The culture wars are fought by volunteer armies, but like Vladimir Putin and the old British navy, they sometimes grab unsuspecting conscripts and force them into battle against their will. Maitland Jones Jr. is trying to avoid being one of them.
Jones, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Princeton, was on the front page of The New York Times in October after New York University, where he has taught organic chemistry since 2007, notified him that it would not renew his contract. That decision came after a student petition last spring accused him of being too demanding in his expectations and too harsh in his grading. (Jones, in turn, filed a grievance against the university, which was summarily dismissed.) Since then, his inbox has been flooded with interview requests. He has granted a few — to The Chronicle of Higher Education and PAW, among others — but turned down many, including Dr. Phil and Fox News. Not that those outlets got the facts of the story wrong, Jones says, “but it seemed to me that there was danger of things moving in a direction I didn’t want.”
Organic chemistry is a famously difficult course that nearly all premeds and chemistry majors take early in their academic careers. While Jones has always set high standards, he has also earned a reputation for seeking new ways to make the material engaging. He is the author of a popular textbook, now in its fifth edition, and is credited with introducing a new approach to teaching the subject that has students tackle problems in small groups rather than watch him diagram molecules on the board in large lectures.
Jones taught at Princeton for 43 years, becoming the David B. Jones Professor of Chemistry. “Colleagues have lauded him as the best science professor at Princeton, and one of the premier teachers in the country,” Samantha Miller ’95 wrote in a 1993 PAW cover story that labeled Jones the “Orgo Master.” “Several premeds have been heard to exclaim, ‘Jones is God!’” In a phone interview with PAW, David McCune ’87, now an oncologist practicing in Washington state, recalls that Jones’ organic chemistry class “was the first really demanding class many of us had ever taken.”
Jones, who was known for his sense of humor and casual demeanor, was widely beloved by his Princeton students. He was the recipient of several practical jokes, including more than one pie in the face, according to PAW. In 2007, a group of about 20 students dressed as pirates interrupted his final lecture and marched him over to the School of Public and International Affairs, where they made him “walk the plank” into the fountain. Jones is also a noted jazz aficionado and, in his younger years, ran with students in an informal group called the Hash House Harriers.
Concerned that large lectures might not be the most effective way to teach organic chemistry, Jones decided to try a different approach, breaking students into small groups and setting them to work solving discrete problems. He introduced it as a freshman seminar in 1995 and 1996, and it proved so successful that Jones scaled it up to his regular organic chemistry classes. Many other universities have since copied Jones’ model, says John Hartwig ’86, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Indeed, one of the reasons Jones began teaching at NYU following his retirement from Princeton, he says, was to prove that his small-group teaching approach worked outside the Ivy League. (He continued to offer a lecture-oriented section, as well.) From all indications, it did. In 2017, Jones was listed as one of NYU’s “coolest professors” by writer Nour Che on Oneclass.com. While acknowledging that Jones could be demanding, Che wrote, “[I]t’s really just tough love: Maitland will push you to understand organic chemistry radically and you will come out of his course having the best tools to use to become a chemist.”
Dissatisfaction with Jones’ classes seems to have coalesced several years ago. According to NYU, his student evaluations were the lowest of any undergraduate science course. In November 2020, during a year when NYU offered a hybrid of in-class and online instruction, students submitted a petition criticizing Jones for burdening them with an excessive workload, providing too little feedback, and showing a lack of empathy, particularly during COVID and a time of political unrest.
“I am so sick of mentally ill and financially disadvantaged and otherwise marginalized students being shoved out of pre-health and other fields because they don’t have the money and neurology and other privileges to make it through these unnecessarily difficult and frankly sadistic courses,” the petition read in part, adding later, “We shouldn’t have to cut back on working jobs, spending time with family/friends, and taking care of ourselves for this class.”
A second petition, signed by 82 of 350 students in the class, was submitted last spring. “We are very concerned about our scores and find that they are not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class,” it read in part, adding that Jones was sometimes acerbic to those who performed poorly and “failed to make students’ learning and well-being a priority ... .” The petition did not, however, explicitly ask for Jones to be terminated.
Nevertheless, in August Jones received a note from NYU’s dean for science informing him that his contract would not be renewed because his performance “did not rise to the standards we require from our teaching faculty.” NYU also allowed Jones’ students who were dissatisfied with their grades to expunge them from their transcripts by withdrawing from the course retroactively. In a statement to The Times, a university spokesperson added that NYU was reviewing all its classes with high failure rates and asked, “Do these courses really need to be punitive in order to be rigorous?” Several of Jones’ colleagues in the chemistry department expressed their support for him in a letter to the NYU science dean, writing that his dismissal could “undermine faculty freedoms and … enfeeble proven pedagogic practices.”
