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What are my rights here in this situation involving my university?
February 28, 2013 11:13 AM   Subscribe

My university has seriously misrepresented its ability to grant a particular degree on its website, due to which I am in a lot of hot water. What are my rights and options in this situation?

This is a long story but please read it. I really need your help!

I am a graduate student in an Ivy-League, top-20 US university. In the Fall of 2007 I enrolled in this university in a particular PhD program in x field. Four years later, things were not going so well. I took my A exam in the summer of my 4th year, but achieved only a conditional pass, which required another committee meeting to convert into a full pass, and the possibility of leaving with an MS degree started to become more attractive. I looked at the Graduate School website to see if there was a possibility of leaving with an MS degree, which only said that this decision depended on the individual field. I then looked at the field website, which said clearly, in black and white, that students who had not passed the A exam may be awarded a Masters degree and that if they had passed the A exam, they may be awarded a special Masters degree. Keeping this in mind, I went ahead my PhD program, thinking that worst case scenario I could always leave with a Masters. In the Fall of 2012 I scheduled my committee meeting. At the end of the meeting, my advisors informed me that they would pass me, but only at the Masters level and that they wished me to leave with a Masters degree. I was initially shocked, but soon got over it. The relief of not having this everlasting committee meeting hanging over me was great and I was determined to leave with a Masters degree in May of 2013. I did not wish to graduate immediately, due to commitments I had already made to a TAship position and to give me more time to find my feet. My advisor said that he would work things out with the graduate school so that I could graduate in May. In a week or so I was informed by my advisor as well as the administrator who handles my field, via email, that they had consulted the Graduate School and that everything was all set for my graduation in May 2013 and that I just needed to fill out a form and submit it to the Graduate School. I submitted this form and it was accepted by the Graduate School.

The next semester I returned to school and I found that both my advisor and the field administrator were being rather secretive about the procedure I needed to follow to graduate in May. Finally I told my advisor that I really needed to talk and figure out the situation. He informed me that he had suddenly been informed in an email from the Director of Graduate Studies of my field that the field had not actually registered the Masters degree and thus would be unable to grant me the Masters. I pointed my advisor to the passage on the website which clearly states that such degrees could be granted (which he had not seen!). He was shocked and said that he would bring it up with the Graduate School and the DGS and get them to set things right.

After not hearing anything about the situation for a week or so I decided to take matters into my own hands and scheduled an appointment with one of the deans on Wednesday last week. From the meeting I found that the field had indeed omitted to register the degree with NY State (before which it needs to go through an internal process as well). The field adminstrators, DGS and the Graduate School had all been looking at the erroneous field website when they informed me that I could leave with a Masters degree in that field. She told me that going through this process would take a year or so (though that does not seem to be the case from the NY State website). She told me that they could look into granting me a degree in my advisor's field y or giving me a leave of absence and granting me the degree after a year's time. She promised to figure out my options and get back to me as soon as possible. I sent a followup email, saying that I would prefer to be awarded a degree in z field, which is closely aligned to mine, and which three of my four committee members also are members of, because that would enable to me to leave with an MS instead of MA degree. Since then I have hardly heard from them. I wrote on Tuesday only to get a boilerplate email asking me to have patience and that they are working out the options. Today I called again, and was told that they are still waiting to hear back from all the parties involved. I enquired about the possibility of z field and was told that they couldn't involve z field people themselves and that I should think about approaching them myself after consulting my advisor. She said that she could not unilaterally make a decision for any field and that I might have to complete field requirements (including passing an A exam in that field!) if required. I said that I thought since the university made the huge mistake, it was up to the university to figure out a resolution that was satisfactory to me. I had fulfilled requirements in my field under the impression that this degree could be granted to me, and to be told suddenly that such a degree does not exist leaves me in a very frustrating situation. Further, I need to figure out what degree I will be getting in order to get a job(!) and also because I am an international student, I need to apply for OPT some 3 months before I graduate in order to be able to work this summer and stay in the country.

I guess what I want to figure out is what are my rights and options in this situation? I know you are not my lawyer. Surely it can't be right that a university can promise one thing on its website and then throw up their hands and say, oops, sorry we made a mistake? And if such a mistake does happen surely it is up to them to figure out a satisfactory resolution without making me go hat in hand to the DGSs of various fields, asking if I can transfer to that field to get a degree?

What are my legal options as well? I am trying to find a lawyer who represents students in such cases and it is very difficult as most higher education attorneys seem to represent colleges and universities. The one firm I found in town has a conflict of interest because they represent the university concerned in some cases.
posted by anonymous to Education (7 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: poster's request -- jessamyn

 
If you're in New York attending an Ivy League school, you're either in or near NYC or in or near Ithaca.

