes me that these complaining students are of the mindset of the medical interns who in the last year or so have complained of having to arrive on time for morning rounds. What a breath-taking sense of entitlement. What an unreasonable imposition on their exquisite sense of personal convenience.

    In the Ancient Days (1975) when I was a sophomore, I took Organic Chemistry II. The first test I made a 95. I was all puffed up about it. I guess I straightforwardly “got” that particular material (especially in the context of also dealing with U.S. History, English II and retaking Calculus I, and spending significant time on my true abiding and undiminished interest, harmony vocal music in the form of the glee club.)

    But then I made an 80 on the next test, then a 43 on the next. I was more than a little despondent. In response to that specific test, several students expressed their displeasure. If memory serves me, they said that the substance of the test had not been covered in lecture. I was not among them; I figured it was a deficiency on my part. (I had notions of being an M.D., and I was a bit anxious about my prospects. But the truth was that I wasn’t all that interested, and I had not contemplated a “Plan B,” which was my personal responsibility, and no one else’s. Try advocating that position on early 21st Century Amuricun university campuses.)

    The professor (approximately a year younger than Dr. Jones) was the soul of tranquillity handling the complaints. He responded to the effect that he was congenially agreeable to offering another equivalent test. He said that the grade of that test would replace that of the original test. Well, surely I was not the only one who saw this a a golden opportunity to significantly increase my Organic GPA that quarter. So I made what I thought was a strong effort to diligently study. I thought I had a good chance to get a 90. Instead, I got a 42, one point less. I don’t recall the second test being more difficult than the first. I don’t know how other students fared. I have kept all my tests. I still figure that I needed to improve my study skills.

    (“Lithium Aluminum Hydride” is still imprinted on my brain. On the other hand, “diastereomer” and “enantiomer” and other such terms could have been more clearly explained with a bit of etymology, instead of us having to brute-force memorize their definitions.)

    Recently, a 4th grade student came up to me, telling me that she had left her water bottle at home, and wanted to make arrangements to get it in her hands. (A “First World” problem.) I asked her if she could simply make do, on this particular, and only ONE, day, with taking what opportunites she could to drink from the water fountain in the hall. (As we did in Ancient Days.)

    She replied to the effect that she really wanted and preferred her bottle. I told her that, if it was that important to her, she was free to go to the office to call home (to ask her mother to make an additional trip to school to deliver her water bottle). I reasonably anticipated that her mother would have a discussion with her about the relative (un-) importance of the water bottle, reminding her that she ought to have the grit and resilience and presence of mind to deal with the absence of the water bottle; that it would be good reminder to her to take care of her personal business and not impose on others to compensate for her lack of attention.

    A couple hours later, her mother delivered the sacred water bottle. Imagine this mindset persisting and increasing in college several years hence.

    1. I also meant to say that the professor stated that the grade results of the second test, for all practical purposes, would replicate the results of the first. In my case, that was true.

  27. It’s normal for 1/4 to 1/3 of students in o chem 1 and 2 to fail. Few of those who pass get good marks.

    It broke my heart that I wasn’t able to succeed at a very high level in o chem. It wouldn’t have mattered who the instructor was or how it was taught tho. When I took it (a number of years ago now) the general consensus was the course had become bloated over the years and needed editting. We had a couple great instructors and up to 1/3 of the class still failed each term. The content is challenging and more and more gets added to the course every year.

  28. Now retired, I taught in a university in Hong Kong for 25 years (before which I was a roaming postdoc, earning extra with tutorial duties). I found students’ performance steadily declining; the grades awarded by me from year to year reflected this trend. Until the Department Head gave me a friendly chat, pointing out that students in our major doing worse and worse would result in less and less freshman applicants. This lowered the annual applicant-to-placement ratio, adversely affecting the Department’s competitiveness in the university’s business model, and hence resources allocation. I have to admit that I then compromised.

  29. I found a quote – attributed to a famous person, of course, but could not verify. Here it is (my emphasis – if bold worked – actually where the quote can be found truncated to):

    “Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”

  30. OK, so I’m agreed that this professor was wrongfully fired. The old method of grading was a statistical curve, in which most students got a C, a few got a B, and even fewer still got an A. Here’s my 2cents for what it ‘s worth: I most real life situations, AKA med school, nursing certifications, ASE certifications, etc, there is not such a thing as “exemplary.” You’re either competent, or you’re not. There’s an old joke that goes, every year there is a student that graduates at the bottom of the class, but do you know what they call that student? Doctor! So I think that the rubric has changed from “top 2-5%” to “competent.” I also take issue with the fact that the American education is more expensive and places more entry requirements on students, and is more competitive than many other institutions worldwide. American students graduate with 50-100k worth of debt, and then lose out on jobs to people coming in from other countries who will take lower salaries. I dislike socialist systems, but I can say that this does not happen in Europe. When you pay for citizens educations the government makes sure only the top students get in and then they must work to pay taxes back into the system again.

    As someone with multiple college degrees I can tell you that “doctors” often make mistakes, are not the most engaging lecturers, and may not be available for office time for students who want to figure out what they’re doing wrong and what can be done better. Still, I think it’s an awful situation when someone can be fired at the drop of a hat, especially someone as highly accomplished as this professor.

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