American universities: Are the inmates running the asylum?
From time to time something happens which seems to illustrate and magnify a very disturbing and possibly catastrophic impact on society.
Such an episode erupted in New York recently. Dr. Maitland Jones Jr., a prestigious professor of organic chemistry at New York University, was fired by the university’s administration over the strong protests of his fellow professors in the Chemistry Department.
Why was Dr. Jones fired? The answer is simply because he was “too hard” and students were not receiving the grades in his class to which they felt they were entitled.
First, who is Dr. Jones? A three-time graduate of Yale University (B.S., M.S., Ph.D.) Dr. Jones taught at Princeton University for several decades. While there he founded the Jones Research Lab (in conjunction with Princeton) and he and his research colleagues published 225 cutting-edge research papers. Additionally, he published 63 papers with individual undergraduate students, 30 papers with graduate students, and 34 research papers with individual post-doctoral fellows.
He is also the chief author of the standard textbook on organic chemistry titled Organic Chemistry, which is now in its fifth edition (2014, originally published in 1997.) Upon his retirement from Princeton in 2007, Dr. Jones began teaching on an annual contract basis at New York University.
The New York University dean who informed Dr. Jones of his dismissal shockingly revealed the sorry state of higher education and by implication the entire entitlement culture, when he wrote that this was being done to “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills.”
Doesn’t it sound like the inmates (the students) are running the asylum (the university)? This is a recipe for disaster, and I fear this horrible situation prevails at far too many of our nation’s institutions of higher learning.
In a Boston Globe column, “I was Fired from NYU After Students Complained That the Class was too Hard. Who’s Next?”, Dr. Jones responded to his critics. He explained that organic chemistry is an infamously difficult course and one that the failure to navigate successfully ends many students’ dreams of attending medical school and becoming physicians. The dreaded “orgo” is quite often a rite of passage into medical school.
Dr. Jones left Princeton after 43 years because he wanted to test to see if the technique “I had introduced at Princeton, in which the talking-head lecture was deemphasized in favor of small-group solving, was transferable to another university.”
This methodology was an attempt to apply the “precept” model of teaching introduced by Woodrow Wilson when he was president at Princeton University (1902-1910) before being elected president of the United States in 1912. In the precept method, a student attends two lectures a week and then an hour-long “precept” with the professor and only five or six students from the class to discuss that week’s lectures and readings (usually a new book each week). This was the model in every liberal arts course I took at Princeton from 1965-1969 in preparation to graduate with a degree, magna cum laude in history with a special certificate in the honors program in American civilization.
Evidently, Dr. Jones adopted this model in organic chemistry courses with “small-group solving” instead of the “talking-head lectures.”
Dr. Jones disclosed that all “went well at first as students prospered in the problem-solving setting.” However, after a decade, he noticed that incoming students were less industrious and less diligent in attending the lecture section of the course.
Then COVID hit.
Dr. Jones, along with two faculty colleagues, financed and prepared 52 videos to replace COVID-cancelled lectures. Many students either watched them haphazardly or not at all.
Of course, as student effort diminished, grades went downhill. So what was the reaction of the students? They accused Dr. Jones of “being insufficiently sensitive to the stressful issues of the day.” The students urged professor Jones to switch to multiple-choice exams.
Finally, this spring some students sent a petition to NYU deans complaining “about procedures and grades in the course.” Without ever revealing the contents of the students’ complaints, the NYU administration fired Dr. Jones on Aug. 2.
The most serious issue here is not the shabby treatment accorded Dr. Jones. As he himself said, he is 84 years old, and “the time for me to step aside was probably upon me.”
The real issue is the serious, crippling damage being done to higher education in the United States.
Dr. Jones points out that destruction emanates from the students’ dysfunctional behavior like ever-increasing concentric circles of corrosive, toxic slime.
The first group seriously damaged are the professors, tenured and untenured, both victimized by entitled, spoiled children who think they are entitled to great grades regardless of performance.
The second group seriously damaged are the students themselves being patronized and coddled by spineless college educators leading to the continued narcissism and infantilization of students who will find it increasingly difficult to function after they leave college.
Most important of all, it will inevitably lead to doctors and researchers who are significantly less well-educated than the current generation of doctors. They will have received their degrees, but their degrees will be devalued by the “dumbing down” of the requirement of their qualifications to be a doctor or a research scientist.
I don’t know about you, but I want doctors who “aced” organic chemistry.
Unfortunately, this squalid episode at New York University is indicative of another emerging fact in American higher education — the fact that year after year students are learning less before they graduate. We are producing graduates who are often not as well educated and trained as the people they are replacing.
As Dr. Jones put it, “about 10 years ago I noticed that students were increasingly misreading exam questions” and regular attendance at lectures began to decline.
Dr. Jones was observing evidence of a downward trend in the education of our young people that has taken place for more than a generation. This is reflected in ever poorer performances on standardized tests such as the SAT.
As I read Dr. Jones’ story, I reflected back on an experience I had in the mid-1980s. Dr. Paul Ramsey and I had been invited to speak as the two male pro-life “sacrifices” at a militantly pro-choice seminar at Perkins School of Theology at SMU.
Dr. Ramsey, one of the country’s leading ethicists, had been a mentor of mine when I was an undergraduate student at Princeton. Dr. Ramsey was a great teacher and a “good guy.”
Just making conversation, I asked Dr. Ramsey what the biggest difference was between Princeton when I was there (1965-1969) and now. The question was purely rhetorical since I was fully expecting him to say co-education (Princeton went co-ed in 1970, the year after I graduated.)
So I was shocked when he said, “the students we get now are not nearly as well educated as your class was and they aren’t nearly as used to working hard. They are just as smart, but less industrious and less well-informed. They also seem less curious.”
I was dumbfounded by his answer, but it stayed with me. The lowering of standards in our nation’s schools K-12 has now reached into the realm of higher education and it stands to reason it has lowered standards and performance across the board in professional and academic life.
It is a national disgrace for America as a nation not to encourage and enable our citizens to realize their God-given talents to the fullest extent possible. And all of us suffer from this downgrade and waste of talents.
As a nation, we need to reinvigorate our educational system and challenge our students and their teachers to do far better.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.
Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.