Who’s to Blame When Students Fail a Course?

A recent controversy at NYU has brought the question to the forefront.

As long as college students are considered entitled customers, their complaints about their professors will be taken seriously by administrators. That’s because happy students boost college applications, affect the closely-watched U.S. News & World Report annual rankings, and are part of the corporatization of higher education.

The latest example involves Maitland Jones Jr. and his organic chemistry course at NYU. When 82 of the professor’s 350 students signed a petition charging that his course was too hard, the deans terminated his contract and allowed students to withdraw from the class retroactively. This highly unusual step ignited an equal and opposite reaction from both the chemistry faculty, who protested the decision, and pro-Jones students.

Not surprisingly, professors who have yet to achieve tenure are reluctant to disappoint students.The controversy surrounding Jones has far-reaching implications for higher education today as it attempts to handle its Gen-Z student body. There was a time when college administrators paid little attention to student dissatisfaction. Their opinions were largely written off as a sign of their immaturity. But things have changed because of the high stakes involved. Students believe that they are entitled to all A’s while putting in little effort because they are paying soaring tuition. Not surprisingly, professors who have not yet achieved tenure are reluctant to disappoint students out of fear that poor ratings will be used against them. In contrast, tenured professors simply dig in their heels, citing lowering standards.

Although learning is the shared responsibility of students and professors, students are the easier target. They study only 13 hours per week on average, or less than two hours per day in a typical semester, according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses. That’s half as much as their peers in the early 1960s. More than 80 percent of their time, on average, is spent on work, clubs, socializing, and sleeping. No wonder they struggle to master rigorous work, particularly in the hard sciences and math.

The role that professors play in learning is far more nuanced. Old-timers with tenure cite the importance of maintaining high standards when they refuse to concede that their instruction might not engage students. Yet high standards and effective pedagogy are not mutually exclusive. Lecturing, which remains the most widely used method in many higher-ed disciplines, reduces students to passive stenographers. During the pandemic, Jones and two colleagues taped 52 organic chemistry lectures to reach failing students. But these lectures, for which Jones personally paid more than $5,000, were insufficient. In 2020, 30 students filed a petition asking for more help. It may never have occurred to Jones that he was partly to blame.

For non-tenured faculty, increasingly including adjuncts, the issue is less about maintaining standards than about retaining their jobs. With student evaluations now posted online, few faculty members want to be the target of rotten tomatoes. They know, with good reason, that their contract renewals depend on favorable comments. Who can blame them? High standards take a back seat to being able to pay the rent. The situation is only going to get worse as more and more adjuncts are hired and pressure to keep their students happy persists.

In the final analysis, Jones created his own downfall for two reasons: He was not able to transfer his formidable research expertise in organic chemistry to the classroom, and he failed to develop a solid rapport with his students. (According to NYU’s student newspaper, “There are dozens of comments across social media warning students about taking Jones’ class dating back more than a decade.”) If Jones had been able to achieve only one of these two goals, he likely would not have been terminated. Research has shown that students rank “caring” professors quite differently from “uncaring” professors. Could it be that Jones’s inability to connect with his students was more important than his rigid standards?

Research has shown that students rank “caring” professors quite differently from “uncaring” professors.Jones also set himself up for dismissal by violating what higher-education researcher George Kuh calls the “disengagement compact” between faculty and students: “I’ll leave you alone if you leave me alone.” Simply put, this tacit agreement means that professors won’t make students work too hard for a high grade as long as students give professors high marks in evaluating their courses. But Jones seems to have wanted it both ways. He refused to lower standards at the same time that he came across to his students as aloof. This lethal combination led to his termination.

Whether NYU acted appropriately, however, is another story. Administrators today are highly attuned to student feedback. But in handling the complaints against Jones, they overreacted. Instead of summarily firing him, they should have offered him assistance to improve his instruction. By allowing students to retroactively withdraw from his class and then terminating him, they established a dangerous precedent.

There was a time when the voices of students were not given nearly the attention by administrators that they are today. The model for college teaching has its roots in the early 1800s. Students then were asked to read an assigned passage and recite a summary, or even the passage itself in its entirety. It was only in 1828 that “The Yale Report” wondered if a student attending a lecture “may repose upon his seat and yield a passive learning … without ever calling into exercise the power of his own mind.” Despite research showing the disadvantages of lecturing, it still remains the dominant form of instruction. Teaching in any form, however, is unlikely to improve, since it is still given little weight in awarding tenure. In fact, it is often the case that the better an instructor is at teaching, the less standing he has in his discipline.

Don’t expect higher education to reform itself. The corporatization of colleges and universities that began in the early 1980s will likely prevent it. Eager to be included in the “top tier” of college rankings, universities began to view faculty strictly as employees, while students were seen as customers. When forced to choose sides, administrators opted to favor students. That makes perfect sense in the short run because corporations have long known that the customer is always right.

The long-term effects of corporatization are disheartening. Colleges and universities are supposed to be centers of research and learning. The farther they move away from their primary mission by trying to please students, the more they undermine it. The transformation is part of a larger cultural shift that views higher education as a private good benefiting individual students rather than a public good helping the nation prosper by turning out educated citizens.

Where all this will lead is still unknown. But if the past few years are any indication, higher education may soon be unrecognizable.

Walt Gardner, who was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education, blogs about education at TheEdHed.com.