Dissertation Dispute, Federal Case

March 22, 2012

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a former graduate student's lawsuit alleging that the University of Oregon retaliated against her for complaining about gender discrimination in her doctoral program. Experts said the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, if upheld, could reshape the relationship between dissertation chairs and doctoral students.

By a 2-to-1 margin, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court's 2010 decision to throw out a case involving Monica Emeldi, a former Ph.D. student at the university's College of Education.

According to court documents, Emeldi’s original dissertation chair, Edward Kame’enui, asked another faculty member, Robert Horner, to take over as her chair when he left for a sabbatical in the fall of 2005. By October 2007, fissures surfaced between Horner and Emeldi, who alleged that Horner gave male students preferential treatment. University officials said that she refused to listen to Horner’s advice and to make changes that would “produce a dissertation that would be a focused piece of scholarship.”

University administrators got involved, and Horner resigned as Emeldi’s dissertation chair. “According to Emeldi, Horner then told other department faculty members that Emeldi should not be granted a Ph.D., and should instead be directed into the Ed.D. program, which Emeldi says is a less prestigious degree. The university denies that this occurred,” the court documents said.

In Emeldi’s version of events, she asked 15 faculty members in her department to become her chair, but all of them declined. As a result, she was not able to complete her Ph.D. and left the university.

The appeals court opinion found that Emeldi’s complaints to university administrators qualified as “protected activity” under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination at educational institutions. “Because a reasonable jury could conclude from the evidence presented at summary judgment that Horner’s resignation was gender-based retaliation, the district court erred…” in dismissing the case, the Ninth Circuit majority said.

Judge Raymond C. Fisher, who filed a dissenting opinion in the case, wrote that the relationships between dissertation chairs and their Ph.D. students were unlike the relationships between managers and their employees. “A dissertation chair must have expertise in the student’s area of research as well as be someone with whom the student can work closely, in a process that by its very nature requires the professor to be highly critical of the student’s work and capabilities, Fisher said in the court filing.

Emeldi’s lawyer did not return telephone calls Wednesday. Randy Geller, general counsel for the University of Oregon, said the university was evaluating the court’s opinion to determine whether to seek “further appellate review” in the federal courts.

Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, a consulting firm that advises universities on legal issues, said the court’s decision applies employment law standards to relationships between faculty members and students. “The courts have well-established  laws on how supervisors in the work force should or should not treat their subordinates. Those principles, as far as retaliation is concerned, now also apply to professors,” she said, adding that the ruling was an expansion of the way faculty might view students rights on campus.

Franke said that as a result of the decision, faculty members at universities in the nine states and other geographical areas covered by the Ninth Circuit will require much more legal guidance on decisions they may be making on academic grounds such as resigning as a dissertation chair, while students will have more leeway in bringing forward a federal claim of retaliation.

“I would hope colleges and universities work to educate their faculty,” she said.

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said the dissenting judge in the opinion seemed to be focused on the realities of a graduate school life. “The dissent’s careful parsing of the evidence in the record shows that plaintiff has not presented more than speculation and hearsay, which should not be sufficient to put the parties and the court to the expense and burdens of a trial,” she said.

Meloy said the majority opinion raises the specter that any sort of dispute between a student and a dissertation chair could blow up into a federal case and will make relationships between faculty members and students more restrained.

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