Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Emeldi v. Univ. of Oregon (9th Cir. - March 21, 2012)

A female PhD student is combative and makes waves about (among other things) the lack of female professors in her department.  The faculty advisor for her dissertation doesn't think much about the student's work, and when she doesn't respond to his constructive criticism by attempting to solve the problems, resigns from being her advisor.  Not many other people want to be her advisor either, which may tell you something.  She sues, claiming gender discrimination.  The district court grants summary judgment to the University of Oregon.

The Ninth Circuit reverses.

Judge Gould writes an opinion that -- reading between the lines -- hints that his own view is that there probably wasn't actionable discrimination, but nonetheless holds that the evidence from the student was sufficient to get to a jury.  Judge Fisher dissents, articulating a contrary view and also stating that "We need to be cautious when transporting the doctrines that govern the workplace into the university setting, where the roles of student and teacher, especially in a Ph.D. program, are so bound up in personal interactions and subjective judgments."

Maybe it's because I'm in academia, but Judge Fisher's position strikes a chord with me.  I certainly know that I'd be hesitant to take on a faculty role in a student's dissertation if I thought I might be sued if I ultimately thought her work sucked or she refused to do any of the work I suggested.  This would be especially the case if we were different genders (or races, or sexual preference):  I wonder if the net effect of this holding will be to somewhat homogenize and segregate faculty dissertation advisors.

So I'm tugged towards Judge Fisher's dissent.  Though at the same time, Judge Gould has a nontrivial point as well.  At least if the analogy to the workplace holds, here, the student has alleged what seems to be a prima facie case.  And I could indeed see someone dropping a student simply because she was a "rabble rouser" rather than on the merits.

Mind you, at least reviewing the paper record, I'm pretty confident that didn't happen here.  But who knows what a jury would conclude at trial?  (Though that realization too somewhat scares me.)

So what do you think?  A sea change in the PhD world?  Or simply a straightforward application of existing law?