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Richards v. University of Alaska

Supreme Court of Alaska

March 18, 2016

QWYNTEN RICHARDS, Appellant,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA, Appellee.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska Superior Court No. 4FA-10-01246 CI, Fourth Judicial District, Fairbanks, Paul R. Lyle, Judge.

Qwynten Richards, pro se, Fairbanks, Appellant.

Susan Orlansky, Reeves Amodio LLC, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Fabe, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices. [Winfree, Justice, not participating.]

OPINION

STOWERS, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

After a two-day hearing, the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) dismissed Qwynten Richards from her Ph.D. program for failing to respond to feedback from her professors in a variety of settings. An Appeals Committee at UAF affirmed Richards's dismissal from the program because it concluded that there were sufficient negative reviews from her professors to support her dismissal and that she had failed to satisfactorily complete a "remediation" assignment given to her after the faculty found she plagiarized parts of a paper. Richards appealed to the superior court. The court affirmed, holding that UAF was reasonable in characterizing her dismissal as academic, that it substantially complied with its procedures, and that Richards received due process. It also awarded UAF 10% of its claimed attorney's fees. Richards appeals, and we affirm.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

A. Facts And Administrative Proceedings

Qwynten Richards began attending UAF for a Ph.D. program in Clinical-Community Psychology in the fall of 2007. In her year-end review for the 2007-2008 academic year, Richards received a satisfactory review. The review was generally positive, but it also noted a few areas of concern, namely that Richards was quiet in class but this was improving, that she was too critical of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), and that her instructors noted that she had difficulty accepting feedback.

Immediately following this review, Dr. Christiane Brems, a professor for one of Richards's courses, brought a possible incident of plagiarism to the attention of the co-teacher of the course, Dr. James Allen. Dr. Allen alerted Don Foley, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Life and Director of Judicial Services, to the incident, and Dr. Allen requested that he, Dr. Brems, Foley, and Richards meet to discuss the issue. Drs. Allen and Brems were also the Directors of Clinical Training for the program. They notified Richards and directed her to attend a meeting to discuss the allegations. They informed Richards of the specific paper in question: the integrated paper she had submitted in fulfillment of the course requirements of Psychology 601, a seminar in "Clinical/Community/Cross-Cultural Integration." They also notified her of the provisions of the University of Alaska Student Code of Conduct ("Student Code of Conduct") prohibiting plagiarism. Richards denied the plagiarism allegation.

Dr. Brems, Dr. Allen, Foley, and Richards met on May 28, 2008. At that meeting Richards was "advised sections of the [integration] paper [she] submitted appeared to have been plagiarized." She was "given the opportunity to present [her] views on the situation." After the meeting Richards emailed Dr. Allen, Dr. Brems, and Foley and said that she was glad she had been given the chance to explain that she had satisfactorily cited all of her sources in the paper.

On June 19 the core faculty of Richards's program met in an executive session without Richards to discuss the situation. At this meeting the faculty "unanimously concluded [that Richards's] writing constituted plagiarism, " defining plagiarism as "presenting as [one's] own the ideas or works of another person without proper acknowledgment of sources." They gave Richards a new annual review that changed her performance to unsatisfactory, stated that she would receive an F for the paper and a grade of Not Passing (NP) for the course, and that she would be required to write a remediation paper on "how and why [her] Integration paper was judged to have been plagiarized." The faculty decision also noted that she "should know that [she has] the right to appeal academic decisions" and that she should "refer to the Academics and Regulations, Appeal of Academic Decisions section of the 2008-2009 UAF catalog." Richards did not appeal this decision. The updated review also warned that "[a]ny breach of these expectations can result in non-continuation in the Ph.D. Program in Clinical-Community Psychology."

Richards submitted her remediation paper for faculty review. In January 2009 Dr. William Connor, UAF Director of Clinical Training, and Dr. Brems notified Richards that the core Ph.D. faculty had concluded that her remediation paper did not meet the assignment requirements because it did not demonstrate "an understanding of how and why [the] paper was judged to have been plagiarized, " and it "did not show an acknowledgment that there is an agreed upon standard with regard to crediting authorship that has been established by and used in the profession of psychology." While the document did not contain appeal language, the faculty did conduct an informal reconsideration of their decision at Richards's request.

Richards's inability to accept feedback was not limited to problems with her remediation paper. Many other professors noted these issues in a variety of settings. For instance, the professor for whom Richards served as a research assistant asked her to resign. The professor stated that Richards's "future success is in part contingent on [her] ability to accept and be responsive to feedback" and that Richards's "inability to do so contributed to [the professor's] decision to ask her to resign."

Richards also engaged in a clinical practicum with Dr. Michael Hopper. Dr. Hopper noted that Richards was "quick to question and doubt the judgement and experience of others." At her final review in May 2009, Dr. Hopper wrote that Richards's

inability to accept constructive criticism in supervision and to explore personal issues . . . led to serious impasses with this supervisor and to a suspension of her right to practice briefly in the clinic. In the end I found supervision to have been extremely difficult with [Richards] as she does not seem to understand the role of a trainee and insists on a position of equality and personal competence which she has not yet earned.

He concluded that although her work with clients was "commendable, " Richards "did not earn [his] confidence in her abilities and [he] do[es not] recommend her at this point for continued clinical training until she is able to resolve the issues that have plagued her training to this point."[1]

In April, just prior to Dr. Hopper's review, the full Ph.D. faculty met at its annual student review meeting and unanimously recommended not continuing Richards in the program. On June 11 the faculty sent Richards a letter stating that "[d]ue to the fact[] that [she had] received two years of negative evaluations, and that the core faculty in the Ph.D. program ha[d] lost faith in [her] ability to receive and respond to professional feedback in academic, clinical and research settings, the faculty recommends that [she] resign" from the Ph.D. program. The faculty informed her that she had "three weeks to either respond to this recommendation or resign" and that if she chose not to resign, "the next steps outlined in the 'Student Impairment and Incompetence Policy' as listed in the current Ph.D. Student Handbook [the 'Handbook'] . . . [would] be followed." Specifically, the faculty informed her that if she chose not to resign, the Governance Committee would hold a hearing to determine whether to dismiss her from the program.

Richards chose not to resign. Instead, she submitted voluminous materials to the Governance Committee detailing high marks and documenting favorable reviews from her professors. The faculty transmitted a memo to the Governance Committee outlining the steps it had taken and its reasons for recommending Richards's dismissal. The Governance Committee held a hearing on September 3-4. Richards did not present any witnesses, but she did testify on both days of the hearing. Richards did not exercise her option to have an attorney present, but she did have a student representative attend with her.

On September 17, UAF sent Richards a letter notifying her that the Governance Committee had decided to dismiss her from the Ph.D. program. The letter cited Richards's two semesters of not-in-good-standing status, her failure to satisfactorily complete the remediation assignment, and her failure to "accept or act upon feedback in clinical and research settings." The letter informed Richards that she had "10 days from the receipt of this letter to appeal this decision in writing to UAF Provost Susan Henrichs."

Richards first informally appealed the decision in a meeting on October 6 with Lawrence Duffy (the Interim Dean), Laura Bender (the Director of the Graduate School), and Dr. Abel Bult-Ito (a professor who had become an advocate for Richards). The Dean noted that Richards's detailed appeal

mainly addresse[d] [her] disagreement with the professionals who worked with [her] and gave [her] grades . . . . In this informal appeal, [his] decision remain[ed] unchanged in that [he placed] greater weight on the professional opinion of the faculty than on [Richards's] opinion of how the program should evaluate students.

He concluded that the "decision remain[ed] unchanged, " and he advised Richards of her right to ...


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