By Lucia Suarez Sang
Published April 19, 2019
A Middlebury College chemistry professor’s exam question asked students to calculate the lethal dose of the poisonous gas used by Nazis during the Holocaust, reports say.
In the question, professor Jeff Byers asked students to calculate the amount of Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) that would be a lethal dose in a particular room, the student-run newspaper, The Middlebury Campus, reported.
HCN, the question’s preamble said, was a poisonous gas used by Nazi Germany “to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.”
The gas chamber question came to light in the student-run satirical newspaper, The Local Noodle, the Middlebury Campus reported.
The Vermont liberal arts college said last week that it was investigating the incident under the terms of its faculty misconduct policy. Meanwhile, Byers has taken a leave of absence.
"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 wrote in a statement last week. "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.”
The school said an investigation into Byers' past exams also found a second objectionable exam question that made references to the Ku Klux Klan, that “appeared to be humorous in intent, but which was gratuitous and offensive.”
Patton did not elaborate on what exactly the question asked.
Byers apologized to students in a letter posted on the school’s website on April 10.
“I apologize and take full responsibility for my actions in administering two examinations in the last year containing questions that were clearly offensive, hurtful, and injurious to our students,” he wrote. “I can offer no explanation for my actions other than carelessness and hubris.”
The school's Community Bias Response Team, which is charged with assessing and responding to bias incidents, sent out a campuswide email criticizing both the exam question and The Local Noodle for making light of it, The Middlebury Campus reported.
The news of the exam comes at the same time the college decided Wednesday to cancel a lecture by conservative Polish politician Ryszard Legutko. The university cited safety concerns.
The decision comes two years after the school was the site of a rowdy protest against conservative author Charles Murray that saw a Middlebury professor injured.
The student-run newspaper had described Legutko as a critic of LGBTQ activists, multiculturalism and liberal democracy.
Patton said in a campus-wide message on Thursday that the college has experienced several incidents of bias in recent weeks "that are causing pain and anger in our community," but did not specify what those were.