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Discussing student authority after a professor's dismissal in New York City

Discussing student authority after a professor’s dismissal in New York City

The latest class of an American college professor, accused by his students of being too harsh on his grades, has sparked a debate in the United States about a university system that is too submissive to the goodwill of its students.

Maitland-Jones, who was studying organic chemistry at New York University (NYU), was expelled in August without an interview or a clear explanation, a procedure that left him “confused,” he told AFP.

82 of his students had previously signed a petition denouncing his classification, which they considered too harsh.

“The students who signed the petition did not accept the fact that they were not doing well in my class, they were looking for someone to blame,” Professor Jones told AFP.

However, by his calculations, only a quarter of his 350 students had failed the average.

Maitland Jones, who had taught for several decades at such prestigious institutions as Princeton or Yale, at the age of 84, went unnoticed without an article in the New York Times in early October, sparking a lively debate.

Several other professors offered their public support to Maitland Jones, denouncing the disproportionate weight of students, for some for sensitivity exacerbated by social tensions and recent COVID-related restrictions.

For Marty Ross, professor emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston, universities take a lot of tweezers in their dealings with the students they fund and who often give feedback on the courses they take.

These “clients” tend to have a hostile attitude toward the most vexing subjects, such as organic chemistry, he says, “in a pattern of ‘Why would anyone need this course?'” “”.

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“Often, if they argue, they will give a bad grade for the course being taught and can go so far as to file formal complaints,” he told AFP.

On the other hand, the retired teacher says he knows many incompetent teachers who succeed in filling their class only by having the reputation of “good standing”.

In the end, Marty Ross concludes that “the power is no longer owned by the universities, but by the students” which, he says, amounts to “a patient explaining to his surgeon how to operate.”

Karen Fisher, a journalist and research associate at the University of Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, stresses that the relationship of respect between students and Mandarins that we observe elsewhere does not really exist in American colleges.

“In the United States, there is the idea that you are supposed to challenge authority in the classroom, you are supposed to ask questions to your teachers and not take everything they say as gospel. Debating, having discussions, and asking questions is part of the critical ethos of AUC,” the specialist explains.

Suradeep Banerjee, a young teacher at Temple University who has done most of his studies in India, explains that he realized the strength of American students on the day he was given the task of correcting exams.

“The professor in charge of the course explained to us during a meeting that we can’t do this (to be very strict in the marking), the university’s finances and work mainly depend on the number of students who decide to register in our institution,” he says.

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The importance of this business relationship takes precedence for some students, who demand a quality education commensurate with the sacrifices made to pursue higher education.

In the United States, a college student can typically pay up to $60,000 annually in tuition, which does not include housing, transportation, or food expenses. Many students have to take out large loans to finance their undergraduate studies.

“The fact that they (the students or their families) have had to take on heavy debts puts a lot of pressure on them to try to get good grades to finish university as soon as possible and (…) not have to complete more,” explains Karen Fisher.

Before enrolling in the course, Daniela James, a student at Temple University, says she takes into account how professors have evaluated her and reviews the ratings other students have left on RateMyProfessor.

“It puts a lot of pressure on me, because I can’t bear to waste my time,” says the student, who switches between two odd jobs outside class hours, one on her college campus and the other at a large US ready-to-wear chain.