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(Breakdown of a larger issue - full story here)

Following the deliberate delay my thesis paperwork by my professor, and after my department ignored my thesis revision requests for over 6 months, I finally got my graduation paperwork completed (with a $200 late fee) just after the start of the 3rd semester after my thesis defense. My official graduation was therefore graduated a full year after my defense. Due to the concurrent program I was in, this meant my undergraduate degree also did not post until that date - 2.5 years after I finished my undergraduate classes. As my profession requires 4 years of post-degree training for licensing, this has significantly delayed my professional career. If not for delays beyond my control by school personnel, I would have had time to complete the graduation paperwork and finish my degree a full year earlier.

I went the the director of my program and was kicked out before I could do more than state my problem - "I don't believe the department could have held you up; students just don't know how to be responsible." I finally got issues escalated to the dean of the college, and he agreed that the department had grossly mishandled things. He contacted the dean of the graduate school, who refused to even hear the case - all that he or I ever got back from the graduate school was blanket statements about 'policy', which I presume meant their own and not some oversight body. Even when I (repeatedly) went to the graduate office in person, the (brand new) graduate dean refused meet with me. I suspect that the program director (a very aggressive personality) had preemptively contacted him to ask him to ignore me; the dean of my college was retiring that semester and presumably carried very little weight in department politics. However that is purely conjecture.

  1. Why would the graduate dean refuse to talk to me? Liability concerns? Or just pure pomp and disregard for the woes of a lowly student?
  2. Is there a valid reason the graduate school would be unable to back-date my degree to the semester I had completed all my coursework and successfully defended my thesis?
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    Did you have an appointment to meet with the graduate dean, or just show up? Making an appointment and then refusing to meet when you showed up would be weird, but refusing to meet without an appointment would be pretty standard at many places (and there's no obligation for the dean to make an appointment with you if the dean believes longstanding policy would rule out your request). – Anonymous Mathematician Feb 28 '14 at 18:56
  • @AnonymousMathematician The dean refused to give me an appointment, in spite of multiple requests via phone, email, and in person (with staff who recognized my name) at the office. As I mentioned, the dean was new to the position - I'm not sure how familiar he was with policy, long-standing or otherwise. However given that my situation was unusual and was backed by the dean of my college, it seems like he should have at least been willing to hear the details. – brichins Mar 3 '14 at 22:15
  • Isn't there any way to complain formally to an independent inside your university. Otherwise, you can contact OIA if you're in the UK. My only advice I can give is that verbal promises, phone calls and informal meetings buys you nothing -keep things documented. – Ansd Mar 12 '14 at 18:09
  • @Ans No independent entity I could uncover; very few US institutions have an ombudsman (or equivalent). I talked to every authority I could find that would listen (except the president of the university) - they were sympathetic but had no direct way to help. I have some documentation, but the truly critical interactions were in person and the parties involved refused to put anything in writing. If I did pursue legal action perhaps internal communications could be subpoenaed, but I can't imagine they kept any of the 'unofficial' stuff like inter-department emails. – brichins Mar 12 '14 at 23:48
  • Welcome to my life! :( short answer: yes, grad school can advance or delay the date of degree if they so wish. Will need some effort from your adviser/department chair/graduate chair/department administration along the lines of "playing one's rank". – dearN Mar 15 '14 at 22:38
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+50

John Nauhaus' extensive comments in response to your related question apply here as well. However, there is a direct question that needs a direct answer and an emotional core to your posts that deserves more direct attention as well:

[Could] the graduate school administration change [my] graduation dates?

Is there a valid reason the graduate school would be unable to back-date my degree?

Your graduate school's administration cannot and will not change your graduate date if your request does not come with the support of your advisor and your department. The graduate school and the university may be "higher ups" in terms of a traditional administrative hierarchy, but in academic and curricular matters your department has absolute primacy. Any effort by the administration to "force" a graduation date on your department would be seen as an encroachment on their academic freedom, and that would get the attention of outside faculty and peer institutions in a tremendously negative way.

This may be unrelated to the harm that has occurred to you, but it is a valid reason for the graduate school to deny your specific request. If you still have any credibility within your university's administration, you could get more traction seeking other forms of redress.

Subtext: Does the department get away scot free?

You will not get what you decided to ask for. This does not mean that your efforts have had no impact. They have cost your department in at least two ways: First, to the extent that you still have the sympathy of anyone in the administration the dispute has cost your department credibility and administrative reputation. As you press the matter in increasingly intrusive ways, this cost will decline and eventually flip into sympathy. No program wants to be pitied, but it's better than being disliked. Second, if you've reached the point where a dean refuses to meet with you then you've earned the "problem child" achievement regardless of the merit of your complaint. Your graduate program admitted you, and will therefore be seen as bringing a "problem" (that would be you) to the university's doorstep. The administration—even the sympathetic administration—will call your department's judgement into question because they vouched for you.

Your department has paid and will continue to pay for what you went through.

None of this will be visible to you. That is what professionalism looks like from the outside: calm seas and a gentle wind, nothing happening here.

More subtext: Why should the department's error cost me?