If you're in NYC, try the New York City Bar Association's legal referral service.

If you're in Ithaca, try the Tompkins County Bar Association's legal referral service.

If you strike out on either of the above, try the New York State Bar Association's legal referral service.

Save whatever documentation you have (screenshots, printouts, correspondence with advisors and others) that demonstrates the university's claim to be able to award the degree which it cannot award to you.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:34 AM on February 28, 2013


I don't quite understand all the details of your situation--is the field you want your degree in the same as the field you took the A exam in? If not, I don't see what argument you have for being granted an MS in that field.

As to the larger issue of simply getting some sort of Masters degree, it seems to me that the department is acting in good faith and doing the right thing by you. You present this as if there was some sort of bait and switch, but that's not really the case. You enrolled in a PhD program and you do not seem to have done so originally with the intent to leave with a Masters; it was only when you did not do well on your exam that you looked into the Masters possibility. The Department would be in its rights, I think, to say simply "sorry, we don't offer a Masters option." But the fact that they did, erroneously, tell you it was an option does seem to morally, if not legally, obligate them to provide that option. They are working to do so (and this will always be a slow process in any academic bureaucracy--a lot of university committees will have to sign off).

As far as I can see your only real complaint here (apart from poor communication from the department) is if the MS they offer you is not in the field in which you were examined; but, as I say, you are not clear on whether or not that is the case.
posted by yoink at 11:35 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


She said that she could not unilaterally make a decision for any field and that I might have to complete field requirements (including passing an A exam in that field!) if required.

Before worrying too much about this, you want to check into it first. Administrators at many institutions are very hesitant to dictate to departments how they should run their programs and award their degrees. Thus, a dean won't say that you certainly should be able to get the degree in the other fields, without people in those fields stating that. That doesn't mean they won't be amenable, though. It doesn't sound like you have asked them directly -- they might be fine without that extra test. However, if they feel like someone from their program *must* show that knowledge of their program to meet proficiency of their standard, then that's their decision.
posted by bizzyb at 11:43 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Surely it can't be right that a university can promise one thing on its website and then throw up their hands and say, oops, sorry we made a mistake? And if such a mistake does happen surely it is up to them to figure out a satisfactory resolution without making me go hat in hand to the DGSs of various fields, asking if I can transfer to that field to get a degree?

They can't grant you a degree in an area they aren't certified in. It sounds like that's the only outcome that satisfies you.

It also doesn't sound like you applied to the school on the basis of an MSc. degree being available - you were working towards a Ph.D. You did your A exam, at which point (after "Four years later, things were not going so well") they offered to pass you but you had to leave the program. You found on their website that they might grant you a MSc (before that), but it sounds like at no point did you enroll in or perform any harmful actions on the basis of you getting that MSc.

To me, this sounds like you were not doing well in a Ph.D program and wanted out and they wanted you out, and they offered you a way only to find out they couldn't offer that. They have tried to accommodate you by keeping you around until May, but it doesn't sound like they legally had to do that. They still sound like they're trying to accommodate you in ways they legally do not have to.

The repercussions would be the same if they just asked you out of the program as they wanted to do. What they're doing for you is trying to make the best of a bad situation, but if you lawyer up you may lose even that.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 11:49 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


1. I don't see why you need to know which degree you will get in order to get a job. I would write a resume saying "expected to graduate with a Masters in YourField in May 2013". If the title of the eventual degree you get will literally disqualify you from some jobs you would otherwise apply for, then yes you have a problem, and it appear ls that the problem is that you haven't taken the requirements for some very specific path you now want to be on.

2. As far as I can tell, the university is indeed saying they will let you graduate with an MA in OriginalField (a year later) or an MA in AdvisorsField from the same department immediately. You are now arguing that they should let you have an MS in OtherField that is run by a department other than your own, and justifying it by saying that the university as a an institution is obliged to let you have either the MA in OriginalField immediately, or whatever else you want. That sounds ludicrous to me.
posted by jacalata at 11:49 AM on February 28, 2013


From the OP:
To clarify, I enrolled in the field as a PhD student, but the website for the PhD program in this field stated that students who leave the program without completing a PhD could be awarded an MS degree in that field at the discretion of my committee. My committee signed a form agreeing that I had qualified to leave with such an MS. However it turned out that the field had not even registered this degree with the relevant authorities and was hence falsely advertising that they could award such a degree when they could not. My advisor, advised by the Graduate School and the field authorities, assured me that I could leave with such an MS, until the false information was discovered.
posted by jessamyn at 11:50 AM on February 28, 2013


[Additionally folks, do not go out of your way to try to guess/name the institution. Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 11:51 AM on February 28, 2013


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