Chemistry Test Question Invokes Nazi Gas Chambers; Controversy Ensues After Satirical Newspaper Makes it Public

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Chemistry Test Question Invokes Nazi Gas Chambers; Controversy Ensues After Satirical Newspaper Makes it Public

The test question posed by Professor Jeff Byers on a Chemistry 103 exam in March asked students to calculate a lethal dose of Hydrogen Cyanide, one of the gases used by Nazis during the Holocaust.

The test question posed by Professor Jeff Byers on a Chemistry 103 exam in March asked students to calculate a lethal dose of Hydrogen Cyanide, one of the gases used by Nazis during the Holocaust.

The test question posed by Professor Jeff Byers on a Chemistry 103 exam in March asked students to calculate a lethal dose of Hydrogen Cyanide, one of the gases used by Nazis during the Holocaust.

The test question posed by Professor Jeff Byers on a Chemistry 103 exam in March asked students to calculate a lethal dose of Hydrogen Cyanide, one of the gases used by Nazis during the Holocaust.

By SARAH ASCH

UPDATE — Wednesday, April 10: Professor Jeff Byers will be taking an immediate leave of absence from his teaching duties, the Chemistry department announced in an email to Byers’ students Wednesday afternoon.

——

Monday, April 8, 2019

A question posed on a chemistry midterm last month asked students to calculate “a lethal dose” of the gas “Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.” The test question was brought to public attention last Friday through an article in the student-run satirical newspaper The Local Noodle. The question has garnered widespread condemnation while The Noodle’s article has sparked controversy over the use of satire to respond to such incidents.

Chemistry Professor Jeff Byers, who has taught at Middlebury since 1986, posed the question in early March. Several students reported it to the administration the week before spring break. According to Dean of Faculty Andi Lloyd, the administration responded immediately by reaching out to Byers.

“My reaction was that the question was completely inappropriate and deeply problematic, and that follow-up was needed,” Lloyd said. “We’ve been focusing on the situation within the class itself, and that culminated in an apology to the class by Professor Byers last week.”

In an email to The Campus, Byers said he would not comment further on the incident, which he called an “unfortunate error on my part.”

Several students in the class said they were disturbed by the way the question was framed. One Jewish first-year, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the question was distressing to read, especially in the middle of a test.

“I was pretty rattled when I saw the question, as the Holocaust is not something to make light of, especially since I am Jewish and the problem involved us calculating how much poisonous gas you would need to kill people in a room,” she said.

Most students outside of the class did not know about the incident until The Noodle’s article was published online on April 5. The article, which circulated widely on social media, prompted the Community Bias Response Team (CBRT) — a group that responds to bias incidents involving students on campus — to send an all-school email on Sunday, April 7.

In its email, the CBRT condemned the test question, stating, “The use of this exam question failed to provide any critical engagement with the historical contexts and atrocities of the Holocaust. It asked students to engage in problem solving that mirrors calculations used to implement systematic genocide. Our students should never have been put in this position.”

If administrative bodies can publicly shame student publications who bring to light things they’ve kept quiet, that sets a dangerous precedent for our campus.

— The Local Noodle staff

The email also criticized The Local Noodle article. “We are aware that The Local Noodle published a satirical article about this incident,” the email read. “While satire can be an effective form of social critique, the article’s light handed references to and engagement with the Holocaust have caused additional harm.”

According to Renee Wells, the director of education for equity and inclusion and a member of the CBRT, the team was not planning to send out an email until The Local Noodle article elicited a campus-wide reaction to both the test question and the satire piece.  

“The incident occurred in a class, so the impact was on the students in the class. Thus, the focus of the response in this situation was to work to ensure the faculty member understood the harm done and addressed it with his students,” she said. “When we began receiving emails about the Noodle article and its impact, we realized that the scope of the incident had expanded to the entire campus community, so we sent out a campus-wide email.”

The CBRT did not reach out to members of The Local Noodle before the email was sent.

