Middlebury College chemistry professor on leave after Nazi gas chamber exam question

/ CBS/AP

Middlebury, Vt. — A chemistry professor whose exam question asked students to calculate the lethal dose of a poisonous gas used in Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust has taken a leave of absence, Middlebury College said. The Vermont liberal arts college said that it's investigating under the terms of its faculty misconduct policy.

"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," wrote Middlebury President Laurie Patton 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."

A review of past exams given by professor Jeff Byers found a second objectionable question making reference to the Ku Klux Klan in an exam given last year. The question appeared to have a humorous intent, but "was gratuitous and offensive," the school said.

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Byers apologized to the college community in an April 10 written statement on the school's website. He said he gave two exams in the last year that included questions "that were clearly offensive, hurtful, and injurious to our students."

"I can offer no explanation for my actions other than carelessness and hubris," he wrote.

The gas chamber exam question came to light in the student-run satirical newspaper, The Local Noodle, according to the student-run newspaper, The Middlebury Campus.

By now, you've probably heard about the controversial test question and the satirical article that followed. Our reporter explains and sheds new light on the situation. https://t.co/ia8I49sX75

— The Middlebury Campus (@middcampus) April 9, 2019

The preamble to the question said, "Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) is a poisonous gas, which Nazi Germany used to horrific ends in the gas chambers during The Holocaust." The question asked students to calculate the amount of HCN that would give a lethal dose in a particular size room, according to the newspaper.

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.

An email sent to a Jewish student group and local Jewish congregation seeking comment was not immediately returned.

On Thursday, Patton, the college president, said in a campuswide email 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. She was following up on the school's decision Wednesday to cancel a lecture by conservative Polish politician Ryszard Legutko because of safety concerns, two years after the school was the site of a rowdy protest of another conservative speaker.

The Middlebury Campus reported that soon after the Nazi question controversy, another professor — a geology teacher — made a joke about a slavery ship.

First published on April 19, 2019 / 12:03 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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