The Tragic Case Of Professor Paris Svoronos

A few months ago, the news was filled with the narrative of Prof. Maitland Jones’s termination from NYU because his course was “too hard.” Bad as Jones’s experience was, what happened to Professor Paris Svoronos is even worse.

Jones is a renowned organic chemist teaching part-time at NYU after a distinguished four-decade career at Princeton. I can tell you why he “kept his hand in” at NYU: he simply loved imparting knowledge to young future scientists (and allied professionals) sans the burden of writing grants and unrelenting committee work that can crush an academic. But organic chemistry can be tough, and a few snowflakes blubbered over their grades. Jones had to go.

The media have described organic as the weed-out course for those hoping for medical school; I’m not sure I agree (wait till you get to P-chem, dear children!). Regardless, it is a demanding subject that requires significant work. It’s easier, though, to complain, especially if you know the administration will bow before you.

Now, let me tell you a name that you probably have not heard: Professor Paris Svoronos. Svoronos hailed from Greece, arriving in Washington D.C. in 1973 on a fellowship for a Ph.D. program, with the allowed 13 bucks in his pocket and an additional 26 hidden in his shoe.

His fellow grad students thought he was odd for he jumped from his seat, standing at attention when a professor entered the room! He slowly became accustomed to the more relaxed tenor stateside, to the extent that his nickname became “funny guy.” I entered the same program three years later and, during our time there, he taught me a great deal, both of us emerging with a Ph.D., his in organic and mine in physical chemistry (P-chem).

Image: Queensborough Community College Building (cropped) by Jim.henderson. Public domain.

Though offered positions in research-1 universities, Svoronos made his career at Queensborough Community College (QCC), part of the City University of New York (CUNY). His ambition was to lift immigrants (such as he was) who were at rock bottom, the type whom no other school would even look at, and transform their lives. And what a job he did! Countless young people who benefitted from his tutelage have gone from dirt-poor to achieving M.D.s, Ph.D.s, and other professional/academic degrees (from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.), and to hold prestigious positions. I have seen his collection of thank-you letters and testimonials; I envy the joy his students attribute directly and solely to him.

How did Svoronos accomplish this? He applied his own unique version of tough-love, ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners teaching. Is he rough on students? Absolutely! Does he tolerate mediocre efforts or laziness? Not hardly! He demands that students arrive to class on time and be engaged. He expects performance and success from his students, all the while giving them the tools to achieve that success.

Svoronos is more in the mold of a European university don than the typical, unexceptional Ed.D.s found in university administrations. He shouts and dances about the classroom; initially scary, but ultimately revered and loved by those who come to realize what has just been done for them.

Most of these students did research along with their studies, a concept unheard of in community colleges until Svoronos introduced it in 2000. Many who fail with him the first time have come back to his courses only to succeed and go on to live life on their own terms, no longer dependent on the largesse of government, but as mentors and leaders in their own right. Svoronos served these students faithfully for 40 years before being forced into retirement by, you guessed right: a blubbering snowflake.

Not surprisingly, over the years, a number of students have gotten an ass-chewing from Svoronos. In 2010 and 2016, students faked research results on a two-million-dollar grant that Svoronos won for QCC (the first ever for a community college). This dishonesty almost resulted in QCC’s disbarment from future research grants.

Svoronos removed these students from grant support, and they promptly complained to the administration. In 2017, he asked a student to leave a lecture because she was texting, despite scoring below 20 % on the first exam. The student complained to the administration.

In 2019, Svoronos advised a minority student whose average exam grade (on seven exams) was 9 % to withdraw and perhaps try again. Not heeding this advice, she failed and promptly accused Svoronos of racism. To put this in context, among Svoronos’s awards are several for service to the minority community!

Finally, in 2020 Svoronos reprimanded a student who came late to lecture, telling her what he told all aspiring physicians: “a doctor who comes in late is called an undertaker”! Yes, her feelings were hurt, but it is far better that she suffers a bit of hurt feelings and learns now that the world waits for nobody. In business, in the emergency room, in engineering, in science, in any walk of life outside of academia, you either are on time or you are not; you have it or you do not.

This student recorded the reprimand on her phone and complained to the QCC administration. It is difficult to imagine the outcome without thinking Kafka. He was threatened with suspension for one year, or QCC would retroactively withdraw one year’s salary from his (direct deposited) bank account, or he could resign. He was told, as well, that if he objected or consulted an attorney, he would immediately be terminated.

Well, Svoronos did retire from his beloved classroom and his beloved students. QCC eliminated his access to campus-wide emails and barred him from even teaching part-time. I mentioned his numerous awards; a listing appears below.

Interestingly, many resulted because his students—mostly immigrants and people of color, none of whom would consider him a racist—nominated him. Of course, the real losers are the students who have been failed time and again by universities.

Major Awards Presented to Professor Svoronos:

2022 MAC/BAN U.S. President Volunteer Service Award Honoree (second award in two years and keynote speaker for 2022).

2021- James Flack Norris Teaching Award for Extraordinary Teaching Excellence (First ever Community College Professor to be bestowed this award since its inception in 1950)

2021: MAC/BAN U.S. President Volunteer Service Award Honoree.

2019-American Chemical Society-NY section-Professor of the Year among Two-year Colleges

2018: American Chemical Society-ACS Fellow (a nationwide award rarely bestowed on community college faculty)

2018:The Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences Sponsored by the ACS Committee on Minority Affairs

2016: The American Chemical Society-New York Section, Volunteer Service Award Recipient

2016: The E. Ann Nalley Regional Award for Volunteer Service to the American Chemical Society

2008: The Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences Sponsored by the ACS Committee on Minority Affairs

2003 CASE/Carnegie Endowment Foundation: Outstanding Community College Professor (the first chemist ever to receive this nationwide award)

Dr. Thomas J. Bruno, a scientist who retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.

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