Editorial: The New York Times article on Maitland Jones was incomplete.

On Monday, The New York Times published a news article about the firing of a renowned professor from NYU’s organic chemistry program this summer. Maitland Jones Jr., the article reads, was a professor of chemistry so respected that he actually wrote the textbook on the subject. But students of his Organic Chemistry II class last semester put together a petition asking for additional support, and the article claims that because of it, he was dismissed from the university. 

The article was misinformed, overly opinionated for a news story, incomplete in its reporting, and ignorant to the realities of being a student and young person today.

Frequent readers of the Washington Square News know that as a publication independent of NYU, we’re no stranger to holding the university accountable for its missteps. In this case, however, we feel that the Times’ reporting gravely misrepresented the situation.

Stephanie Saul, the reporter who wrote the Times article, implies that student sentiment about Jones was unique to the spring of 2022. However, it was not at all unfamiliar. 

John Beckman, a spokesperson for NYU, told the Times that Jones’ student-submitted course evaluations “were by far the worst, not only among members of the chemistry department, but among all the university’s undergraduate science courses.” The Times, however, did not mention Jones’ standing until quite late in the piece.

There are dozens of comments across social media warning students about taking Jones’ class dating back more than a decade. WSN also accessed student evaluation records for courses taught by Jones, which showed that his scores had been consistently low for years — long before the spring 2022 student petition. In the past five years, Jones’ co-professors teaching the same course typically had scores around or above 4.0 on a 5.0 scale, while Jones averaged around 3.3. In his final semester, his evaluation score dropped to 2.4. The stark contrast between those numbers shows that students weren’t just complaining about the intensity of the course.

Students of Jones’ fall 2020 class wrote an 11-page document outlining their grievances with his handling of the course — not the course content. Their requests were reasonable, considering the circumstances. They were part of an experimental semester, one that was forced to combine the in-person with the online, and Jones was not considerate of the need for change. The document explains that more work is not equivalent to more learning, and provides an estimate of how much time an average student spends on the class per week. Students said they spent 11 to 19 hours per week on the course — a course that traditionally takes up 10 to 15 hours per week.

A photo of former NYU professor Maitland Jones smiling. He has dark hair and a gray beard, and is wearing spectacles.
Maitland Jones in 2011. (Courtesy of NYU via Wikimedia Commons)

In an email Jones sent to his students after he was fired, he apologized to those who did well in the course. “I send … an apology to those of you who cruised through this course with a relentless stream of 100s,” he wrote in the email. “I didn’t stretch you, and thus deprived you of the chance to improve beyond an already formidable baseline.”

No professor should apologize to students who did well for not creating a curriculum where they would struggle. That is not the mark of a teacher.

“It is very difficult to be self critical,” he concluded. “It is hard to accept personal responsibility when we meet failure, as each of us will at some point, but it is an essential life skill you would be wise to develop.”

Jones did not follow his own advice and accept any personal responsibility in his email.

Questions asked, questions unanswered

Beyond mischaracterizing the nature of students’ complaints, Saul, the Times reporter, unsuccessfully attempts to connect to a broader national story about intergenerational differences and so-called “wokeism” on college campuses. An entire paragraph of her article is devoted to rhetorical questions about what university education should look like, and whether students have too much power. We are not told the answers to these questions, or even who is asking them — if anybody is.

Saul writes, “This one unhappy chemistry class could be a case study of the pressures on higher education as it tries to handle its Gen-Z student body.”

Perhaps it was difficult for Jones, 84, to adjust his long-perfected teaching methods to a rapidly changing online environment. NYU made no documented effort to work with him to improve his teaching methods and respond to student concerns while maintaining the rigor of the course, which could have provided a less drastic solution than his termination. As Jill Filipovic, an alum of our publication, wrote in a CNN column responding to the Times story, NYU’s decision to terminate Jones’ contract raises serious questions about how much power students should have in the hiring, retention and firing of professors.

But Saul’s characterization of Generation Z as defiant and lazy is nothing new. She implies in her writing that NYU was trying to appease its students because they had more control over it than students in the past. She quotes Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who worked closely with Jones, as saying that the university tried to keep its students happy in order to keep its rankings high. 

But students banded together, not for the first time, to correct something they found ethically troubling, and they succeeded. If anything, that is a testament to Gen-Z’s communicative power. 

‘And how hard should organic chemistry be anyway?’

Organic chemistry is a difficult class, to be sure. It’s often considered a weed-out class for students aspiring to go to medical school, and that reputation is well-deserved. But many of Jones’ students said he went out of his way to make it harder. 

WSN spoke to six students about their experiences in Jones’ class. Most spoke on condition of anonymity, due to concern that their applications to medical school could be negatively impacted if they shared their thoughts.

Grace Paschal, who graduated from NYU this past May with a B.S. in biology, took organic chemistry with Jones.

“He was teaching and writing the book like he expected you to be just as receptive to organic chemistry as he was and to take it in just as easily without breaking it down,” Paschal said. “He was not receptive to questions, and I didn’t want to open myself up for him to be rude to me.”

Students have made clear that Jones refused to be helpful, but the article opened an avenue for a slew of insults to be thrown at NYU students. Both in the comments section of the article and throughout social media, people have called students lazy and over-privileged. Blogger Freddie deBoer wrote on Substack, “I hope you never get treated by one of the doctors who emerges from this mess.” 

Medical school is already incredibly difficult to get into. Regardless of whether they put in the work or not, or of the grades they get in any STEM class at the university, the integrity of NYU students will be called into question because of this article. And regardless of whether Jones deserved to be fired, considering he was planning to retire the following year, his point of view should not have been put on a pedestal without adequate sourcing of the student perspective.

All the News That’s Fit to Print

“Specifically regarding the New York Times piece, a lot of blame is being put on students,” one former student of Jones said. “It’s belittling and degrading that people don’t understand these are severe concerns that come from a place of struggling in the classroom. I don’t know why it’s considered a news piece.” 

As practicing student journalists, we felt that Saul’s reporting went against many rules we have been cautioned against breaking. She quotes largely from Jones, other chemistry professors and NYU representatives, but neglects to offer readers the essential perspective of current NYU students, and fails to substantiate her claims about Gen-Z students.

Saul does quote one former student: Ryan Xue, who has since transferred to Brown University. He was initially introduced as a student who got an A in the class, and quoted as saying, “This is a big lecture course, and it also has the reputation of being a weed-out class, so there are people who will not get the best grades.”

A few hours after publication, the article was edited to remove the fact that Xue got an A grade. In its place, a new line was added to his quote: “Some of the comments might have been very heavily influenced by what grade students have gotten,” Xue is quoted as having said.

The New York Times has a responsibility to report news accurately and objectively, and this article should not have met its high standards for publication. It needlessly threw the integrity of Jones’ students, and others at NYU, into question. Instead, it served as a puff piece for Jones to air out his personal frustrations, while failing to answer any of the questions it posed.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. Opinions expressed in the house editorial reflect the views of WSNs Editorial Board.

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