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NYU prof’s firing after complaints about grades shows how low colleges have sunk

Universities have taught students that they are paying customers, and as everyone knows, the customer is always right. 
Maitland Jones, an NYU professor who was fired after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him, in New York, Sept. 28, 2022.
Maitland Jones, a New York University professor who was fired after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him, in New York on Sept. 28.Janice Chung / The New York Times via Redux

When I found out that Maitland Jones Jr., a widely respected New York University organic chemistry professor, had been dismissed from his position after 82 of his 350 students signed a petition complaining about his class, I empathized with him. Teaching at all levels is a complicated job. The law of averages dictates that some of Jones’ students were bound to emerge from his course displeased with their experience.  

According to this dissatisfied contingent, the course was too difficult and the professor aggravated these difficulties in several ways, from his condescending tone to the lack of extra credit opportunities. The petition reportedly stated that a large number withdrew from the course and a high percentage received low grades, all of which, the petition said, reflected Jones’ failure “to make students’ learning and well-being a priority.” 

Some students who fail their programs still believe that they should graduate with their degrees of choice. The expectation is that they will get exactly what they want — after all, they paid for it.

Of course, there are two sides to this story. Jones has denied the accusations, and there are surely details and nuances we can’t know just from reading about it in the news. But we do know that broader circumstances undergird this particular campus controversy, chief among them the pandemic’s viselike grip on students’ mental health. Yet an older problem — nearly half a century in the making — is likely contributing to the battle between Jones and some of his students, battles echoing in classrooms across the country.

The commodification of education, or the idea that schools are marketplaces and students are paying customers, has infected schools from the kindergarten to the collegiate levels. If a credentialed, published and award-winning teacher with an international reputation as an expert chemist can, despite faculty and student support, be terminated over a relatively small handful of student complaints about grades, there is very little hope for the future of teachers, students and education.

I can’t pretend to know what went on in the science course that inspired so much ire. But as a college professor in a different field, I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of complaints about grades. And so have many, many of my colleagues.

In a typical example, one student I had approached me at the end of the semester to tell me why he deserved an A when, mathematically, his grades had produced a B. He pointed out that his friend in the course had received an A, and he felt he deserved one, too. In declining the student’s request, I was helped by having no reason to think my bosses would side with him.

I actually think it’s great when students advocate for themselves. And I certainly don’t blame my students for contesting their grades, even when their requests aren’t grounded in reality. After all, their universities have, in fact, taught them that they and their families are paying customers, and as everyone knows, the customer is always right

In Jones’ case, that context was made explicit. Before he was fired, his students were given the chance to review their grades and withdraw from the class retroactively, according to The New York Times. As Marc A. Walters, director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department, told Jones in an email quoted by The Times, the arrangement allowed the university to “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills.” 

When education is viewed as a commodity instead of a set of skills that must be earned and practiced to allow one to perform a certain job, since knowledge can’t be bought, it makes sense that some students feel entitled to dictate the outcomes of their experiences. 

Over my 17 years as an educator, I’ve seen parents and students threaten faculty members and administrators with their tuition dollars over an array of perceived infractions, including policies as basic as expectations for attendance. Some students who fail their programs still believe that they should graduate with their degrees of choice. The expectation is that they will get exactly what they want — after all, they paid for it. 

In this context, it also makes sense that administrators might fire a professor when a subset of students raises a stink. With an unprecedented decline in student enrollments, there’s a fragile bottom line to protect. 

There’s no way to know whether the complaints against Jones are legitimate. The law of averages also dictates that at least a few of his students were right to complain. Students should ask questions if something about what’s going on in the classroom is off. Students should protest when they experience academic inequities or abusive faculty members.  

But treating education as a product to be bought and consumed is another thing entirely. The Atlantic pointed to U.S. News & World Report’s launch of college rankings in 1983 as having created an environment in which institutions “compete to convince the best students to buy their product.” Over the same time, skyrocketing tuition means the cost and value of higher education have come to the forefront of parents’ and students’ minds. 

We now have to add to that dynamic the pandemic and with it a student mental health crisis. According to a recent study in the Journal of Affective Disorders, “In 2020–2021, more than 60 percent of students met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50 percent increase from 2013.”

Universities are remiss in failing to prioritize this issue. But whether we side with Jones or his students, the damage has been done to both sides: A teacher reputed to be among the best in his field no longer has his position, and a small but meaningful number of students were left reeling about their experiences in his course. 

It’s possible that students and their teacher required extra care. It’s a problem when a significant number of your students fail your course.

It’s possible that students and their teacher required extra care. It’s a problem when a significant number of your students fail your course. A lot of low grades could indicate that there might be something problematic in the teacher’s delivery, and there’s no end to the solutions that purport to remediate student performance. 

So we also need to look at the broader institution. Did the chemistry department proceed as though nothing had changed across the past two years? Would it have made sense to offer this course at a different time or with newly erected safeguards to ensure student success in the current climate, such as more prerequisites? 

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For outsiders, it’s not possible to fully know what occurred. It’s also not possible to please all of the students all of the time. But I have long believed that, as a teacher, I am only as successful as my students. Perhaps more than ever, teachers now are tasked with taking stock of their own performance to gauge what’s no longer working — though the penalty for not adapting shouldn’t be termination. 

Professors as well as students are living in a post-pandemic reality that we’re still clumsily navigating. But university administrators need to start by recognizing the purpose of their programs and faculties. Faculty members aren’t commodities, and programs aren’t products. Education isn’t a raw material with a return policy.