October 18, 2022

SPARACIO | On Professors and Petitions: We The Students?  

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When a student petition successfully led to the firing of a New York University chemistry professor, there were mixed responses amongst students, educators and administrators. An incident like this, where students held enough power to demand such a change, would not have happened 50 years ago. While there are many similarities between being a student today and being a student in the past — the same struggles of fitting in, first relationships, difficult academics and so on exist — there are also significant differences. The time that we live in dictates what it means to be a college student. 

A New York Times article states, “The NYU students’ willingness to challenge this kind of pedagogical gatekeeping is a sign of how power dynamics are shifting at colleges and universities.” According to the author, that change is due to a rising sense of entitlement amongst students and parents, but more importantly, it’s due to the increasingly diverse student bodies of college campuses. Weed-out classes and standardized tests distinguish between students from privileged upbringings rather than directly weeding out less ambitious students. Gatekeeping, in the form of weed-out classes, as my fellow columnist Gabriel Levin ‘26 points out, has the potential to destroy student’s professional dreams. In the Wall Street Journal’s Future View (a column that collects student opinions), one student states, “The larger issue here is that [organic chemistry] shouldn’t be a prerequisite for medical school. It is a pure science course, suited for students who want to become professional chemists or researchers, not doctors.” Is gatekeeping more arbitrary than we thought? If chemistry can’t predict whether or not one will be a successful doctor, it should not be used to weed students off the pre-med track. It is important that students are challenged, but at the same time it is ridiculous that one class can stand in the way of someone’s dream profession. 

Weed-out classes are not the only source of contention that the firing of this NYU professor illuminates. The fact that the students were upset with the curve of the class conveys the increasing pressure that students have to get A’s. From 1955 to 1975, in the years of the Vietnam War —when being a student was a decision between life or death —professors began to curve up to prevent students from being drafted. Since then, grade inflation has been rising. While I do not believe that students should have the right to dictate how their classes are graded/curved, I do think that grades/curves need to reflect student experience, as it did in the Vietnam War and as it did during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Once students returned to in person classes, some published articles in The Sun documenting the return of rigor to classes after many professors eased requirements and grades during the beginning of the pandemic (when almost all classes were held on Zoom). 

The NYU students demanded that their professor be fired against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is still affecting students academically, socially and developmentally. College freshmen and sophomores were smack in the middle of high school when the pandemic hit, leading to two years of a tumultuous school environment that varied across states and counties. These students certainly did not receive the best education possible given the uncertain circumstances of the pandemic, and the situation was even worse for students coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Given the hardships of the pandemic, 1,600 colleges became test optional, no longer requiring the SAT, SAT II and ACT. Cornell was the first Ivy league school to implement this measure. By making the SAT and ACT test optional during the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges removed one of the prime gates that keeps students from attending top schools, causing a reckoning with standardized testing. The efficacy of these tests as a measure of college readiness has always been contentious, as studies have shown that they are better predictors of socioeconomic status than of one’s future academic success. Suspending the standardized testing requirement decreases the value placed on test scores and even leads to the loss of legitimacy that these tests hold. Academic gatekeeping in all forms is important to monitor given the NYU student reaction to a traditional weedout class. The LSAT may predict one’s grades in their first semester of law school, but it will not determine whether or not one will be a successful lawyer, just as organic chemistry will not determine if one will be a successful doctor. 

Measuring intelligence, readiness and potential is just as complex as the world in which we live. Intelligence is complicated. Grading is complicated. Two professors can read the same paper submitted by a student, look at the same rubric and give it a different grade. A different curve can be applied to the same class, in two separate semesters. We know grades matter, but how much of a bearing they have on our future depends on an individual’s professional goals. What do you do when you know that grades don’t define you, but that they can define your future? For students at NYU, that meant signing a petition and firing a professor. In an increasingly competitive world where according to WSJ Future View, the increase in “consumerization has led to a focus on student acquisition and retention.” It appears that the NYU administration may have had an interest in firing this professor to maintain high rankings, and appease students and parents. 

Today we see a flip in power relations between students/parents and the university and a  delegitimization of standardized tests as true measures of intelligence, which places modes of academic gatekeeping (like weed out classes and standardized exams) into question. As we watch these shifts and continue to champion the increasing diversity of college campuses, let’s make an effort to ensure that above all grades do not hinder academic curiosity or deter students from challenging themselves. Failure is an important part of life and without it, true learning can never take place. 

Rebecca Sparacio (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.