“Should universities ease pressure on students, many of whom are still coping with the pandemic’s effects on their mental health and schooling? How should universities respond to the increasing number of complaints by students against professors? Do students have too much power over contract faculty members, who do not have the protections of tenure?” These are some of the crucial questions that academia is struggling with as students gain more power in the increasingly consumerist environment of colleges and universities.
In today’s New York Times we learn that Dr. Maitland Jones Jr., a respected professor, defended his standards of teaching a difficult subject and grading his students according to their merit—or so he thought. But last spring 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him and the university dismissed him.
As the article makes clear, this was no novice teacher. “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.” This was not enough to save his job.
The students claimed that his course was too hard. As a retired college professor with more than 30-years of experience, this does not impress me. Even the easiest literature course for beginners has some students up in arms about the length of the reading list, how difficult the books are and how hard it is to do “all that work”. Professor Jones was teaching chemistry, a course that not only is notoriously difficult, but that attracted many pre-med students for whom the grade might determine their direction in life. Therefore—and I freely admit that I’m speculating here based on my decades of experience–very, very nervous about their grade.
It also needs to be said that the literacy and cultural knowledge levels of US students have been dropping over the past decades, something which is very visible in the classrooms where it is no longer advisable—or politically correct—for a professor to ask students to read any passages out loud as so many of them will stumble over words and then claim that the professor embarrassed them in public. As the actions taken against Professor Jones amply display, this kind of complaint might carry some serious consequences.
At the end of every course a student will fill out a Student Evaluation Form which “grades” the teacher as the teacher grades the student. Of course, it’s a good thing to give the students a voice and invite them to express their opinion of the professor, but unfortunately, in most cases this is also an invitation to take revenge for any grievance, real or perceived, that the student may have against the teacher.
It is equally unfortunate that this leads many instructors, especially the adjunct faculty whose contracts are renewed on a semester or yearly basis (as was the case for Dr. Jones) and who therefore have no job security, to try to placate the students by assigning them a light work load. The long-term effect of this is that the bar is constantly lowered until the few who still want to maintain standards—like Dr. Jones– will suffer the consequence of being considered “out of touch” with the prevailing standards and made to pay for it, either by dismissal or by being shunned.
Students routinely “shop around” for the easiest professors. Thanks to sites such as Rate My Professors, registration becomes a race to the bottom– towards those instructors who have rated a 2 or even lower on the “difficulty” scale. Equally, those who rate a 4 or 5/5 may be admired, but their courses will be avoided if at all possible.
Then there are the effects of the pandemic to consider. An article in Bloomberg.com claims that the “Pandemic Set US Students Back 20 Years in Reading, Math Levels”. Jones’ firing illustrates the kind of skittishness that has permeated the halls of post-pandemic academia, where students have lost the rhythms of in-person attendance and administration has lost the will to enforce the traditional standards that had in any case been slipping for more than a decade.
Indeed, already about a decade ago Jones said in an interview that he noticed a loss of focus among the students. Now, protesting his termination, he wrote that, “Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate” and grades continued to fall even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams. He added that the problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”
The satisfaction gap is widening between the faculty and the students. This is plain in the university’s handling of the petition that dismissed Jones despite the protests of the chemistry faculty and the “pro-Jones students, who sent glowing letters of endorsement.” Administrators sided with those who made the loudest noise, the disaffected students who started the petition. Of course, they justified the decision by saying that his teaching was ineffective, creating what is at best an example of circular reasoning.
In academia students have become “consumers” with all the rights—and more– accorded to those who pay astronomical prices for a dubious service. “The customer is always right” is a cliché that now applies to them.
Paramjit Arora, a chemistry professor who has worked closely with Dr. Jones, knows the score: “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.”