Too elite to fail at NYU

Some years ago I spoke with a mathematician who earned a Ph.D. at Florida State University and went on to become a professor at Vanderbilt. “At FSU,” she said, “I taught calculus and about a third of the students didn’t do the homework, didn’t learn any calculus, expected to fail the class, and did fail the class.” No surprise considering the football obsession of FSU! (And when are they going to change the name of the team to something other than “Seminoles”? The only way to show that one is not prejudiced against Native Americans is to erase all references to Native Americans while keeping what used to be their land.)

How was Vanderbilt different? “The students behaved exactly the same as at FSU,” she responded. “About one third of them did nothing and learned nothing. So I failed them.” What happened next? “Every dean at the university descended on my office to explain that Vanderbilt students were not failures and that it was not possible to fail one third of the class, even if they had learned no calculus.”

NYU has an elite price, at least. Let’s check out “At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?” (NYT):

In the field of organic chemistry, Maitland Jones Jr. has a storied reputation. He taught the subject for decades, first at Princeton and then at New York University, and wrote an influential textbook. He received awards for his teaching, as well as recognition as one of N.Y.U.’s coolest professors.

But last spring, as the campus emerged from pandemic restrictions, 82 of his 350 students signed a petition against him.

Students said the high-stakes course — notorious for ending many a dream of medical school — was too hard, blaming Dr. Jones for their poor test scores.

Good news for those who say that an 80-year-old is not sharp enough to be president of the USA:

Dr. Jones, 84, is known for changing the way the subject is taught. In addition to writing the 1,300-page textbook “Organic Chemistry,” now in its fifth edition, he pioneered a new method of instruction that relied less on rote memorization and more on problem solving.

What did the ex-professor notice about kids today?

“Students were misreading exam questions at an astonishing rate,” he wrote in a grievance to the university, protesting his termination. Grades fell even as he reduced the difficulty of his exams.

The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, he said. “In the last two years, they fell off a cliff,” he wrote. “We now see single digit scores and even zeros.”

After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.

MIT and Harvard Medical Students are still amazingly gifted, in my experience, but they definitely did not learn as much during coronapanic. In our ground school class we use the FAA knowledge test to verify mastery of the subject and students who go through the YouTube+Zoom version score about 10 points lower (out of 100) compared to students who sit in a classroom for three days straight.

(Don’t read this as a defense of Professor Jones at NYU and the low grades that he gave on exams. I am against the entire system that prevails in the U.S. under which professors grade their own students. In my view, professors should teach and a neutral evaluator should grade, as is done with the Microsoft and Cisco certifications as well as with the granting of FAA certificates. There is an unavoidable bias when a teacher grades his/her/zir/their own students: “This student appears to have learned nothing, but I am the smartest person in the world and the student sat through my lectures, which means he/she/ze/they must have learned a lot even if the exam does not reflect that. B+”)


18 thoughts on “Too elite to fail at NYU

  1. Pre-covid, there were very little grade inflation at Vanderbilt, especially comparing with Harvard.
    But there were some professor missing basics of what they taught, as very rare exceptions.

  2. I wonder if the misreading of exam questions is entirely due to the lockdowns. Most people no longer attempt to extract meaning from texts; they scan for trigger terms and fire off a canned response.

  3. Noticed lackluster quality from the Berkeley, MIT graduates, but they all went to big companies & disappeared from the job market while us regular swells enjoyed stuttering careers at startups. Got to witness Harvard B school graduates & their company managed them like fast food employees. The ruling class lives in a different world where checking boxes & following procedures comes 1st.

  4. I learned via NPR yesterday that COVID and its various epiphenomena are responsible for a decline in College enrollment to the tune of more than 1 million students/year across the country. There was a tiny bounce this year, but more than a million kids decided “to hell with that” and went into burger-flipping and other low-wage, low-skill endeavors. Overwhelmingly, they also did *not* reconsider, they stuck with their new fates in life. People who track enrollment all sounded panicked and distressed. Obviously more money is needed to bring those wayward potential students back.

