from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Fourth
Judicial District, Fairbanks, Superior Court No. 4FA-10-01740
CIJane F. Kauvar, Judge.
Appearances: James Hackett, Fairbanks, for Appellant.
Orlansky, Reeves Amodio LLC, Anchorage, for Appellee.
Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney,
Winfree, Justice, not participating.
student was dismissed from a Ph.D. program at the University
of Alaska Fairbanks after several years of poor performance
and negative feedback. She claims that her advisors
discriminated and retaliated against her, that she was
dismissed in violation of due process, and that the
University breached duties owed to her under an implied
contract. We affirm the superior court's decision to
uphold the University's action because the student was
dismissed based on her poor research performance and the
dismissal was conducted under adequate procedures and within
accepted academic norms.
FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
in the Ph.D. program in the School of Fisheries and Ocean
Science (SFOS) at the University must advance to Ph.D.
candidacy to become eligible for the degree. To advance to
candidacy, students are required to complete course work,
pass a comprehensive examination, and obtain approval for a
thesis project. To receive a Ph.D., students must complete a
thesis that will contribute to the body of knowledge in their
area and pass an oral defense.
graduate student is guided through the program by an advisor
and an advisory committee. Students are initially assigned to
an advisor based on their research interests, and the student
is responsible for selecting and obtaining approval for at
least three additional committee members. The advisor is a
faculty member who must consent to the assignment; he or she
also chairs the advisory committee, so the advisor-student
relationship is a critical factor in the student's
success. The committee develops a graduate study plan with
the student, provides research expertise, approves the
student's thesis proposal, and conducts the written
examination and oral defense. The committee may refuse to
recommend a student for candidacy.
are expected to meet with their advisory committee at least
once a year and must submit an annual committee report. The
report contains the committee's comments about the
student's course work and research progress and includes
an overall progress rating of Satisfactory, Conditional, or
Unsatisfactory. If the rating is Conditional or
Unsatisfactory, the report provides the committee's
recommended actions for improvement and the consequences if
improvement does not occur. If a student does not file a
Satisfactory report each spring, the student may be placed on
SFOS graduate program is intended to be "an intense,
coordinated effort, undertaken in a relatively short
time." By the end of the first year, students should
have an advisor and an advisory committee. At 18 months, the
student's thesis project should be "fairly well
outlined." Students should take the comprehensive
examination and advance to candidacy at the end of the second
year. A student should be able to complete the degree in five
years; regardless, students must complete the degree within
Horner-Neufeld's Attendance At SFOS
Horner-Neufeld was a Ph.D. student in marine biology between
January 2003 and January 2009. During those six years,
Horner-Neufeld demonstrated great success in her course work
but struggled with the program's research component and
ultimately did not obtain a degree.
was initially assigned to two co-advisors: Dr. Katrin Iken
and Dr. Brenda Konar. During her first year, she met with
some bad luck; she suffered a head injury, and she abandoned
her first potential thesis project after the field component
was destroyed by strong waves. She struggled to complete
another thesis proposal after rejecting advice from Dr. Iken
to switch to a more manageable master's project. After
receiving a Conditional rating in her annual committee report
for 2003-2004, Horner-Neufeld changed projects several more
times, and after she submitted yet another incomplete thesis
proposal in July 2004, both advisors resigned.
development was problematic for Horner-Neufeld, who was now
over 18 months into her program but lacked an advisory
committee, a complete thesis proposal, and an advisor. Due to
her specific research focus, few faculty members were
qualified to advise her. Horner-Neufeld contacted faculty
members throughout the 2004- 2005 academic year. But she also
focused on bringing grievances to administrators about her
initial advisors, complaining that they had dropped her
without warning. In February 2005, she met with two SFOS
administrators, Drs. Denis Wiesenburg and Michael Castellini,
to discuss her concerns. On February 7, 2005, Dr. Wiesenburg,
who was then dean of SFOS, sent Horner-Neufeld a letter
summarizing their conversation, telling her that they would
investigate her complaint against Drs. Iken and Konar, but
that she would be dismissed from the program if she did not
find an advisor by May 15:
[Y]ou will not be eligible to continue as a graduate student
in our Marine Biology program unless you find a qualified
advisor to supervise your work . . ., as the relationship
between the advisor and student is the major factor that
determines a student's success in any graduate program..
.. I encourage you to focus your efforts on moving forward
and finding an advisor so you may continue working toward
your Ph.D. in our program.
assist Horner-Neufeld in meeting this deadline, SFOS funded a
trip to Juneau so that she could meet potential advisors, and
the head of the SFOS marine biology program offered faculty
incentives. Horner-Neufeld ultimately began working with Dr.
Michael Stekoll, whom she met in Juneau on the SFOS-funded
trip, and Dr. Peter McRoy. That year, she received an overall
rating of Satisfactory, and her annual report for 2004-2005
emphasized that "it [was] critical for [Horner-Neufeld]
to now focus on her research."
the next two and a half years, Horner-Neufeld submitted
funding proposals and worked on developing her thesis
project, but she encountered difficulties with both.
