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I was reading up the Reddit page here, which described a case of admissions error, in which:

  1. The person obtained an acceptance for a PhD program in writing.

  2. The person personally called the university and confirmed acceptance of the program

  3. The university then said that they had made a mistake, cancelling the acceptance.

What would be some things that the person can take, and if some of these actions required specific conditions, what would be the conditions be?

For the purposes of answering this question, we will assume that there is no stipend involved, and the acceptance was confirmed by the departmental admissions staff.

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    Is the acceptance in writing? Paper or email? Does the acceptance include a financial stipend? Does the student know to whom he talked when confirming acceptance? (You can and should edit your question to include this material rather than answering in the comments.) Oh, wait! Are you asking about the question on Reddit and not about a personal experience? – Bob Brown Dec 24 '14 at 14:23
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    The school is free to accept, or reject, whoever they want to. Mistakes happen, and I don't think there's any way you can hold them to the mistake. AT MOST, I think, you might be able to take them to civil court if you can prove that their error caused you significant harm (eg, caused you to not accept an offer from another school which is no longer available), and I'm not convinced that would do you any good -- among other things, it makes you look like someone other schools wouldn't want to deal with. – keshlam Dec 24 '14 at 14:34
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    This happens just about every year – ff524 Dec 24 '14 at 16:00
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I've been putting off answering this because it's really a legal question, not an academic question, and I'm a computer scientist. In my one business law course, I learned that the essence of a contract is an offer and an acceptance. We have those.

If I were in this boat, I'd probably suck it up and apply elsewhere. If I really-really wanted to go to the school that first accepted, then rejected me, I'd consider paying a lawyer a few hundred dollars to call the counsel for the university. My lawyer would say something like, "My client is damaged blah-blah and has cause of action blah-blah. However, we do not want to be unreasonable. All we want you to do is honor the offer you made in writing and later confirmed verbally. Um, and keep these circumstances confidential from anyone who could assign a grade to or otherwise evaluate my client."

There is a huge down side to doing that. It is that the circumstances are quite likely to leak out. Then one is facing professors who know how one was admitted.

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    I tend to look at the issue from the other side, i.e., that of the admissions crew. From that perspective: this is a really serious error. To me the big question is: how many other students were mistakenly admitted in this way? If they mistakenly admitted more students than they have room for, then there is simply no satisfactory redress. If they mistakenly admitted one student, in my opinion the "suck[ing] it up" should take place on the university's side. My department would probably do that, anyway: we take some pride in behaving honorably whenever it is possible to do so. – Pete L. Clark Dec 26 '14 at 15:55
  • No doubt accommodating the student is the right thing to do, both legally and morally. In OP's question, the university has already said they won't do that. In my pre-academic career I found that if one side is clearly right and the two lawyers talk, problems can often be fixed. Possibly lawyers have learned to look at disputes more dispassionately than others. (Like me.) University counsel is in a position to say, "Troops, we blew this one, and the easiest thing to do is for us to suck it up and do the right thing." (Always assuming there's space, etc.) – Bob Brown Dec 26 '14 at 16:40
  • @BobBrown morally, yes. Legally, not necessarily. A school is likely permitted rescind an acceptance for a variety of reasons, of which clerical error is likely one. – Compass Dec 26 '14 at 17:19
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    @aeismail: The longer the time, the worse it gets, certainly. But even in a very short amount of time the hypothetical student can contact all the other schools she has applied to and withdraw applications. If the student would have been admitted (with funding) and her spot was given to someone else, then this is at least in spirit a "lost wages" situation. Well, it's easy to imagine bad hypothetical scenarios... – Pete L. Clark Dec 26 '14 at 21:55
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    keep these circumstances confidential from anyone who could assign a grade to or otherwise evaluate my client.Utterly impossible. Graduate admissions decisions are made by a committee of faculty. Those faculty will notice if a student they decided to reject shows up in August and starts taking classes. – JeffE Dec 27 '14 at 4:30
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I don't think anyone has enough experience with this rare sort of situation to say with confidence how best to handle it. A lot of it depends on the details. For example, how much time elapsed before the mistake was noticed? Correcting the error a few days later might not be so bad, while a few months later would be crazy. How close to being admitted had the student been? There's a big difference between someone who narrowly missed being legitimately admitted and someone who is manifestly unqualified.

I'd recommend against getting lawyers involved except in extraordinary circumstances. The problem is that the culture of academia is based on reputation and trust, and this culture does not mesh well with the legal system. If a student manages to gain admission to an unwilling department by legal threats, that fact alone will outweigh all other aspects of the student's reputation for many years to come. (For example, hiring committees will wonder what else this person might decide to threaten legal action over or in what others ways they might prove disagreeable as a colleague.) And there's no way to keep it secret: it will be one of the most interesting pieces of gossip in years, and enough people from the admissions committee will know what happened that someone is sure to leak the news more broadly.

For comparison, I've seen a couple of people ruin their reputations by litigating tenure cases, so that this fact is what they are best known for by far. It's really not a good outcome. That might be worthwhile if the prize is tenure, but it's certainly not worthwhile for admission to graduate school (no matter which school).

It's still reasonable to make an argument for why they should honor the acceptance and to explain the hardship that rescinding it would cause. However, it's important not to exaggerate the difficulties. For example, in my experience with graduate admissions it's rare for students to take irreversible steps immediately upon receiving an acceptance (for example, withdrawing/declining at all other schools). If someone told me they turned down all other options the same day they received a mistaken offer, I'd be a little skeptical, and I'd at least expect them to recognize that this was unusual and explain further. Of course the longer the mistake went uncorrected, the greater one would expect the hardship to be.

If attempts to convince the school to honor the acceptance fail, then the least one could expect them to do is to help fix any problems they caused. For example, to get in touch with any other schools the applicant turned down, explain that the error was entirely theirs, and help try to convince the other schools to reinstate the applications/offers. (The reason is that if a student says they had an offer from X but it turned out to be a mistake on X's part, many people will assume the student misinterpreted something rather than that X genuinely misled them.) Of course this isn't guaranteed to fix everything, but I expect some maneuvering behind the scenes could at least help.

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    This is a good answer. Intervening on the student's behalf with other universities is really the minimal honorable response, I think. – Pete L. Clark Dec 27 '14 at 6:14

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