    It doesn’t surprise me that kids who *did* enroll might not be trying as hard, either, and want to be victims of something. The Brain Drain is the real “Long COVID” and it has and will damage our national competitiveness for a long time to come. If there is a long time to come.

    • Is “epiphenomena” the new euphemism for “tyrranical lawlessness”?

      I think there’s a name for this new internal “brain drain” It used to be called “going Galt”.

    • @averros, @Steve: I’ll have to check my dictionary. New terms are emerging all the time.

      For example – and at the risk of steering this part of the thread in a totally different direction:
      Wwithout Googling it, do either of you know what a Cupiosexual is? It’s real. It’s a thing.

  5. Note to self: treat NYU as a red flag on resumes. I already do so with history of employment at Google (Googlers are damaged goods… the company culture instills that combination of arrogance with incompetence which leads engineers to build hugely overcomplicated stuff for no good reason whatsoever.)

  6. If only these disinterested factions could be disinterested in politics and voting. All their attention seems to be expended on rage.

  7. FSU and the Seminole tribe have had a close relationship for decades. The tribe has officially approved the use of their name by the university. Go Noles!

  8. FSU is a state institution while Vanderbilt, like NYU, is private — so if lots of FSU students fail they will likely either take easier courses at FSU or go to some other school in the Florida state system while in private institutions there is probably a better possibility that the students and their parents will take their business elsewhere. Also the private institution will gain a reputation as the wrong place to go if you want to get into Med School. Grade inflation seems endemic. I think it was Larry Summers who complained that at Harvard 90% of the grades are A’s or something like that.

    Regarding Professor Jones, wouldn’t his grading cut against your theory that professors give good grades to validate their performance as a professor?

    • Lol, Vanderbilt is much more selective with 9.1% admission rate vs FSU 36% admission rate, and with higher percent of those who admitted enrolled.
      Students enrolled at Vanderbilt are more likely to already have calculus credit from HS, they are top ranked:
      Math SAT average 775 25th percentile 750 75th percentile 800 – maximum
      FSU Math SAT: average 630 25th percentile 590 75th percentile 670
      You can see that admitted to Vanderbilt are at least an order of magnitude more proficient in math at calculus level and mostly pass it at HS
      There are college athletes of course but I am sure they are not required to take calculus.
      There is more to the story, could it be Philip’s patriotism?

  9. Almost twenty years ago, I earned my M.S. in Risk Management at FSU; though it did not boost my earnings, it let me get out of the code monkey business and do more interesting work.

    “…about a third of the students didn’t do the homework, didn’t learn any calculus, expected to fail the class, and did fail the class.”

    Back in the mid-80’s, I was taking Calc I at a Boston-area community college, the student next to me was taking the course for the fourth time after failing it three times. Back in the 60s – 80s, community colleges had a chip on their shoulders and held high rigorous grading standards. At least for the majors that were designed to transfer to four-year universities.

    • @Get Smart!: sqrt(-1) to that. I knew a guy at an elite (non-Ivy) University who had big trouble one semester – all his fault – and was provisionally kicked out. But he was allowed one last “bite at the apple” so to speak: he could choose to attend a local CC, take a few courses including the ones he flunked, and if he did very well he would be readmitted. It worked! He took it as a gut punch at first, but he actually decided to study and this particular Community College had some pretty rigorous grading. He was readmitted and graduated.

      It’s a complex thing to look back over a few decades and say exactly why this happened, but I think it had quite a bit to do with the culture shock he encountered, coming from a relatively poor, semi-rural background but getting into a relatively elite school. He was very smart, but he had trouble socially, so the University gave him a kind of ultimatum: You’ve got one more chance to repair this.

  10. You can blame this all on social justice movement. We have created a generation that blames others for their failure. What’s more, with collage loan forgiveness that the Biden administration is about to start, expect more of blaming others for ones own stupidity.

    Coming soon to a court room near you: Student sues teacher for flunking class.

  11. “After several years of Covid learning loss, the students not only didn’t study, they didn’t seem to know how to study, Dr. Jones said.”

    Maybe Covid-induced brain fog?

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