'Inadequate' English, No Ph.D.

An international student dismissed from a psychology Ph.D. program after his clinical supervisors rated his English skills as inadequate sues the university for discrimination and denial of due process.

October 28, 2015

An international student from China who was dismissed from a doctoral program in psychology after clinical supervisors judged his English-language communication skills as inadequate for engaging in patient care has sued his university.

Jun Yu, who was dismissed from the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at Idaho State University in May 2013, is alleging discrimination based on national origin and denial of due process. In addition to compensatory damages and legal fees, Yu is seeking readmission to the Ph.D. program and the right to complete a remaining practicum requirement in China, where he now resides.

At the time he was dismissed from his graduate program, Yu had successfully defended a dissertation on the topic of behavioral family therapy in China, a point the university acknowledged in its formal response to his legal complaint. According to Yu’s complaint, he earned a 3.69 GPA in his courses and had received satisfactory evaluations from Idaho State students for courses he had taught in English. Evaluations that Yu received from the psychology department’s clinical training committee during the first three years of his program recorded satisfactory academic and professional progress.

Yu’s problems arose when it came to his clinical placements in his fourth and fifth years. He was dismissed from both a nonrequired externship and a required internship after supervisors at both placements raised concerns about his communication skills. In both cases Yu alleges that he was not afforded due process and the opportunity for remediation, claims Idaho State denies.

According to the complaint against the university filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, Yu was dismissed about two months into a planned one-year clinical externship at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. In a letter, his supervisor for the externship, John Landers, wrote that Yu “is unable to grasp the communication nuances that are required to build rapport with difficult patients, administer standardized tests with difficult patients.”

“Given his desire to return to China and specialize in parent/child training, he is probably right where he needs to be in this regard,” the letter from Landers continued. “However, his deficits have made this practicum one that was not a good fit and placed him, patients and psychology services at the hospital in a difficult position.” (Landers declined to comment for this article, but the university's legal brief responding to Yu’s complaint confirms that the letter from Landers contains the excerpted quote).

Yu was also dismissed from a required internship placement he had arranged at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism. Yu’s complaint states “that it was clear, based on the comments of [one of his supervisors] Dr. Leslie Speer, that establishing rapport with clients as well as other areas that require communicating in English was a concern of Dr. Leslie Speer in her assessment of Mr. Yu.”

In dismissing Yu from the internship, Speer reportedly said that “Jun has not made progress” and that the “level of remedial work required is beyond the scope of this placement.”

The complaint alleges that a May 2013 letter dismissing Yu from his Ph.D. program cites evaluations from Landers and Speer, as well as from the Idaho State psychology department chair, Shannon Lynch, and then director of clinical training, Mark Roberts, “to justify Mr. Yu’s dismissal,” while failing to mention a positive appraisal from another of Yu’s clinical supervisors, Cheryl Chase. Speer did not respond to an Inside Higher Ed message; Chase, Lynch and Roberts all declined to comment for this article.

According to Yu’s complaint, Landers’s and Speer’s evaluations of Yu's clinical performance rated him poorly on measures related to cultural competency. In turn, Yu’s complaint opines that “there is no evidence that Dr. Speer and Dr. Landers were culturally competent and specifically competent to supervise an international student whose cultural-linguistic background was different than theirs.”

Yu's complaint further alleges “that consistent with aversive racism, ISU had not articulated minimal levels of achievement required to maintain satisfactory professional progress in the program nor in practicum settings (including the externship and internship) as per [American Psychological Association] accreditation standards, yet ISU determined Mr. Yu had allegedly failed to meet standards in an externship, an internship and the program itself.”

Yu’s lawyer, Ronaldo A. Coulter, said Yu was not available for an interview. “All he had to do was complete one practicum,” said Coulter. “Look at it this way -- you went through four years of school, you only have one more class to complete, and you’re done. That’s where he was at.”

According to the complaint, Yu was denied approval to arrange for another internship in China. The complaint asserts that Yu was eligible at the time of his dismissal from the program to be awarded a Ph.D. in general (as opposed to clinical) psychology, but that the department's recommendation was that he receive only a master’s degree.

An Idaho State spokesman declined to comment on the case, saying the university does not comment on pending litigation. In its answer to the complaint filed by Idaho State’s lawyers, the university wrote that Yu’s performance in both his externship and internship was “deficient” and his language skills “inadequate.” The document states that Yu was dismissed from the doctoral program in clinical psychology “due to performance deficiencies and that such decision was supported by faculty.”


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