Jason Loew, a former professor in Lehigh’s computer science and engineering department, was fired from the university on Nov. 20. His termination letter indicated he was fired because he communicated with students after he was removed from teaching CSE 303: Operating System Design. He was also removed from his section of CSE 109: Systems Software.
Loew said the department wanted a different professor to administer and grade the CSE 303 final exam because grades in Loew’s classes were low. Loew said he refused, and he eventually lost administrative control of the course.
Department Chair Daniel Lopresti declined to comment on specific personnel matters, but said in an email that four CSE faculty have been hired away by other institutions in the past year. Three of the faculty were tenure-track and one was a professor of practice.
Loew said he planned to give his resignation at the end of the semester, anyway.
“The situation kind of boiled down to: I knew I was going to get fired at some point, I just didn’t know when,” Loew said.
Michael Spear, a professor of computer science and engineering who has taught CSE 303 before, has taken over Loew’s CSE 303 class. Mark Erle, a professor of computer science and engineering who taught the second section of CSE 109, has taken over Loew’s section of that class.
Spear will assign the final of the four CSE 303 programming assignments and will write and administer the final exam. He said 45 percent of the course material has yet to be graded because a remaining programming assignment is worth 5 percent of the grade, and the final exam is worth 40 percent.
Spear will calculate two grades for the class — one that follows the exact breakdown on the original syllabus, including the students’ previous work with Loew, and one that only takes into account the remaining coursework but is reduced by a factor of 10 percent. Whichever grade is highest will be the grade each student receives.
If a student who struggled with Loew for one reason or another managed to get full credit on everything Spear assigns, they will receive a final grade of an A minus.
“If I say the grades (from Loew’s portion of the course) absolutely count, then the student who argues that there was some intrinsic reason why the way the class was being run before was preventing them from being successful can’t make up for that,” he said.
The grading solution isn’t a guarantee that everyone will pass, Spear said, but it is a guarantee that every student has the opportunity to pass the class.
Spear has had a stake in CSE 303 since he redesigned it in fall 2015 to focus more on fundamental concepts, rather than the operating system as its own entity. Both Spear and Loew each taught a section of the class in fall 2015 and split the sections again in fall 2016.
Spear said the department is challenged by the loss of Loew as an instructor for CSE 109, for which he would have taught both sections in spring 2019.
“We might have to put all of those students together in one section,” he said, “but I don’t know if we can actually do that and still have it be an effective class.”
Spear said it could be difficult to give each student in a class of 120 the individual attention they need to learn the hands-on, complex programming taught in CSE 109.
Required computer science courses for a Bachelor of Science in computer science average 54 students per section this semester, according to the course sizes indicated in Lehigh Banner. This average number of students, calculated from CS courses ranging from CSE 002: Fundamentals of Programming to CSE 340: Design and Analysis of Algorithms, is nearly double the university-wide average class size, which now sits at 29 students.
As a result of the tremendous interest in computer science, Lopresti said in an email, the department’s class sizes are significantly above the Lehigh average. He said this has been true for a while, but losing faculty has exacerbated the situation.
Loew commented on computer science personnel issues on his reddit account, thatprofessoryouhate. He said he primarily posts and comments in r/Professors, a subreddit for professors, with that account.
It can be difficult to hire computer science teaching faculty, Loew said, because jobs in the field pay better than teaching positions with institutions. He said prospective Lehigh students are told they will enjoy small class sizes and individual attention, but the department doesn’t have the capacity for that.
Spear said students and the administration have been flexible as the department tries to find solutions that work for students.
“It seems that the students are willing to bend as much, if not more, than the faculty to make the learning successful,” Spear said.
Loew questioned the success of the university’s computer science education, however. He said his CSE 303 class and a computer science degree itself need to have value, which is diluted if everyone passes arbitrarily. Loew claims the department did not want him to administer the CSE 303 final exam so every student would pass.
Lopresti said in an email that students can and do fail CSE courses, as there is no department policy guaranteeing any student pass in any CSE course.
Spear said students fail CSE 303 every semester, and students must be able to receive failing grades if they deserve them in order for the department to uphold academic standards.
In Loew’s eyes, his students held themselves to different levels of academic standards.
While he still had an office in Packard Lab, Loew assembled a heavy envelope, about three inches thick with single sheets of paper, and kept it at his desk next to dual computer monitors.
The papers were his students’ printed assignment submissions for CSE 303. He divided the students into two groups, classified by their grades.
“The bottom 50 percent of the class submitted this much,” he said, motioning to a shorter pile of paper. “The top 50 percent submitted this much,” he said as he patted the second stack of paper, nearly three times as tall as the first.
Loew said there was a significant difference between the amount of effort put in by one half of the class versus the other.
“(Loew) definitely felt that Lehigh made our curriculum too easy and he tried to make it more difficult,” said Sarah Botwinick, ’19, who took CSE 303 with Loew in the fall 2017 semester. “But I think there’s a difference between making things more difficult and us learning from them versus making things difficult to make them difficult.”
Over the semesters Loew taught CSE 303, he said he only simplified the syllabus.
Botwinick said she had to complete six programs when she took the course, but Loew removed two of the programs for the fall 2018 syllabus. She took two four o’clock exams and a final exam for the course, but the fall 2018 syllabus for CSE 303 now just has one midterm exam and a final.
In his opinion, Jakob Coles, ’20, a CSE 303 student, said Loew’s programming assignments and exams were typically extremely hard. However, the grades were often curved.
Evan Choy, ’20, also a CSE 303 student, said Loew was always known to be a tough professor.
“You go (into his class) knowing that he’s going to beat you into the ground and it’s going to be OK at the end,” Choy said.
Loew emphasized the correctness of his students’ programs. He said the code they wrote had to perform in certain ways under certain conditions, some of which they were told about, and others they were not told about. Students were supposed to follow directions and solve problems independently.
Jack McBryan, ’19, said he liked how Loew pushed students but found his grading procedures for assignments unforgiving. He said student effort didn’t seem to be valued in his classes.
“He has these testing algorithms that he puts our assignments through,” he said. “You could mess up one or two easy-to-forget things and it would not go through these algorithms and give you back (a grade of) a zero or something really low.”
While Choy recognizes computer science as a discipline is “black and white” in terms of grading because code either works or doesn’t, he said professors can give students a greater opportunity to succeed by giving them more graded assignments.
McBryan, who has taken courses led by both Loew and Spear, said while Loew pushed his students in different ways, Spear gives students the tools to help them do well. He said Spear makes students feel that they want to learn and succeed in his courses.
McBryan said Loew could be confrontational and difficult to talk to.
Aaron Nace, ’19, who took CSE 109 with Loew, said he, as well as some other students, stopped going to Loew’s office hours because he found Loew difficult to get along with.
Loew was always good to him, Coles said, and he liked Loew as a professor.
“He’s really competent and I get his sense of humor,” Coles said. “I think he’s a good guy.”
Although he feels “disillusioned,” by the situation, Loew remains optimistic that students can succeed.
“It doesn’t necessarily matter so much about which classes (students) end up taking or which degree they’re in,” he said. “Their ability to do their own projects themselves and direct themselves externally, pick up new computer science skills and just grow from there is a lot more significant and gives them a lot more advantage when they’re looking for jobs.”