About the Organic Chemistry Professor Who Got Fired for Giving Bad Grades
In defense of customers.
The New York Times has a story about an organic chemistry professor at NYU who’s been let go because lots of his students were getting bad grades and they signed a petition protesting these outcomes.1
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.
You should read the whole thing. There are some fun details. For instance, Prof. Jones claimed that scores started falling during the pandemic and now sometimes his students would score in the single digits on tests. Sometimes there would be zeros.
I’m going to tell you a story from when I took organic chemistry. It was a long time ago and I’m going from memory. I may be off here and there with some of the numbers. But the general gist of it is this:
My university had two sections of orgo, taught by different professors, each with a couple hundred kids. In both sections, the grades were curved to a C. Meaning that it did not matter how many questions you got right or wrong on an exam. All that mattered was your relative position to others in your class.
My orgo professor, who, like Prof. Jones was also widely respected, yadda yadda yadda, designed most of his tests so that the high score would be well below 50 percent. Most times the high grade was closer to 30 out of 100. I remember one exam where the high score was 19. I remember one test in which I got a 9 (nine) and was right at the median of the curve.
What that meant, as a practical matter, is that I would come to an exam, sit for three hours, and sometimes go through two or even three pages of questions without being able to solve a problem correctly. I remember the 9 (nine) points out of 100 test, in particular, because after it was over I went back to my dorm room, sat on the floor in the corner, and drank a room-temperature bottle of Riunite. By myself. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon. On a weekday.2
I should say here that my organic chemistry section was not stuffed full of jocks and trust-funders. It was a couple hundred alpha nerds, at a prestige school, who were grinding the course, hard. Nearly all of them wanted to become doctors. All of them understood that getting a C for one semester in their sophomore year would essentially eliminate medical school as a life option for them.3
I lay all of this out so that’ll understand my biases. But also so that we can understand the only important question about Prof. Jones and NYU:
What is college for?