Students, professors and administrators must oppose falling standards and an entitled mentality
Maitland Jones, the former NYU adjunct professor whose contract was not renewed following a student petition claiming his chemistry class was too hard, penned an op-ed for the Boston Globe describing a decline in student performance and accountability.
“Many students seem increasingly unwilling to put in the necessary effort to master the material, and teachers are burning out at a rapid rate,” Jones wrote.
Jones had taught at NYU as an adjunct since 2007. Previously he worked as a tenured professor at Princeton for 43 years.
“Even before COVID-19 disrupted classrooms, there were signs of trouble,” he stated. “About 10 years ago, I noticed that students were increasingly misreading exam questions. Exam scores began to decline, as did attendance in the traditional large lecture section of the course.”
Students “performed abysmally on exams that would have seemed too easy only a few years ago. A few did attend the zoomed office hours, but they were the best students in the class, not the ones who needed help.”
Scores declined, even as grades inflated. Single digit scores proliferated and some students scored zeros, “something that had never happened before.” Even so, top students’ grades shot up without added challenge or mastery.
“It wasn’t their fault, it was ours,” Jones wrote.
Faculty experienced ‘chilling effect;’ Jones not allowed to view petition against him
“Student evaluations, once highly useful, have become just another social media opportunity to vent,” Jones wrote. “Evaluations are now often personal and sometimes profane.”
He wrote that he and his coteacher began to receive “anonymous emails,” “often just short of threatening,” After the summer of 2020, they were accused of insensitivity to stress students were facing because of current events.
When students sent a petition in spring 2022 to NYU deans, “evidently complaining about procedures and grades,” the deans did not allow Jones to view the petition, he wrote.
“After several months of silence on their part, on Aug. 2, the deans fired me over the objections of the chemistry department,” Jones wrote. “The administration summarily dismissed the grievance I filed.”
Jones objected not to his own treatment but to the “chilling effect” of such administrative decisions on teachers seeking to grade fairly and hold students to high standards:
Can a young assistant professor, almost all of whom are not protected by tenure, teach demanding material? Dare they give real grades? Their entire careers are at the peril of complaining students and deans who seem willing to turn students into nothing more than tuition-paying clients.
Nor are tenured faculty unaffected. At NYU some refuse to teach undergraduates any longer. The teaching in the chemistry department has been negatively affected, both by the decline in student capacity and the intervention of third-party administrators.
In a university, the feeling of community crumbles when trust is lost. If tenured faculty cannot depend on fair-minded support from departmental and university leadership, they cannot transfer their knowledge and experience to the next generation of students and teachers. If nontenured young teachers dare not explore rigorous material with students, they will never maximize their teaching skills as they once hoped.
Jones concluded by writing that students, professors, and administrators must take equal responsibility for declining standards and a dysfunctional university culture.
“Students need to to develop the ability to take responsibility for failure,” he wrote. Teachers must “have the courage” to assign low grades when appropriate. Administrators must support faculty and resist the temptation to “coddle” students.
“In these times when critical thinking skills are desperately needed, it is more important than ever to dedicate ourselves to the high standards of education,” Jones concluded. “Without those standards, we as a nation will not produce those individuals — doctors, engineers, scientists, – citizens! — who will guide us toward a better future.”
IMAGE: Maitland Jones