In Defense of Jeff Byers


A month ago, I took a chemistry test that asked me to calculate the lethal dose of hydrogen cyanide. In a test full of these types of questions, which asked students to calculate lethal doses accompanied by a little blurb about what each chemical was, this particular one referencing Nazi Germany did not give me pause. 

I had not read The Local Noodle’s article until it was mentioned in the Community Bias Response Team’s email. The first I heard about the problem was when we came back from spring break and, before starting class, Professor Byers took several minutes to apologize and acknowledge complaints brought to him by students about the exam question. He even said that, if we felt the question inhibited our ability to successfully finish the exam, he would regrade it with this in mind. I understand why people take offense to the question and, yes, it is unsettling, distasteful, short-sighted, etc. But to call it harmful is more dangerous than the question itself could ever be.

To call the question harmful is more dangerous than the question itself could ever be.”

I am Jewish. Both my uncles are rabbis. I did not mind the question because, frankly, the Holocaust happened, and the gas was used. I took it at face value as an attempt at historical relevance — if he had never said what HCN was, I would not need to write this today and we would all have simply calculated some meaningless jumble of letters. Should he instead have had us calculate rat poison? The lethality of bathroom ammonium? Yes. Should he lose his teaching position? No.

The handling of this situation has snowballed in a way that is more similar to a Saturday Night Live skit than anything resembling a reasonable response. As the Noodle briefly referenced, CHEM 103 was a flipped classroom where we watched pre-recorded tapes of Professor Byers’ lectures as homework and then worked collaboratively on classroom problem sets. We received an email on April 12 from our new chemistry professor saying that, since she could not remove Professor Byers’ videos from the class website (he did not use Canvas), we must “refrain from watching them.” Other students have defended this, saying it is awkward having to watch this man who is no longer our professor. The situation is certainly awkward, but that discomfort does not warrant the Chemistry Department’s strong condemnation of Byers — of one of their own — nor their official demand that we not watch his videos on our own time.

I am not writing a letter defending a test question. I am writing a letter defending a professor.”

I am not writing a letter defending a test question. I am writing a letter defending a professor. A professor who has worked at this school about twice as long as I have been alive. The administration has turned against him in an effort to kowtow to its students. Let me just say something: if you are not currently in Professor Byers’ chemistry class, you do not know the full story. And, admittedly, neither do we. But all you are doing is condemning a man based on gossip and creating an echo chamber that is in turn turning others against him.

Professor Byers has not defended himself to us even once. Not when he first brought up his mistake in class, and not now. He has apologized for everything he has done wrong and for the offense taken. He has given full points to everyone in the class for that exam question, regardless of whether they were insulted or not, and has offered to regrade the entire exam if they were. He has stopped class many times just to reiterate his multi-decade long commitment to creating a safe environment in his classroom and his sadness in having failed us.

When school continues this semester without Professor Byers, the only life that you have changed is his. This campus is not any safer or more accepting. You have not proven Middlebury’s tolerance nor its dedication to open-minded progressivism. You have merely proven that anything that can be interpreted as offensive therefore is, and that its speaker deserves to be punished. My letter so far has been loud and arrogant and angry and my best defense is that I am angry. It sickens me that we can do this as a community: faculty and students alike have completely thrown someone under the bus without regard. 

No one has been quick to step up in Byers’s defense.

Let us not forget that hate-speech and insensitivity are incomparable. We do not have a Chief Diversity Officer or Community Bias Response Team so that we can kick people out who make comments we do not like, professor or otherwise. There are anti-semitic people in this world who we will meet, and I would be hard-pressed to identify Professor Byers as one of them. The handling of this affair, though understandably difficult because of The Local Noodle’s quick dissemination, is antithetical to what Middlebury stands for. 

I wish this ordeal had not snowballed like it has. I wish the question had not entered the court of public opinion and that we would remember there is a person behind the chemistry question. It is time to remember that political correctness is not synonymous with goodness.

Ellis Glickman is a member of the Class of 2022.

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11 Responses to “In Defense of Jeff Byers”

  1. Wm Poulin-Deltour on April 18th, 2019 12:02 pm

    If it is indeed true that students were told to “refrain from watching videos” Prof Byers had produced to teach his class, well that is just beyond insane. Will we next be scratching out his face from Midd photos à la Staline? Faculty need to discuss this, if not any one of us could fall victim to this atmosphere of suspicion. C’est pour quand la guillotine?

  2. Jim Phillips '90.5 on April 19th, 2019 2:19 pm

    This is an unfortunate development, and it truly saddens me. Dr. Byers (aka Jeff) made a serious error of judgement, and has acknowledged his wrong-doing and apologized for it. But my point here is not to dismiss or speak in defense of his actions, but rather, to note the quality of the individual involved. In spite this incident, there are many great things to say about Jeff. He is an outstanding teacher – one of the best anywhere, and he has worked tirelessly to promote and advance the the careers and lives of Middlebury students for three decades. He is the reason I decided to become a chemist, and probably also why I eventually became a chemistry professor (though Sunhee Choi had to show me how to work hard before that became a viable option). Instructors that truly inspire to the degree that Byers does are a rare find, even at Middlebury, and I hope the college administration weighs that against the concerns for their image when the handle this matter.

  3. ioana uricaru on April 19th, 2019 9:05 pm

    Well said, William.

    Our alarms should sound every time we’re asked to accept that a thing, person or idea labeled “bad” must be rejected, destroyed, pulverized without even thinking or talking about it, ever.

    The next step is to accept that touching, looking at, being in the same space or breathing the same air as the “bad” will contaminate us, so we should just let the Powers That Be deal with it.

