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FIRE asks NYU to reinstate chemistry professor whose firing caused furor and to ensure that adjuncts like him have academic freedom

Banners hang on the NYU campus in New York

FIRE wrote New York University this week with grave concerns about the school's headline-making dismissal of accomplished organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr.

“​​We join the many voices, including those of NYU faculty, expressing bewilderment and dismay at this affront to faculty rights,” we wrote in urging the university to reverse course. 

Jones is by all accounts an accomplished teacher and researcher with more than a half-century of experience.

FIRE's letter came shortly after Jones's own op-ed about his situation appeared in the Boston Globe. The op-ed details Jones's experience with NYU student's growing inability--or unwillingness--to confront challenging material. Additionally, Jones brings attention to concerns FIRE shares with regard to the rights of adjunct faculty and their academic freedom.Late last week, a group of adjunct faculty formally asked the university to open an inquiry into Jones’s case, citing concerns about their own rights.

FIRE’s letter provides a high-level view of what we think is a major contributing factor to these critical issues on campuses nationwide: administrators treating their college or university like any other business. As we write:

For years, FIRE has monitored the expanding bureaucratization of higher education with growing concern. We have watched as ballooning numbers of administrators—most well-meaning—treat their college or university primarily as a business to run, with a brand to maintain, and students as customers to be satisfied at any cost. However, that cost, not infrequently, is the infringement of faculty rights and, in turn, depreciation of the institution’s only indispensable product: education. Of course, the value of a diploma cannot be quantified by tuition dollars, institutional cachet, or future job prospects alone. In 1957, the Supreme Court stressed the critical importance of higher education to the very fabric of our society, paying particular attention to faculty rights: 

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation . . . Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

Against this backdrop, Professor Jones’ dismissal from NYU represents a dangerous new low for American higher education. 

How hard should organic chemistry be? Experts say: Hard.

When The New York Times first reported on his case earlier this month, backlash from the academic community and public alike was swift. But NYU has stood by its decision not to renew Jones’s contract, reportedly in response to a student petition last spring claiming he was giving low grades that prevented students from getting into medical school. Students also took issue with his classroom demeanor, describing him as “condescending and demanding” when giving feedback. In total, 82 of his 350 students signed the petition against him.

But Jones’ fellow academics have defended his commitment to rigor in organic chemistry — a course that has historically weeded out students who can cut it in med school from those who can’t. A fellow professor was blunt in his interview with the Times: “Unless you appreciate these transformations at the molecular level,” he said, “I don’t think you can be a good physician, and I don’t want you treating patients.”

Beyond the necessity of a strong organic chemistry education for future physicians, Jones is by all accounts an accomplished teacher and researcher with more than a half-century of experience teaching “orgo.” He taught the subject at Princeton for 40 years, authored the seminal textbook on the subject, and has been heralded for pioneering a problem-solving approach to the field. 

But NYU administrators, who know nothing about the field, claim they have the unilateral power to fire him — because Maitland Jones Jr. is an adjunct.

Most NYU professors are adjuncts. Jones’ case suggests they’re at risk.

By firing Jones after a few student complaints, NYU has seemingly ceded its promises of academic freedom and due process to a group of vocal undergraduates and their tuition-paying parents. NYU relied on Jones’s status as “Other Faculty,” effectively an adjunct, to justify his dismissal without one iota of due process or the right to appeal. Because over half of NYU’s teaching staff have this adjunct-level status, this justification raises serious concerns about the job security of untenured faculty at one of the nation’s most storied institutions. 

FIRE has requested a response from NYU on its decision not to renew Jones — and whether the basic rights of the majority of its faculty will be respected.

And FIRE is not alone in our concerns about NYU playing fast and loose with due process and academic freedom.

“I wasn’t surprised that something like this happened,” an adjunct professor who asked not to be identified told NYU News. “It just seemed like a sign of the times in a way and, for me, it reflected some of the pressures that I’ve felt as an adjunct at NYU and elsewhere.” 

FIRE has requested a response from NYU on its decision not to renew Jones — and whether the basic rights of the majority of its faculty will be respected — by Friday.

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