This is the most important part of your question. As a student and teacher (can't and won't speak to this as an administrator), I have seen graduate students throw away their professional futures over pride and pocket change. It may not look like pocket change from the perspective of a graduate student's meager income, but you need to review your relative costs in terms of a tenured professor's considerable income.

Based on what you have written here, it looks like you are burning your professional future to ash over four years of lost pay. That "problem child" tag you've earned is sticky, and it will follow you. No faculty wants to hire a colleague that brings trouble, and no faculty wants to hire a colleague that escalates trouble.

Here are two ways to overcome this tag that I am aware of:

  1. Be at the very top of your field. If your scholarly stature outweighs your immaturity, some good university will accept the latter's cost. This is emotionally easy—everyone would happily be the best at what they do—but it is intellectually difficult. Are you capable of being that good? What would achieving this cost you elsewhere? (It will cost you a lot. For example: Ever looked at the divorce rate for professors?)

  2. Demonstrate a "newfound" maturity. If it looks like you learned from the experience, this will slowly offset the negative reputation you've acquired and allow faculty search committees to review your applications on scholarly merit. This is easier intellectually, you just need to be an employably strong scholar. This is very difficult emotionally because it requires an extraordinary humility. That's uncommon in academia; it can work against the strength of will and self-confidence needed to succeed as a professional scholar.

Deans, directors, and other professors may sometimes look like colonoscopy bags full of "pomp and disregard," but the attitudes that give you this impression are the same ones that got them through a dissertation, tenure probation, and other indignities of the profession. You seem to have that attitude in larval form, and it seems to be acting out. These "dismissive" deans and directors have learned to channel their attitudes into socially acceptable forms, and search committees will be looking to hire only those professional scholars who have learned to do the same.

John Nauhaus' comments elsewhere are going to be more valuable overall. The answer to your question about what the graduate school can do is little more than a footnote to his discussion of what you can do, and of what you need to do to recover personally.

  • Thanks for addressing the question (and subtext) directly - I think this answer has the most value for the general user and awarded the bounty/acceptance accordingly, although I do chafe a bit at your assumptions on my role/attitude. In my particular case, I had the full support of my department head and dean of my college (advisor was part of the problem and had left the school regardless), but the graduate school still refused all requests point blank. It seemed the graduate school had the final say, not my college; your answer infers that this is not usually the case? – brichins Mar 24 '14 at 17:09
  • I immediately retract the assumptions that made you chafe! Rote dismissals from the graduate school dean suggested that you had pushed your case too far. You may have pushed it too far with him/her, but my assumptions are clearly oversimplifying the situation. The fact that there was disagreement within the department (advisor vs. director) suggests much more complexity than my answer had allowed for. I'll watch for opportunities to "donate" the add'l 50 rep to another question that looks interesting. – Christopher Harwood Mar 25 '14 at 15:34
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    Sorry, I didn't answer your last question: I think that in most cases the GS would defer to the department (not the college) if it argued for a change in the graduation date. This argument would usually include an admission of error, asking that the GS not penalize you for a department mistake. What you describe is very different from that: An internal disagreement (advisor disagrees with dept. head, are one of them also the "program director" you mentioned?) that was taken outside the department. Plus your advisor left the school. There is no "good response" for the GS in that situation. – Christopher Harwood Mar 25 '14 at 16:06
  • By all means, keep the rep - it's a solid answer that covers what I wanted to know and covers the situation well for most users. (Although I fully support boosting worthy questions if you decide to do so.) Thanks for the follow-up answer as well - it is certainly a complicated situation, there was a lot of upheaval at the time and most of the administrators involved retired or left during the relevant time span - I'm sure this contributed to the poor response I received. ---p.s. yes I mixed terms; dept head was the program director in my case. – brichins Mar 25 '14 at 18:41
  • I hadn't considered official hierarchy vs informal hierarchy, and you're spot on with people disliking interference from "outside" or "up top." I also liked the advice on the "problem child" topic. That's an easy label to get by accident in so many settings, so prevention is even more important. Great points! – John Neuhaus Apr 1 '14 at 3:33
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I sympathize with your plight. I'm lucky to have not had such a long-lasting and impactful academic misfortune, but have been in some similar situations.

  1. It's more likely ignorance/miscommunication, but it is very probable that the graduate dean doesn't know the truth. Observation bias alone would make it easy to assume you shared the burden somewhat, and you can be sure your issue was trivialized and persistence cast negatively if they spoke at all.
  2. Accreditation may play a role in the college's ability to back-date a degree. I can see how that could be a very slippery slope. That said, "a matter of policy" is a rather dismissive reason and sounds more like he simply was trying to avoid the problem. You should investigate both graduate college and institution-wide policies on changing degree dates to rule out a high-level ban.

I've offered some suggestions on actions you can still take in your question here. If it's impossible to change the degree dates, then his reason for not talking to you is moot at this point. However, it could still be relevant if you go down the legal path.

  • Appreciate your insights on both questions. I hadn't considered the accreditation angle while this was going on - this is probably the only valid reason I've ever been presented. – brichins Mar 25 '14 at 18:44

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