Q: Was New York University Right? A: I Don’t Know.

Recently in the academic community, professor Matiland Jones Jr.’s story has been quite the topic of interest. Despite teaching organic chemistry for decades, Dr. Jones’s contract was terminated by New York University (NYU) just before the start of the 2022 Fall Semester. Last spring, after failing the course, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition blaming Jones’s teaching methods for their academic failures. This story was reported by Stephanie Saul, a staff journalist for the New York Times, on October 3. Since then, many news sources have created similar articles and op-eds referencing hers. I, however, think that developing a clear stance merely in response to Saul’s article and subsequent reports on the event is a fundamentally brash decision. Whether chosen by Saul or NYU to not disclose, too much behind-the-scenes information is simply not accessible to the public. 

First of all, throughout the article, Saul hints at the importance of succeeding in the course but never explicitly states what that importance is, leaving this petition susceptible to an overly wide range of interpretations. If NYU considers organic chemistry to be an introductory course to the field, then the students’ anxiety around their poor performance in the class is understandable. Introductory courses should not deter students away from pursuing the subject. In turn, they should pique curiosity and provide students with a glimpse of what the subject encompasses. If the course is deemed as a prerequisite to professions in biology, however, then the students’ opinions in turn demonstrate their lack of understanding to the demands of such careers. As schools select the most capable students to educate as future medical professionals, more and more students’ dreams will inevitably be crushed. In this sense, grades from the course should be the determining factor of whether or not a student can advance into the next stage of learning. The difficulty of the course is designed so that the “elimination stage” will take place, where those who do not perform as well, can consider a different career. Thus, without knowing where this course falls in the students’ trajectories, their petition can be seen as either a sympathizable cry for help or an unreasonable and ultimately unhelpful demand. 

Secondly, the administrative reasoning behind this decision stays ambiguous. An essential factor to making a “right decision” for an organization is whether or not the decision stands in line with its values. NYU’s teaching philosophy, principles, and priorities are impossible to deduce purely based on what is known from this article. In fact, as this article states, NYU’s positioning was even challenged by its own community. With some stating that the school simply wanted to “extend a gentle but firm hand to those who pay the tuition bills,” others asserting that the school wanted “happy students” for the reputation of the school, and the students struggling with Dr. Jones’s “dismissiveness, unresponsiveness, condescension,” NYU’s official philosophy remains in the dark. Whether its top priority is the students’ well-being or finding a balance between stress and hardcore academics, it directly impacts the suitability of this decision. Without this knowledge, the reader does not know the full story.

Finally, we must ask ourselves: what were the opinions of the 268 students who did not take part in the petition? The article clearly states the demands of the 82 students who signed the petition, but that number only accounts for a little over 20 percent. Moreover, by including his achievements and contrasting opinions from students, Saul presents Jones’s teaching in an unbiased way. By using general language such as “several students agree” and “multiple students say,” Saul addresses this range in a manner that does not reveal each opinion’s popularity amongst the students. How many students count as “several?” Three? 268? This renders making a fair judgment on the majority opinion extremely difficult. In other words, after reading this article, one can acknowledge and perhaps recount the different opinions that exist––but that’s about it. 

While other news sources have referenced Saul’s article in their work and done additional research, these uncertainties still remain. It can be incredibly tempting to develop a conclusion––after all, this topic is incredibly pertinent to students and institutions alike. Yet, as Saul’s article illustrates, we do not know the full story. Too many factors that play a crucial role in the administrative decision are not accessible to the reader, some perhaps very much being NYU’s choice to not disclose information. In that case, the only people who can accurately weigh the decision to terminate Dr. Jones’s contract is NYU’s administration itself. Regarding other news in the future, the same process applies: evaluating all that is available and reported in addition to all that is not, and only then, considering forming judgements.