Middlebury chemistry professor reprimanded for test question referencing Nazi gas chambers

On a March 2019 exam, chemistry professor Jeff Byers of Middlebury College asked students to calculate the “lethal dosage” of a gas used by Nazis to exterminate the inmates of concentration camps during World War II, making specific reference to gas chambers. Photos of the question were circulated by a student-run satirical publication April 5. On April 10, the college announced that Byers had taken a leave of absence after attracting severe criticism from students and professors. 

Key Players

Jeff Byers is the Philip Battell Stewart and Sarah Frances Cowles Stewart Professor of Chemistry at Middlebury. He specializes in organic chemistry but also teaches introductory chemistry courses. Byers is 61 years old and joined the Middlebury faculty in 1986. 

As the comically self-proclaimed “only news source” of Middlebury, The Local Noodle is Middlebury’s student-run satire publication. 

Middlebury College is a private liberal arts college in Vermont. The college has made headlines in recent years for Free Speech controversies, such as when a professor was injured during protests against a conservative speaker or when the university canceled the appearance of a Polish philosopher and politician.

Further Details

Several students in the class reported the question to college administrators, who subsequently brought the issue up with Byers, according to The Middlebury Campus, the college’s student-run newspaper. Byers reportedly issued an apology to the class following the incident. He also offered to regrade the tests of students who felt the question had significantly disrupted their ability to complete the exam, a student in the class reported. 

According to The Campus, the controversy had been largely unknown to the wider student body until The Local Noodle published an article with a satirized photo of the question. As the story circulated, widespread anger followed.

Some student and administrative criticism fell on The Noodle for lampooning the question. The Community Bias Response Team, a creation of the administration tasked with investigating incidents of bias among students, said the Noodle piece “caused additional harm” by making light of the Holocaust, The Campus reports. Senators in Middlebury’s Student Government Association floated ideas of slashing funding for The Noodle or requiring editors to take mandatory bias training, though neither idea has been acted upon, according to The Campus

Others came to Byers’ defense. A Jewish student who took Byers’ exam defended the professor in an opinion piece submitted to The Campus, suggesting the distasteful question did not constitute hate speech or offer grounds for his being fired. 


Byers takes leave of absence, apologizes

On April 10, the Middlebury chemistry department notified Byers’ students that the professor had taken a leave of absence for the remainder of the semester. 

Later that day, the college published a statement criticizing Byers and announcing an investigation into his conduct. Middlebury President Laurie Patton called the incident an “inexplicable failure of judgement” that “trivializes one of the most horrific events in world history, violates core institutional values, and simply has no place on our campus.” 

The same day, Byers issued a public apology for the gas chamber question and another inappropriate question on a previous exam joking about the KKK, a question college administrators called “gratuitous and offensive.” 

“My students came to my class trusting that I would provide them with a supportive learning environment for a challenging curriculum,” Byers said in his statement. “I failed them, and, in doing so, compromised their ability to focus on learning the subject matter I have devoted my career to teaching.”