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We Need to Rethink the "Weed-Out" Course

Let’s start with the easy part first: if New York University fired Maitland Jones Jr. for maintaining high standards in his organic chemistry class, every professor in America should be outraged. And we should be scared, too, because it now seems like many of us can lose our jobs if we demand too much from our students.

But the news coverage of this sad episode—and the Twitterstorm about the same—focused too much on Jones and not enough on NYU. Put simply, what was the university doing to help students succeed in his course?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that many of our universities let students sink or swim, especially in large “weed-out” courses like the class Jones taught. We call them that because we expect a certain fraction of students to fail. And the ones who do come disproportionately from minority and underprivileged communities.

Even more, as a study published last month showed, underrepresented minority students are less likely to pursue a degree in STEM fields after getting a low grade in an introductory course. So it isn’t just that underrepresented minority students receive worse grades in these courses; they’re also more likely than other students to leave STEM fields altogether, even after you control for their academic preparation in high school.

That, too, should concern every American faculty member. To be clear, I don’t think we should lower our standards to allow more students—whatever their backgrounds—to skate by. Rather, we should assist them in meeting the kind of high standards that Maitland Jones reportedly set.

That’s what David Laude did at the University of Texas, where he proved that more people will rise to the mark if we provide them the proper support. Like Jones, Laude is a prominent chemistry professor. And for many years, large numbers of students flunked his freshman survey course.

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed