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Saturday, Feb 4, 2023

Chemistry Professor Who Asked Offensive Question to Take Immediate Leave of Absence

Professor Jeff Byers will be taking an immediate leave of absence from his teaching duties for the rest of the semester, the Chemistry department announced in an email to Byers’ students on Wednesday afternoon, following campus-wide outcry over an offensive question he posed on a midterm exam last month.

The email, from department chair Bob Cluss, did not specify whether Byers' courses will be taught by another professor. It promised that the department would update students "by the end of this week" on how their courses will be completed in the remaining four weeks of the semester.

The question, part of an exam for the Chemistry 103 course, asked students to calculate “a lethal dose” of the gas “Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.” Although students in the class reported feeling uncomfortable at the time, it was not brought to public attention until last Friday, through an article in the student-run satirical newspaper The Local Noodle.

In a separate email sent to the college community later Wednesday afternoon and also posted to the college's website, president Laurie L. Patton called Byers' question an "inexplicable failure of judgment," which "trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values, and simply has no place on our campus." The message includes a link to a written apology by Byers, in which he committed to "spend the coming months reflecting deeply on the choices I have made."

Patton's message also revealed that an inquiry into Byers' past exams uncovered "a second objectionable question," which made a gratuitous reference to the Ku Klux Klan.

This story will be updated.