Some students and faculty expressed concern that the email equated the Noodle article with the original test question, including Maggie Clinton, an associate professor of History and a member of the Faculty for an Inclusive Middlebury working group.

Whether one found the Noodle’s article humorous or not, and I personally didn’t, student satire is hardly the same as exam questions given by a professor with a powerful gatekeeping role,” Clinton said, referring to Byers’s additional responsibilities as a member of the college’s Health Professions Committee, which evaluates students’ medical school applications.

“It’s unfortunate that the CBRT didn’t acknowledge either the power differential or the political difference between highly unethical and frankly horrifying exam questions, and a satirical response intended to criticize the posing of such questions in the first place,” Clinton said.

In a statement to The Campus, the staff of The Local Noodle wrote that the response from CBRT felt more like a public relations decision than an attempt to engage the issue. They also took issue with the fact that nobody from the CBRT contacted them in advance of the email.  

“To denounce a satirical publication in a school-wide email like this is a form of public shaming designed to close off a complex and sensitive issue to any meaningful discussion, which is what would actually be productive,” they said. “If administrative bodies can publicly shame student publications who bring to light things they’ve kept quiet, that sets a dangerous precedent for our campus.”

The Local Noodle responded to the email in a second article titled “Community Bias Response Team Gets Mad at Noodle For Making Them Do Their Job.”

Although The Local Noodle staff feel the CBRT mishandled the situation, many students found The Noodle’s article offensive. There has been active debate about the article in comments sections on Facebook, and several students have posted in the “Middlebury Memes for Crunchy Teens” Facebook page, both defending and criticizing The Noodle’s article and the CBRT’s response.

At the Student Government Association (SGA) meeting on Sunday night, a senator expressed interest in exploring the possibility of pulling The Noodle’s funding next year, but the idea was not further discussed. Senators also discussed the possibility of requiring the editors of all student publications to participate in mandatory bias training. As of press time, no official action has been taken on either front.

Senior Senator Travis Sanderson ’19 said that while he took issue with the article, he does not support revoking the club’s funding.

“The Noodle is a satirical magazine attempting to do its job,” he said. “It is The Noodle’s right to engage in the type of humor that relies on trivializations of seriously traumatic and genocidal terms, like ‘the final solution,’ but I am nonetheless disturbed by The Noodle’s apparent total lack of empathy for the legitimate concern about such jokes’ effect on community members.”

Talia Raisel, a Jewish first-year, was among those who found the Noodle piece hurtful. While she felt the original test question was “in bad taste,” her bigger concern was the headline of the Noodle article, which joked that the professor was “a real Nazi” about grading.

“Calling people Nazis who aren’t literal Nazis has really trivialized the term,” she said. “Satire can be wonderful and effective when used properly, but there’s still a line where satire loses its efficacy and just becomes a series of inappropriate puns, and I feel that this line has been majorly crossed.”

Jenny Moss ’20.5, the co-president of Middlebury Hillel, said that she was not offended by the Noodle article. Rather, she appreciated the way the piece highlighted the issue of bias and anti-Semitism in academic spaces and the lack of response from the school. She also feels the school should have addressed this issue publicly earlier, especially because in her experience many Jewish students heard about the incident before break.

“If I were to have written the Noodle article, I think that I might have dialed the rhetoric back and focussed more on the lack of apology from the teacher and the school,” she said.

In the wake of the controversy, Moss also invited students, faculty and staff to participate in upcoming events for Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance, to learn more about the history of oppression within the Jewish community. The events will take place in late April and early May.

Looking forward, the CBRT email noted that this event has highlighted the need for more training for faculty and staff to promote inclusivity in the classroom.

According to Wells, she will pilot this program starting in the fall and will offer workshops and facilitated dialogues to faculty and staff on a variety of topics.

“The program will provide a framework for faculty and staff to access resources, engage in critical conversations, practice inclusive strategies, and be part of a community working to integrate what they learn in the context of their everyday work,” she said. “It is important to create space to engage in open and honest conversations about our campus climate and to be thoughtful and intentional about ways we can make Middlebury a community that everyone feels included in and wants to be a part of.”

