What the firing of a legendary yet difficult organic chemistry professor says of America’s ‘meritocracy’

How the rich and powerful game the meritocracy

click to enlarge A legendary organic chemistry professor was fired at NYU because his students were struggling with the material. - Shutterstock
A legendary organic chemistry professor was fired at NYU because his students were struggling with the material.

Organic chemistry is hard. Anyone who’s ever made it through a premedical curriculum, or perhaps more importantly, did not, can tell you that.

But apparently 82 students who signed a petition against their legendary organic chemistry professor hadn’t heard. Neither had the administration at New York University who dismissed their professor, Dr. Maitland Jones Jr., who literally wrote the book from which I and so many others studied.

Organic chemistry — or “orgo” as it’s reverently called — involves the study of how carbon-based molecules are structured, interact, and change. As should be obvious, understanding the fundamental building blocks of life should be a prerequisite for medical studies. But orgo is often the stumbling block for many aspiring physicians. It’s partly why only 17% of those who start out as premed end up in medical school.

There are real equity issues implicit in so-called “weeder” classes. It’s a conceit of our ostensibly meritocratic system that every student has an equitable shot at making it to medical school — that grit and intellect are the only determinants of who gets in. That ignores huge hurdles facing too many students to simply get into college, let alone to pay for it while they’re there, or to get through weeder courses like orgo. Too often, students from underprivileged backgrounds — particularly Black and brown students — stumble simply because they didn’t have the resources to jump. Universities absolutely owe it to their students to build the kind of infrastructure to assure that courses like orgo aren’t selecting for the privileged and resourced, rather than the gritty and smart.

But that’s not what happened at NYU. Professor Maitland Jones Jr. was the pioneer in organic chemistry pedagogy. He won teaching awards for rethinking how orgo should be taught — from rote memorization to learning the language of the body’s building blocks. His approach meant that students could apply basic concepts to new questions — exactly what doctors have to do every day in clinics and hospital wards. It even earned him a spot on a list of NYU’s coolest professors.

When the pandemic took a major toll on student learning, professor Jones spent his own money to tape 52 lectures along with his colleagues that, despite his ouster, the university is still using. As professor Jones told The New York Times, who broke the story: “In the last two years, [students] fell off a cliff.” But he had started to notice a deterioration in student focus years earlier. “Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote.

Declines in student mental health and ability to focus over the past decade are well documented. The pandemic has added an exclamation point on that trend. Rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus have, indeed, skyrocketed. This, too, requires a response from institutions of higher learning — investing in robust, consistent mental health support, for example.

Canning professors is not part of that response. But that’s what NYU decided to do after 82 students signed a petition against professor Jones. Why? Per an email from the director of undergraduate studies to professor Jones, the university would “extend a gentle but firm hand to the students and those who pay the tuition bills.”

NYU understands where they get their money. Their “customers” are “those who pay the tuition bills.” Rather than meet its obligation to prepare its students through rigorous academic training in their chosen field of study, NYU has decided that the “customer is always right.”

Higher education is at a precipice. As institutions have raised their prices to pay for the accouterments that allow them to compete for scions of America’s wealthiest families, they’ve accelerated a massive student debt crisis. It has all but made higher education unaffordable for millions of families while stunting their own graduates just as they’re handed their diplomas. But the whole point of getting one of those diplomas is that it’s supposed to certify that you’ve achieved the necessary standards to receive one. NYU is showing what happens when you subjugate those standards to the whims of “those who pay tuition bills.”

This isn’t about lifting up those who are struggling because of the challenging circumstances from which they came to the university. This is about bringing down the standards for those whose parents expect the university to cater to their children just like they have.

Back in 2019, federal prosecutors unearthed a massive scandal — dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” — through which dozens of parents paid more than $25 million to game the college admissions process. These parents had leveraged their wealth, power, and privilege to earn their mediocre children spots at colleges they probably couldn’t have gotten into on their own merit. The scandal shocked and outraged the country. But it shouldn’t have been that surprising. Rich people using their money, power, and connections to open access to institutions for their children is as old as America. What I worry about here is that institutions are preemptively lowering their standards for these parents now, too.

To appreciate just how dangerous that is, consider this: Would you want a doctor who only had orgo-lite?

Originally published Oct. 6 in The Incision. Get more at abdulelsayed.substack.com.

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About The Author

Abdul El-Sayed

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is a physician, epidemiologist, public health expert, and progressive activist who served as Detroit’s health director and ran for governor in 2018. He is the author of Healing Politics: A Doctor's Journey Into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic and Medicare for All: A Citizen's Guide, as well...
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