July 15, 2019

Middlebury Prof Placed on Leave Over Nazi Gas Question on Test

Photo from Wikipedia.

A chemistry professor at Middlebury College was placed on leave on April 10 for including a test question involving Nazi gas chambers.

The professor, Jeff Byers, put the following question on a March exam in a general chemistry class: “Hydrogen Cyanide is a poisonous gas, which Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in gas chambers during The Holocaust. The lethal dose for humans is approximately 300. mg of HCN gas per kilogram of air when inhaled.” It proceeds to ask students to calculate the amount of HCN needed to “give a lethal dose” to humans in a room.

According an April 10 statement from Middlebury, a review of Byers’ past test questions found that he had included a test question in 2018 mentioning the Ku Klux Klan. The question was meant “to be humorous” but was “gratuitous and offensive.”

“This inexplicable failure of judgment trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values, and simply has no place on our campus,” Middlebury President Laurie Patton said. “We expect our faculty to teach and lead with thoughtfulness, good judgment, and maturity. To say we have fallen short in this instance is an understatement.”

Patton added, “Middlebury has, and always will, condemn any actions that are anti-Semitic or racist in intent or effect, just as we will any other acts of bias or discrimination. We want to acknowledge the harm these actions have had on members of our community, particularly our students. Our values of personal respect, inclusivity, and nondiscrimination mandate that we must do everything possible to ensure that our campus and our classrooms are welcoming environments for learning.”

Byers, who had been teaching at the school since 1986, issued an apology on April 10, acknowledging that the aforementioned questions “were clearly offensive, hurtful, and injurious to our students.”

“I can offer no explanation for my actions other than carelessness and hubris. My students came to my class trusting that I would provide them with a supportive learning environment for a challenging curriculum,” Byers said. “I failed them, and, in doing so, compromised their ability to focus on learning the subject matter I have devoted my career to teaching. I apologize without equivocation to the students, faculty, and staff of Middlebury College and to the parents and alumni who, rightly, have denounced my actions.”