Wells invited faculty and staff to reach out if there are specific areas they would like to see addressed in the program.

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About the Writer
SARAH ASCH, Editor-at-Large

Sarah Asch ’19.5 is an editor at large.

She previously served as senior features editor, features editor, and staff writer.

Asch is majoring in...

8 Comments

8 Responses to “Chemistry Test Question Invokes Nazi Gas Chambers; Controversy Ensues After Satirical Newspaper Makes it Public”

  1. Melinda B. Thaler on April 9th, 2019 5:33 pm

    I am a parent of a Middlebury student, and I received a fundraising email yesterday soliciting a gift to support Middlebury as part of a Parent Challenge campaign. The timing of this solicitation is unfortunate as it lands in my inbox in confluence with the news of Prof. Byers’ exam question asking students to calculate the lethal dose of HCN needed to exterminate Jews in Nazi Germany. More unfortunate, however, is my profound disappointment with Middlebury’s affirmative decision not to address Prof. Byers’ actions with the Middlebury community after being alerted to the occurrence. The incident and the College’s lack of response compel me to refrain from any donation until a more suitable response is developed.

    The College through the CBRT issued no statement concerning the test question itself, other than to note that the question “failed to provide any critical engagement.” There is much wrong with this question beyond the fact that it is not engaging enough. I gleaned from the College’s criticism of the satirical article that Prof. Byers was required by the College to apologize solely to the members of the class to which the test was issued, and that he has expressly provided “no comment” other than to describe his actions as an “error.” A mere apology limited to one individual class, without more, minimizes this event to something akin to failing to hold the door open for the person behind, or cutting short a scheduled time for office hours. This is far more serious than a simple error and far too dire to be mended with an apology. Were someone to create an academic assignment about relegating Middlebury’s African-American students to campus slaves, or making its female students available as Geisha girls, I am confident that the college would do far more than urge the offending person to apologize to those to whom the assignment was issued. No group is more worthy than another or less deserving than another of full restitution for transgressions against it.

    I posted my views on the Middlebury Parents Facebook page, and the College responded to me Prof. Byers has already apologized to the students in his class and that all faculty will be undergoing mandatory continuing education designed to make curricula more inclusive. Why is the College satisfied to have Prof. Byers apologize only to the students in his class? Why is his behavior not an affront to the entire Middlebury community? And why is Prof. Byers merely being directed to the same continuing education program that “every faculty member” is required to attend, when his own conduct suggests that there is a wide gap between the typical faculty member and him? Does he not need direction and coaching to a greater and different degree than “every faculty member,” who are presumably not posing exam questions that “fall short of Middlebury’s standards” and “do not reflect on what Middlebury is”? By including Prof. Byers in a general faculty education initiative without more, there is an implicit statement that the range within which his behavior fell is within the norm for faculty members. I do not share that view. He needs coaching. His reasoning skills are subpar in this area of performance. This was not a reflexive comment made on the spot without the benefit of a moment’s thought; this was an exam question written with the considered time, attention and reflection that routinely accompanies the preparation of a problem designed to probe scientific mastery at the collegiate level. Extended opportunity was available for reflective pondering. With the luxury of ample time given for deliberate and considered development of a high level assessment, the logic that alerts the vast majority of people that this question screams of impropriety escaped him. Prof. Byers missed the loudest alarm bell. He needs attention and training of a nature that other faculty members do not. You cannot fix a broken leg by pretending it is a paper cut. And he needs to apologize to everyone that has learned of this awful transgression; his behavior hurt many people beyond the members of his one class. His apology needs to be disseminated as widely as word of his conduct has spread.