Horner-Neufeld received only a single $500 grant in 2005-2006
and only submitted one grant proposal in 2006-2007. Her
committee attributed this in part to Horner-Neufeld's
failure to meet internal deadlines; she countered that her
advisors did not provide timely feedback and requested too
many revisions. She also submitted several drafts of her
thesis proposal to her advisors and committee, but none were
deemed complete. The required annual report for 2005-2006 was
never filed,  and the following year, Horner-Neufeld did
not have an annual committee meeting in the spring. She
ultimately met with her committee in December 2007, and her
annual report for 2006-2007 was filed in March 2008, almost
one year late. In her report, Horner-Neufeld was given her
second Conditional rating and instructed to "prepare a
detailed thesis proposal that can be used to guide and
implement a research program that will lead to a successful
dissertation" in order to return to Satisfactory status.
The deadline for this proposal was March 27, 2008.
Horner-Neufeld submitted a draft before this deadline, which
her advisors did not find satisfactory, and she soon found
herself, more than five years after entering the program,
once again without an advisor.
arranged to perform research tasks over the summer of 2008
for Dr. Arnold Blanchard, a recent Ph.D. graduate who had
joined the faculty since her first advisor search in
2004-2005. He would be her supervisor and, if the
relationship went well, become her advisor. Horner-Neufeld
began developing a new thesis project based on a data set she
received from him, and she sent an outline in May to Drs.
Blanchard and Castellini. But in August, this relationship
too broke down after Horner-Neufeld requested that Dr.
Blanchard reschedule a group meeting two days in a row
shortly before a research trip. Dr. Blanchard then removed
her from the research trip, and Horner-Neufeld left the state
to visit family. When she returned in September 2008, the
University arranged a mediation session between Dr. Blanchard
and Horner-Neufeld but could not repair the relationship. In
November, Dr. Wiesenburg told her that she would be de-listed
from SFOS on January 22, 2009.
time Horner-Neufeld was ultimately de-listed, no Satisfactory
report had been filed in over three years, her last report of
Conditional had stood for two semesters, and she had been
without an advisor or committee for nine months. She never
submitted a satisfactory thesis project proposal to her
advisors or took a comprehensive exam.
Discrimination complaint and appeals
April 2009, Horner-Neufeld filed a complaint with the
University Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). She alleged
discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile learning
environment. She requested two remedies: (1)
"accountability" and (2) compensation for the time
and money she had invested in the program. When prompted for
the bases of her discrimination claims, she selected age and
Bowden, the OEO director, conducted an investigation and
produced a report, concluding that Horner-Neufeld had not
been discriminated against or suffered a hostile learning
environment. Horner-Neufeld pursued additional review within
the University system, but Bowden's conclusions were
appealed the University's decision to the superior court.
The superior court determined that Horner-Neufeld had
mistakenly (but understandably) pursued her claims through
OEO rather than the academic appeals process. It also
appeared that Horner-Neufeld had not been formally dismissed.
The court remanded the case to the University and ordered
Horner-Neufeld to pursue her claims through the academic
appeals process. The court also denied without prejudice
Horner-Neufeld's motion for a trial de novo under Alaska
Appellate Rule 609(b).
Formal dismissal and appeal
month later, Dr. Castellini, who was now dean of SFOS, sent a
memorandum to the dean of the Graduate School formally
recommending Horner-Neufeld's dismissal. He summarized
Horner-Neufeld's difficulties and concluded that
Horner-Neufeld lacked an advisory committee as a result of
her own poor performance, despite assistance and support from
SFOS. He stated that without a committee, Horner-Neufeld
could not file the annual Satisfactory report that was
required to remain in good standing.
dean accepted Dr. Castellini's recommendation and sent a
formal notice of dismissal to Horner-Neufeld on May 20, 2013.
He stated two independent bases for his decision to dismiss:
(1) Horner-Neufeld was rated Conditional in spring 2008 and
thus was not in good standing and (2) Horner-Neufeld lacked a
graduate committee due to her poor performance.
did not believe the academic appeals policy applied to her
situation, but she pursued review through the University
system "under protest." The provost convened a
committee to review Horner-Neufeld's dismissal and
offered Horner-Neufeld the opportunity to submit supporting
documents. The appeals committee met in June 2013 and
dismissed the appeal, finding that Horner-Neufeld had not
provided sufficient evidence of arbitrary and capricious
decisions by her advisors, SFOS, or the University. The
committee observed that Horner-Neufeld "chose not to
include several key pieces of evidence that could have ...
support[ed] [her] statements." In particular, she
provided no evidence of her research progress despite her
core argument that she was dismissed as retaliation for
complaints against faculty rather than for her inadequate
progress. The committee found "no evidence indicating
that [she] had made progress toward completion of [her]
comprehensive exams or [her] research."
returned to the superior court. She argued that the
University had violated her due process rights and that she
had an implied contract with the University, which it had
breached. The superior court rejected all of
Horner-Neufeld's arguments and she now appeals.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
administrative appeals, we directly review the agency's
factual findings for substantial evidence. We review the
superior court's denial ...