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My friend, a doctoral student, is being accused of harassment/stalking by the dean, yet law enforcement has not contacted my friend, and the dean refuses to substantiate his accusation, for fear of retaliation. My friend has not been given a trial, yet the dean is preventing him from completing his PhD, suspending him from the university. The dean kept my friend's adviser completely in the dark regarding the accusations. It seems the dean is harassing him, pure and simple.

What should he do?


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Generally speaking, universities do not give "trials". Investigations are made to substantiate accusations, and hearings may be held, but never a "trial" in the traditional sense. Final decisions are handed down usually in accordance with pre-determined university policy. It is virtually never the case that a single person hands down a decision at their own whim. If the dean is handing down punitive measures, it must be done with strict adherence to established policy. –  Paul Aug 11 '14 at 2:25
I can guess from your profile, but you should add in which country this happens and what kind of legal entity the university is (if you can find out). –  Wrzlprmft Aug 11 '14 at 5:43
"one must not be proven guilty in a civil court first before a university can impose disciplinary measures like suspension or expulsion" Many issues that lead to disciplinary actions are not even strictly illegal (e.g., cheating on your tests). –  xLeitix Aug 11 '14 at 8:33
@Geremia "judicial system" is a misleading term to use here. "The University" may do all kinds of stuff, including expelling students, with no illegal actions or proof neccessary. It could do it almost arbitrarily, if it wished. In order to achieve better results and more respect, "The University" might require its officials to follow a certain process. The required process might involve an unilateral decision of the dean according to some policy or an internal investigation (as "The University" has chosen to make that process), but it generally doesn't involve courts of any kind. –  Peteris Aug 11 '14 at 9:22
@Vladimir: We seem to be in universal agreement that if a university truly expels a student "arbitrarily" -- or even gives that impression to all outside parties -- then they certainly open themselves up to the possibility of litigation. (The possibility of litigation looms ubiquitously in modern life...) –  Pete L. Clark Aug 11 '14 at 15:59

3 Answers 3

Universities do not in my experience hold "trials" in order to reach their decisions, however weighty. So the answer to the literal question asked is probably "yes".

I guess what you mean to ask is whether the dean has the unilateral power to do this. I'm not entirely clear on what "this" is: what does "preventing him from completing his PhD" or "effectively expelling" mean, precisely? But even if I did, I would have to know the rules of your friend's university rather intimately in order to answer. (Someone in your university has the power to do this. As @Paul comments, probably more than one person was involved in the decision. Just because the action looks single-handed to your friend does not mean that other university officials were not involved.)

One tip: if your friend's adviser doesn't know, get your friend to tell her!! (i) Could it make things any worse? (ii) Won't she find or sooner or later? Sooner may be soon enough to at least try to do something about it; later, maybe not.

Added "It seems the dean is harassing him, pure and simple." Well then he should report it to....oh. Seriously, if by this you mean that you think the dean has some kind of vendetta against your friend which caused him to simply fabricate these charges: though obviously I don't and can't know the situation, I find that very unlikely. Though there may be no "trial" system in the university, there will be some kind of clear guidelines and procedures for expelling students. If the harassment is simply made up then the expelling couldn't possibly have followed these procedures, which would open the university up to a trial, possibly an embarrassing and costly one. I think I understand this clearly, but a dean understands it like I can't even imagine.

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Perhaps by 'trial' OP did not mean 'internal to the University'. Is it not odd to act on a fairly serious criminal accusation without informing the police of the alleged crime? I would have thought the process would be to possibly suspend (depending on severity) pending police investigation, and then act appropriately on the outcome. –  Ollie Ford Aug 11 '14 at 18:45
It is reasonable to expect the university not to push forward such an accusation withouttthe consent of the person raising it; it is possible that they are legally prevented from doing that. In any case the internal process is probably independent of the legal one, and with good reason. –  E.P. Aug 11 '14 at 22:48
@Ollie: Perhaps. But of course still less does a university need a government trial to expel a student: many of the things one gets expelled for (academic dishonesty, poor grades, misconduct on campus or in the dormitories...) are simply not illegal. Regarding criminal accusation: we don't know that the accusation is criminal, and we don't know that law enforcement has not been contacted (only that according to the OP, law enforcement has not contacted his friend). Further, whatever "effectively expelled" means, presumably it does not mean "expelled", so I guess that hasn't happened yet. –  Pete L. Clark Aug 12 '14 at 0:40
(Added: the OP has clarified that indeed his friend has been suspended.) We know so little that I would not want to speculate -- nor are all the gory details really any of my business. The answer to the question asked does not seem to depend on any of this. –  Pete L. Clark Aug 12 '14 at 0:47
I like your response, Pete. There's a broad range of conduct inimical to the operation of a university that will get you expelled or suspended, but would not rise to the level of a criminal complaint. It's the same at a workplace. Putting a colleague's stapler in a bowl of jello might get you fired but won't get you arrested. –  RoboKaren Aug 12 '14 at 16:59

Is there an ombudsman at the university? That would be the obvious person to go to after trying your advisor, director of graduate studies, and department chair (in that order).

Also the proliferation of the administrative ranks at universities often means that there are usually multiple Deans and associate provosts that you can talk to.

As with Pete Clark, I highly doubt that a Dean would try to expel someone with no cause. While the Peter° Principle operates at the administrative ranks, Deans and Provosts have no job security (they only have tenure if they are also faculty, which many are not) and are thus unlikely to do deliberate grievous harm. [They are more than capable of grievous harm through incompetence, indecision, or an adherence to rigid bureaucracy, but that doesn't appear to the case here.]

° n.b.: Pete Clark != Peter of the Peter Principle as far as I can ascertain.

Try to inquire with faculty to ascertain if there is more to the story (if it's your business, which it may or may not be; there are many things which regardless of FERPA or HIPAA should not be discussed about fellow students).

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No, I am not Laurence Johnston Peter....although the Peter principle applies to me as much as anyone. –  Pete L. Clark Aug 11 '14 at 15:55

Deans are human: there are good ones and bad ones. The bad ones are capable of this sort of behavior, although in my experience Deans of this ilk tend to focus more on faculty than on graduate students.

In any university, the keys to these things lie in the University's policies. In the United States of America Deans are typically granted a fair amount of latitude, but even so they must stay within policy guidelines. Again, at American universities there is usually some sort of appeal mechanism for this sort of suspension. That is the place for your friend to start: what internal University mechanisms exist on his campus? If there are none, there is informal appeal through the campus's Chief Academic Officer (usually called the Provost). He also needs to confer with his dissertation advisor about the next steps.

As has been noted, you have only one side of the story and that from an interested party. It's said that God helps those who help themselves. It was also said that we get by with a little help from our friends. Your friend needs to take some actions to help himself. If the facts of the case really are on his side, he will likely get some help from his friends along the way.

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