    Then we start agitating our virtue to make sure everybody knows we’re not contaminated.

    And by now we’re halfway – or more – to fascism.

  4. Ann Pantazes on April 19th, 2019 9:25 pm

    Thank you for your kind words for my brother. He is one of the best people I know.

  5. Querube Galaz (Lopez) on April 20th, 2019 12:03 am

    I am saddened by the news. Professor Byers was my first chemistry professor at Middlebury – a very thoughtful, kind, and helpful professor then. Did his question show lack of sensitivity or was it a reminder of the horrific experience that the Jewish community went through? I think we can be critical of his poor decision, understand that this was a lapse of judgment and exercise the level of tolerance that we think this world needs. Middlebury, think again!

  6. Benzion Joseph on April 20th, 2019 3:15 pm

    This is not the first time Buyers has made irresponsible comments. Nobody can justify using examples from mass murders in some cold clinical fashion as if we now look at these events as some ancient history with no human relevance anymore. Mass murder via technology in cold blood is not a subject for education about technology, That’s the kind of thinking that allowed the Nazis to plan the use of technology as a means of destroying an entire people they did not like politically.

  7. Judy Olinick on April 21st, 2019 8:55 am

    No one suggests that the question was not a mistake. No one is trying to justify it.
    But the objections have been registered and Prof. Byers has apologized. That should be enough. Whatever harm the question did to any students was unintentional, minor and transitory. The harm that has been done to Prof. Byers by his colleagues, the administration and some students is much greater and probably will be longer lasting.

    Everyone makes mistakes. As should be apparent from comments by former students, Prof. Byers has done a great deal of good during his time teaching at Middlebury. I’m glad to see it remembered in this column and think any reasonable person should see that it far outweighs the “evil” of the test question.
    It’s time to stop wallowing in this orgy of condemnation, to accept Prof. Byers’ apology, to return him to his rightful place in the community and to go on with more important things.

  8. Joanna Colwell on April 23rd, 2019 11:13 am

    When someone makes a dreadful mistake and then apologizes sincerely, what is the appropriate response from a caring community? Do we banish the person who made the hurtful mistake? Or do we accept the apology and then move on? Can the college community learn from this, resolve to do better, and perhaps even engage in some form of restorative justice? As a Jewish member of the wider community, and friend of Jeff Byers, I would love to see MIddlebury learn a powerful lesson from this: we can hold each other accountable when we cause harm, without throwing people away.

  9. Jacob Zimmerman on April 25th, 2019 2:37 am

    This is fascinating. So, students were offended he referred to it as horrific? Upset he acknowledges the Holocaust? What is disagreeable about the statement? What are they so offended by?

    And if the outrage is that this is an upsetting topic, perhaps he should ask about pentobarbital, the drug used to euthanized dogs.

    How will these students face the world? The world is very upsetting. Being upset by a fact isn’t an excuse to suspend a professor.

    This looks like a case of false outrage for the sake of virtue signaling to get attention.

  10. KMC on April 26th, 2019 12:54 pm

    I think it is also important to remember that the only reason the Noodle published that article was because no action was taken by the college. Apology to the class is one thing, and I agree that firing him is also a bit much for the mistakes he’s made without being informed he was being insensitive (this is, I’m told, not the first tasteless question from him on an exam), but some sort of public apology to the community, maybe also a formal reprimand and some sort of training to make sure he didn’t make the mistake again, any sort of signal to the rest of the campus that his mistakes were being acted on would have gone a long way toward preventing all this backlash. Instead, the administration’s inaction looked like an attempt to sweep the whole incident under the rug and take no steps toward preventing similar in the future. A lot of the outrage has been less toward the mistake the professor made, which everyone agrees was not okay, but toward the administration who tried to ignore it.

  11. Ellis Glickman on April 27th, 2019 7:47 pm

    There is one other thing I wanted to share that I learned since writing this article, and that is his first inappropriate test question, his “gratuitous and offensive” reference to the KKK. I skipped over this point at the time of publication because I didn’t have enough information, but now I do. The problem is we were never given the actual question he wrote, just this one phrase. I made fun of this redaction at the time, seeing it as yet another example of our presumed fragility and the fear that making us read the question ourselves might cause us even more harm, but in reality it is much more insidious. We do not have the necessary information to decide for ourselves what kind of person Byers is and are instead given one possible interpretation: it was gratuitous, it was offensive, he is a racist. But since writing this, I came across the actual question and am going to post it here verbatim because it is neither gratuitous nor offensive. Ironically, it was designed for the sole purpose of helping his students succeed. This witch hunt HAS to stop–and I’m not just talking about Byers anymore. We are not creating an inclusive or kind community, we have created the opposite.

    BONUS: Top ten ways to get thrown out of chem lab:
    10. Pretend an electron got stuck in your ear and insist on describing the sound to others.
    9. Give a cup of liquid nitrogen to a classmate and ask, “Does this taste funny to you?”
    8. Consistently write three atoms of potassium as “KKK”
    7. Mutter repeatedly. “Not again….not again… not again..”
    6. When it’s very quiet, suddenly cry out, “My eyes!”
    5. Deny the existence of chemicals.
    4. Begin repeated everything Prof Simpson says, exactly the way she says it.
    3. Casually walk to the front of the classroom and deliberately smash a beaker against the wall.
    2. Pop a paper bag at the crucial moment when Prof Simpson is about to pour the sulfuric acid.
    1. ________________ (Note: Supply an suitably humorous #1 for a one-point bonus)

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In Defense of Jeff Byers