You Still Have To Follow The Rules If You Want An Advanced Degree!

Contributed by Danielle L. Dietrich

A former Ph.D. student sued the University of Michigan and several faculty members after the university removed him from the Ph.D. program.

Joseph Dean Vigil failed to complete his dissertation and Ph.D. requirements within the six years provided for under school policy.  He sued (representing himself pro se), alleging a laundry list of allegations, including violations of the United States Constitution, the Michigan constitution, breach of express or implied contract, defamation, tortious interference with a contractual or advantageous business relationship, intentional infliction of emotional distress and racial and ethnic discrimination.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted summary judgment in favor of the university.  Vigil v. Regents of the University of Michigan, —F.Supp.2d —, 2013 WL 5435282 (E.D. Mich. 2013). In part, the District Court followed the United States Supreme Court’s guidance in Board of Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214 (1985), which instructed that when deciding if an academic decision was arbitrarily made, the court must “show great respect for the faculty’s professional judgment” and should only override such decisions when they show “such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the person or committee responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment.”  Id. at 225.  Applying that standard, the district court found that prior to Vigil’s dismissal, the dissertation committee gave feedback regarding the poor quality of Vigil’s draft dissertation and the unlikelihood that he would be able to successfully defend it, particularly within the six year requirement.  Vigil failed to show that this was a “substantial departure from accepted academic norms.” The court dismissed his breach of contract claims, along with the rest of his claims due to a lack of evidence.

Vigil appealed the matter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Danielle Dietrich can be reached at ddietrich@tuckerlaw.com