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Horner-Neufeld v. University of Alaska Fairbanks

Supreme Court of Alaska

January 20, 2017

GAYLE HORNER-NEUFELD, Appellant,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA FAIRBANKS, SCHOOL OF FISHERIES AND OCEAN SCIENCES, Appellee.

         Appeal 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.

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

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.

          Winfree, Justice, not participating.

          OPINION

          BOLGER, Justice.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         A 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.

         II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         A. The Program

         Students 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.

         Each 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.

         Students 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 probation.

         The 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 ten years.

         B. Horner-Neufeld's Attendance At SFOS

         Gayle 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.

         Horner-Neufeld 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.

         This 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.

         To 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."

         Over 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, [1] 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.

         Horner-Neufeld 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.[2] 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.

         By the 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.

         C. Proceedings

         1. Discrimination complaint and appeals

         In 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 gender.

         Earlina 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 upheld.

         Horner-Neufeld 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).

         2. Formal dismissal and appeal

         One 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.

         The 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.

         Horner-Neufeld 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."

         Horner-Neufeld 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.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In administrative appeals, we directly review the agency's factual findings for substantial evidence.[3] We review the superior court's denial ...


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