Earlier this week, New York University fired professor Maitland Jones, Jr., after 82 of the 350 students in his organic chemistry class signed a petition expressing concern about the effectiveness of Jones’s teaching. Large numbers of students were receiving low scores on exams and some had withdrawn from the course.
The stakes were high. Organic chemistry is typically taught as a “weed-out” class — an introductory-level class that is designed to be so difficult or so intensive that only the most “serious” students can advance — in this case, to medical school.
The N.Y.U. students’ willingness to challenge this kind of pedagogical gatekeeping is a sign of how power dynamics are shifting at colleges and universities in the United States. To some degree, that shift reflects a rising sense of entitlement on the part of students and their parents. But that’s not the only factor at play. Another is the increasing diversity of student bodies, which casts many higher education traditions in a new light. One of those traditions is the weed-out mentality. Courses that are meant to distinguish between “serious” and “unserious” students, it has become clear, often do a better job distinguishing between students who have ample resources and those who don’t.
The solution to conflicts like the one that arose at N.Y.U. is neither to dismiss students’ concerns as whining nor to punish faculty — especially those who don’t have the protections of tenure — for doing what the current system demands. Instead, universities should focus on the broader goal of teaching for equity and with empathy, which means ensuring that students get the support they need to learn and succeed, without petitions and even without having to ask.
That approach has the potential to reduce longstanding inequities in student outcomes. It also requires that universities rethink their attachment to gatekeeping and focus more on the social benefits of building knowledge.
Changing institutions isn’t easy, but abandoning weed-out culture could have measurable benefits for students and for society as a whole. The nation is currently facing a shortage of doctors, especially Black and Latino doctors, and research suggests that academic gatekeeping is a big reason. The weed-out approach used in fields like chemistry, biology, engineering, and other STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) exacerbates inequalities in student performance and discourages students from completing STEM majors and pursuing opportunities like graduate and medical school.
Some might view these inequalities as unfortunate but necessary — after all, future doctors should probably understand the chemistry of the human bodies they treat. Yet, research shows that making courses like organic chemistry punitive does not make them any more effective. And many U.S. medical schools, including N.Y.U.’s own, don’t actually require students to have completed organic chemistry before starting their graduate studies.
Weed-out classes have deep roots in how colleges have historically viewed their mission. Today’s elite universities began as bastions of privilege — essentially finishing schools for wealthy white families and their sons, not all of whom were suited for rigorous graduate study.
Today, however, the context is different. Certainly, students from wealthy, white families are still overrepresented at elite colleges and universities, but they are no longer the only constituency. Meanwhile, as the U.S. economy has become more unequal and uncertain, college degrees have essentially become prerequisites for the kinds of jobs that buffer against economic precarity. Which has increased competition among students and raised the bar for admission to elite schools.
In this context, where the bar for admissions is set so high, where privilege is far from constant, where the pressures on students are greater than ever, and where many students are undertaking a lifetime of debt in pursuit of their degree, weed-out courses do not distinguish students on merit alone.
Imagine, for example, a student whose high school offered no advanced chemistry classes, who is the first in her family to go to college, and who in addition to her studies has to work 20 hours a week to pay bills. Imagine, also, that this student doesn’t have a reliable laptop or Wi-Fi at her apartment, so she has to do her work in a computer lab — or on her phone. Now compare her to the kid who took multiple A.P. science classes, who has no financial obligations, and who has all the learning tools he needs. They may sit right next to each other in that orgo class, but their backgrounds place them miles apart.
Yet elite universities don’t do much to acknowledge those realities, and instead rely on outdated models that presume the only relevant differences among students are how smart they are and how hard they work.
Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, abundant evidence shows that universities are more responsive to requests from their highest-paying customers. With tuitions rising ever higher and government subsidies only a fraction of what they once were, universities are dependent on money from affluent families. That model pushes schools to cater to the demands of privileged students and their families, even though doing so increases inequalities between those students and the less privileged peers whose tuitions the wealthy families essentially subsidize. And the more that schools cater to privileged families, the more entitled those families may feel to make demands.
Fixing these kinds of inequities would take a massive shift in the way the country supports families and funds both public K-12 schools and higher education.
Even in the absence of that kind of shift, though, universities can still do more to help students succeed in their classes, regardless of the level of privilege they bring with them to college or the types of majors they pursue. That means investing more in faculty hiring, to allow for smaller class sizes, and in academic advisers and other student support staff, who are often deeply underpaid.
It also means ensuring that students aren’t facing pressure to try to overload on courses in order to graduate early and save on tuition and room and board. That they don’t have to worry about having enough food to eat, or a place to live, or access to health care (including mental health care) or reliable technology. That they don’t have to juggle class work with working long hours for pay. And that they don’t have to launch formal petitions to get the support and respect they deserve.
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