Yale Daily News

Last spring, more than 80 students at New York University signed a petition against organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. ’59 GRD ’63 with complaints about low grades and poor teaching. 

Months later, university administrators terminated Jones’ contract.

The move has sparked discussion on campuses around the country, with some academics siding with the students and blasting overly-difficult “weed-out” classes and others criticizing the NYU administration. Less than a week ago, Jones penned a column defending himself, emphasizing the importance of maintaining “high standards” in education.

At Yale, Jones’ alma mater, students and faculty expressed general disappointment regarding his firing.

“It is really unfortunate the way this played out,” Seth Herzon, an organic chemistry professor at Yale, wrote in an email to the News. “Jones has been teaching for some time, as he spent his career as a tenured professor at Princeton. However, it is also conceivable that his expectations may not have been aligned with those of his class. I think this could have been resolved in a more constructive manner.”

As one of the most renowned figures within the field of organic chemistry, Jones received his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and PhD from Yale before becoming faculty at Princeton University, where he taught for over four decades. In 2007, Jones retired from Princeton and began teaching at New York University on an annual contract basis.

Jones’ organic chemistry textbook — which Herzon refers to as “a rigorous treatment of organic chemistry … that challenges students to think deeply about the material” — is used by undergraduates nationwide. 

At Yale, the textbook is not required, but is frequently referred to for an alternative perspective and additional problems to strengthen learning, according to Herzon.

“While I obviously don’t know the entire story, I am disappointed in NYU’s decision to fire the professor,” said Krupa Subramaniam ’25, a previous organic chemistry student. “From what I read, the petition signed by the students didn’t request his firing at all. Not only does NYU firing a faculty member because their class is difficult drastically misrepresent the students’ complaints, but I think it also underscores a shift towards viewing higher education as a business.”

Organic chemistry is widely considered as one of the most difficult science courses. At Yale, the course sports a workload rating of 3.9 out of 5, according to student data on Coursetable. The course is typically taken as a prerequisite for medical school admission, which means the stakes are high.

Subramaniam explained that NYU’s decision appears to value faculty who give good grades over faculty who prioritize “intellectually rigorous” learning environments. He added, however, that the low averages for Jones’ course may have suggested a need for exam restructuring. 

Chemistry student Adam Tufts ’26 added that the NYU administration’s decision was likely due to a “multitude of reasons,” with rigor of the course being one of them.

“While grades are important, I think it is also essential that we maintain the autonomy of university faculty,” Tufts said. “All of that being said, without knowing much more about the situation, I am inclined to believe the 80 signatures on a petition out of a class of 350 students.”

Since the firing, many chemistry professors have written to the NYU administration, viewing the incident as a threat to faculty freedom. So far, however, NYU has defended the decision, citing poor course evaluations and high student withdrawal rates.

According to Yale organic chemistry professor William Jorgensen, Jones’ firing reflects a lowering of expectations that will eventually impact the career prospects of students.

It is hard to deny that there has been a gradual erosion of expectations at all levels of American education,” Jorgensen wrote in an email to the News. “There is a reduction in test requirements, reduction in course requirements, grade inflation, reduced reading assignments. At Princeton, one no longer needs to learn Latin or Greek to be a Classics major … In the case of Professor Jones, it seems that he hesitated to get on the bandwagon of reduced expectations.” 

Yale students have the option to take a version of organic chemistry for first-year students, or a regular version of organic chemistry. Both versions are full-year sequences and normally accompanied by a lab section.

Overall, my experience with chemistry at Yale has been superb,” said Tufts. “The lectures are engaging and digestible, not boring by any means … I also appreciate the fact that there is a lot of transparency in terms of grading with Yale’s chemistry department. I always understand why I got the grade I got and where improvement is possible.”

The term “organic chemistry” was first introduced by Jöns Jacob Berzelius in 1806.

Alex Ye covers faculty and academics. He previously covered the endowment, finance and donations. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight majoring in applied mathematics.