Maitland Jones, who taught organic chemistry at New York University (NYU), was fired in August without an interview or clear explanation, a process that left him “perplexed,” he told AFP. A total of 82 of his students had previously signed a petition to denounce his grading, which they felt was too harsh.
“The students who signed the petition couldn’t reconcile the fact that they weren’t doing well in my class, they were looking for culprits,” Professor Jones told AFP. However, according to his calculations, only a quarter of his 350 students had failed the average.
The firing at the age of 84 of Maitland Jones, who had taught for several decades at prestigious institutions such as Princeton and Yale, would have gone unnoticed without an article in the New York Times in early October that sparked lively debate. Many other professors have publicly supported Maitland Jones and denounced the students’ disproportionate weight, for some with sensitivities exacerbated by social tensions and recent Covid-related restrictions.
For Marty Ross, professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston, universities use too many tweezers when dealing with the students they fund, who often provide feedback on the courses they take. These “clients,” he says, tend to take a hostile attitude toward the most repulsive subjects, like organic chemistry, “in a ‘why would we need this course?'” “When they row, they often teach their lessons poorly and even go so far as to file formal complaints,” he told AFP.
On the other hand, the retired teacher knows many incompetent teachers who manage to fill their class just because they have a reputation for “taking good notes”. In the end, Marty Ross concludes, “power no longer belongs to the universities but to the students,” which he believes amounts to “a patient explaining in no uncertain terms to his surgeon how to perform an operation.”
The respectful relationship between students and mandarins that we see elsewhere doesn’t really exist in American faculties, says Karin Fischer, a journalist and associate researcher at Berkeley University’s Center for Studies in Higher Education.
“There’s this idea in the United States that you should challenge authority in the classroom, you should ask your teachers questions and not take everything they say as gospel. Debating, having discussions and asking questions is part of the critical spirit of the American university,” explains the specialist.
Souradeep Banerjee, a young teacher at Temple University who completed most of his studies in India, says he saw the power of American students the day he was given the task of marking exams. “The professor responsible for the course explained to us at a meeting that we couldn’t do it (too strict in the grading), the finances and functioning of the university depended largely on the number of students who decided to enroll in our house,” he says.
The importance of this business relationship is paramount to certain students who demand a quality of education commensurate with the sacrifices made for higher education.
In the United States, a university student can generally pay up to $60,000 in tuition, not including room, transportation, or subsistence costs. Many students have to take out large loans to finance their studies.
“The fact that they (the students or their families) have had to go into serious debt puts them under a lot of pressure and urges them to strive for good grades in order to finish their studies as soon as possible and (…) not add extra semesters or study semesters,” explains Karin Fischer.
Daniela James, a freshman at Temple University, says that before enrolling in a course, she considers how professors rate her and checks other students’ ratings on the RateMyProfessor website.
“It bothers me a lot because I can’t afford to waste my time like the other in a big American clothing chain.