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.