NYU is wrong, but they’re not nearly alone


When universities fire professors — or, as is more often the case, refuse to renew their teaching contracts — it’s rarely news.

But when NYU decided not to renew the contract of respected veteran organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr., it was news. And when the decisions of the university faculty New York Timesthis is very big news in academia.

The short version of the story is that although Professor Jones has taught these courses for years, both at prestigious universities and with honors, his students at NYU last year were struggling. They didn’t pass the tests. The students were also unhappy with what they said was the attitude and behavior of the instructor. Some of his students started a petition asking for help, and the university basically fired him.

There’s a ton to be gleaned from even this abbreviated description of events, including the account that the school gave in and responded to the feelings of the students rather than defending their teacher and the difficult nature of their programs.

It’s an easy view to have when, as has been reported, NYU’s director of undergraduate studies in the chemistry department wrote in an email that he would “extend a gentle but firm hand to students and those who pay tuition fees. .”

If bowing down to licensed, unprepared students is the narrative you see in NYU’s decision, others may see a teacher and institution locked into outdated teaching methods, unwilling or unable to respond to needs of contemporary students trying to recover from pandemic education.

Both can be true, of course.

But the most telling, concerning, and common issue raised by NYU’s botched Jones situation points to a very weak point in modern college governance.

Intimidated by expectations of cutting costs and increasing scale while facing enrollment and competitive pressures, higher education institutions have increasingly resisted hiring instructors as as employees or the extension of tenure job protections. Increasingly, the ranks of college teachers are filled with part-time, short-term contract teachers who can be terminated at will.

Even though NYU Professor Jones was a longtime instructor who literally wrote the organic chemistry textbook, the school kept him on a short leash in one of those unprotected yearly arrangements. As a result, even he was exceptionally vulnerable to any kind of complaint, to any kind of disruption in the smooth running of the university.

In other words, what this short and painful saga really highlights is that today’s college deans and department heads don’t care about justice – to pick up the line. that Bill Cosby used about parents. They are interested in calm.

Contract teachers who create waves are thrown overboard.

The ability to fire contract faculty so easily and for any disruption is and has been accelerated and exacerbated in this era when, in addition to being told to cut costs, institutional leaders are being told to treat students like customers – to collect and consider and value their opinions and give them what they want. When schools try to operate like businesses and “tuition-payers” are unhappy and it’s so easy to replace a teacher, chopping off a head is a lazy, even logical choice. Problem solved, order restored.

In years of covering higher education, many on-demand contract instructors have told me that they teach to keep their jobs. They rate generously. They neglect cheating. They teach the curriculum of the curriculum and nothing more. They smile frequently. Because when the end-of-course surveys come out, they want high marks. They want their contracts renewed.

I can’t know for sure, but it seems like a very safe bet that few adjunct or contract teachers who have been the subject of student petitions have kept their LinkedIn profiles intact.

The problem is, of course, that when schools view their teachers as easily replaceable and interchangeable cogs, well, that’s a problem. It seems like it would be hard to convince anyone What you teach is valuable and worth paying when who teaches that it is clearly not.

In this particular case, it’s hard to blame the students for speaking up in what appears to be an unusually difficult situation. And the decision itself – the students are unhappy with this guy, so let’s get rid of this guy – may also seem beyond reproach. The real problem is that NYU put a teacher, one of its professors, in a position where he would be fired for just about anything but rave reviews.

The story really is that NYU isn’t alone in doing this. Unprotected teachers teaching for their job are the norm now. In this way, Professor Jones is not the canary, he is the ten thousandth canary. It’s not a teacher or student problem, it’s a structural problem that should be much more troubling.

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