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April 23, 2019 9:17 am

Middlebury College Professor Takes Leave of Absence After Nazi Poison-Gas Test Question

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The spire of Mead Memorial Chapel at Middlebury College in Vermont. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – A 33-year chemistry professor at Middlebury College in Vermont has taken a leave of absence after asking students on a test to compute the destructive dose of the poisonous gas hydrogen cyanide used in Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.

The Vermont school announced the development, in addition to an ongoing investigation to determine if Jeff Byers violated its faculty misconduct policy, on April 10.

“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,” said Middlebury President Laurie Patton in a statement. “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 question’s preamble stated, “Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) is a poisonous gas, which Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust.” It then asked students to calculate how much of the gas would be a deadly amount in a particular-sized room, according to the student newspaper, The Middlebury Campus.

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This is not the first time that Byers has come under fire. In an exam last year, a reference to the Ku Klux Klan that was apparently meant to be satirical was deemed to be incendiary.

Byers apologized on April 10 for these actions.

“It is unbelievable that in this day and age that a professor would ask such painful questions on exams, and that any school newspaper would make light of it,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, told JNS. She was referring to another campus publication, The Local Noodle, which apparently satirized the incident, despite the fact that students expressed concern, disappointment and anger.

For her part, Rothstein said, “I am relieved to hear that he is taking a leave of absence so that he can reflect on his passive-aggressive action, and that the administration has rightfully taken it seriously and condemned it.”

Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center President and CEO Avi Benlolo told JNS, “This is outrageous, and if the allegations are true, the university should enforce a Holocaust-education plan and sensitivity training for this professor, at the very least.”

“Genocidal expression, such as imagery, like swastikas, or language expressing a desire to kill Jews or exterminate the Jewish people, was the most common form of classic antisemitism on campus last year,” AMCHA Initiative Co-Founder and Director Tammi Rossman-Benjamin told JNS. “That form of antisemitism rose dramatically from 46 incidents in 2015 to 113 in 2016 to 153 in 2017.”

“The remainder of incidents of antisemitism on campus are driven by Israel-related antisemitism,” she continued. “We commend Middlebury for immediately addressing this incident.”

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