Following the news of Jones’ termination, the NYU student paper approached several of his students, most of whom declined to comment for fear that it might hurt their medical school applications. One of them, however, told the paper that she had not availed herself of extra help because Jones “was not receptive to questions, and I didn’t want to open myself up for him to be rude to me.”
Jones, who turned 85 in November, says that students expected good grades in a rigorous course without putting in the effort necessary to earn them, even after he made some of his exams easier. Nor had they taken advantage of additional resources they had demanded, such as putting lectures online (which he recorded at his own expense) and offering additional office hours.
“They weren’t coming to class, that’s for sure, because I can count the house,” Jones told The Times. “They weren’t watching the videos, and they weren’t able to answer the questions.” Jones also noted that students were failing to read exam questions carefully, even when he tried to highlight potential traps, a problem that had been growing worse for nearly a decade. Exams that should have yielded a B average began yielding a C-minus average, and some students even earned zeros, something Jones says had never happened before.
In Jones’ estimation, it is student skills that have diminished, not their intelligence. “The students aren’t dumber [today]. They’re not.” He cites several possible explanations, including the amount of time students now spend on their phones and the loss of in-class instruction during the pandemic, but does not posit an answer except to say, “If I gave the exams that I gave 20 years ago, people would be more unhappy than they are.”
After The Times story appeared, several of Jones’ former Princeton students took to social media to defend him. Joanna Slusky ’01, an associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas, tweeted, “Maitland seemed to really care about student learning, and he was absolutely at the leading edge of pedagogy.” Sanjay Patel ’91, a physician in western Pennsylvania, called Jones “an engaging teacher and a fair grader with clear expectations ... . Can’t believe NYU has done this!”
Although organic chemistry is often described as a “weed-out” course intended to deter students who are not capable of doing high-level work, Jones says he dislikes the term and disagrees with the sentiment behind it. “We have no intent to weed people out,” he told the Chronicle. Instead, speaking to PAW, he calls organic chemistry, “a learn-to-think class within the context of a new language.” And that, he believes, is important to anyone considering medical school, whether or not they actually use organic chemistry in daily practice.
“What we try to do is produce people who can look at a set of data on something that they haven’t seen before and draw logical conclusions, hypothesize about how you get from A to B,” he says. “That’s called diagnosing.” Furthermore, Jones believes, whenever the Nobel Prize is someday awarded to scientists who discover a cure for Alzheimer’s or some other disease, “I guarantee you that those winners will have had to think about that problem at a molecular level. That’s organic chemistry.”
Though Jones was already at the end of a long and distinguished teaching career, some have expressed concern that his dismissal illustrates the precarious professional status of adjunct faculty. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Jones defended his fellow adjuncts, saying, “If a person’s career exists at the peril of some disgruntled students writing to the deans, then he or she just can’t write real exams, can’t teach hard material — serious material.” The Academic Freedom Alliance, a group of college and university professors, also released a statement, saying, “NYU’s decision ... appears to be another example of the trend in higher education to devolve more academic authority from faculty into the hands of administrative entities whose backgrounds and expertise reside elsewhere than pedagogy, research, and the pursuit of truth.”
One of Jones’ teaching assistants, Zach Benslimane, suggested in an email to NYU officials that student complaints about Jones had less to do with his teaching methods and more to do with their low exam scores. Grade inflation has been a perennial concern in academia, including at Princeton, but it is the assertion in the NYU petition that student grades were “not an accurate reflection of the time and effort put into this class” that draws it to a fine point.
Flattening the grading curve causes several problems, Jones believes. For one, conflating accomplishment with effort demeans the work of those who excelled in the course. Indeed, following his dismissal, Jones apologized to his top students. “I didn’t stretch you,” he wrote in an email, “and thus deprived you of the chance to improve beyond an already formidable base.” Similarly, easy grading deprives less successful students of necessary, though painful, feedback. As essayist Freddie deBoer wrote in the online journal Persuasion, “I want to suggest that the students who launched the petition were denying themselves a central element of education: figuring out what you’re not good at.”
Ultimately, while effort should correspond to outcome, that is not always the case; certain material, including organic chemistry, comes easier to some people than to others. Jon Miller ’07, one of Jones’ former students, is now a recruiter for a pharmaceutical research company. From his vantage point, the purpose of grades in higher education is to indicate — to parents, graduate programs, potential employers, and the students themselves — whether they have mastered a particular body of knowledge.
So far as the outside world is concerned, Miller warns, “No one cares how much you tried. That’s for middle school.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.