    Sincerely,
    Melinda Thaler

  2. Concerned Student on April 9th, 2019 10:47 pm

    If Middlebury College has any desire to uphold civil liberties like the 1st Amendment (and I am sure they have some contractual obligations as well) then they should never pull funding or necessitate “bias training” for a publication that has engaged in “offensive” speech. I put offensive in quotations because who is deciding which types of nonconforming speech are permissible and which are not? I am ashamed of the SGA that they would consider these measures. They clearly do not have an understanding or commitment to the principles (think: Bill of Rights) that allow students to dissent, to inquire, and to learn from people who hold viewpoints that differ from their own. I will submit a case to FIRE if the SGA pulls funding or mandates bias training for the Noodle. I would encourage others to do the same.

    https://www.thefire.org/submit/

  3. Jay H. on April 10th, 2019 11:35 am

    Down with public shaming and deplatforming!

    Up with good faith conversation!

    Vive la Noodle!

  4. Morgan evans on April 12th, 2019 8:12 am

    “Several students in the class said they were disturbed by the way the question was framed.”

    The question was framed that the Holocaust was “horrific”. How is that bad framing?

  5. Silver Nuts on April 15th, 2019 5:20 am

    Middlebury is among the most respected colleges in this great country. I was surprised when admin pushed back on an offensive question on a test for one student. In business we call this micromanagement. In education we call this infringement of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, not to mention it was an example being used to TEACH information on a chemical compound.

    Admin, you just destroyed one of the great professors of Middlebury just to please parents of snowflake students who threatened to pull finances for fundraising.

    I guess money and the fear of lawsuits take precedence over Pure ACADEMICS. Sorry students.

    Its all about the lack of leadership at this premier institution called Middlebury.

  6. A Middlebury Worker on April 16th, 2019 12:18 pm

    I agree with Jay H. above – down with public shaming over such a minor incident. That exam question was the product of momentary poor judgment, but I don’t see it as being racist or anti-Semitic. Momentarily insensitive, yes. I don’t think the course was called “Chemistry’s Role in Warfare & Mass Murder,” so students shouldn’t have expected a question like that on an exam.
    It looks just as, if not more, ridiculous and embarrassing, however, that so many parties – the President’s Office, SGA, and the Chemistry Department – are clamoring over each other to claim the title of ‘Most Self-Righteous’ over this relatively minor incident.

    Michael Steinhardt’s behavior over decades is a lot worse than this one incident, and yet Laurie Patton isn’t penning letters denouncing him. Oh, that’s right, because he gives the College lots of money. I doubt Steinhardt is the only Middlebury donor with a long history of sexist (racist, homophobic, etc.) acts. Money washes away most sins at Middlebury, though. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/21/nyregion/michael-steinhardt-sexual-harassment.html

    Jesus Christ.

  7. R Anderson on April 18th, 2019 6:12 pm

    In my opinion it’s a matter of intent. Prof. Byers may have had a serious lapse in judgement, perhaps he mistakenly thought this concrete example made the question more relevant than a purely abstract calculation, and certainly this particular clueless choice undoubtedly lacked sensitivity, however there clearly was no malicious intent. To so vindictively impugn a long tenured (thank God, or he’d no doubt be sacrificed) and respected member of the science faculty for an unintentional error in judgement, however egregious in the minds of some, is grossly unfair and excessively punitive. This administration, and many students as well, have had enough difficulty in distinguishing between what they would deign to permit and what is appropriate speech, of late, without compounding the error by crucifying a decent and well-meaning man on a cross of undeserved and excessive condemnation.
    R Harding Anderson
    Endicott NY/Colchester VT

  8. Dr. Ed on April 19th, 2019 12:51 pm

    The example of HCN that comes to immediate mind involves Capital Punishment — many states (including California) used the “gas chamber” as their means of execution during most of the 20th Century. It’s largely been replaced with lethal injection for 8th Amendment reasons, but it was most recently used in 1999.
    .
    Would people have objected less had the question asked for the amount necessary to execute a prisoner? Probably not — and what everyone (including the professor) is missing is that LD-50 (i.e. “lethal dose”) is “Lethal Dose for 50%” which means that it isn’t for the other 50%.
    .
    Antisemitism is real and really reprehensible, but…………….




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Chemistry Test Question Invokes Nazi Gas Chambers; Controversy Ensues After Satirical Newspaper Makes it Public