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Despite giving it the old college try, a doctoral student cannot recover for breach of contract after Philadelphia’s Drexel University expelled him from his doctoral program, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania has decided. In an unpublished opinion, the majority reversed the only known decision in Pennsylvania ordering a school to compensate a university student for expulsion. At the trial court level, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Esther R. Sylvester said Drexel should give the student a refund or readmit him to the program. But the appellate court majority in Morein v. Drexel University basically said student Robert Morein dug his own grave by not listening to the suggestions of his adviser and his thesis review committee. “The record fully documents [Morein's] persistent rejection of and resistance to suggestions and advice for the improvement of his thesis. … The trial court ignored [Morein's] responsibility in his own undoing,” the majority said. Only recently did the Superior Court first rule that a private educational institution has a contractual relationship to its students, in Swartley v. Hoffner, from 1999. However, a student’s burden of proving a breach of the contract occurred seems tough. ADVISER DISPUTE Morein was accepted to the doctoral program in 1989 and was assigned Dr. Paul Kalata as his thesis supervisor. Morein’s field of study was focused on noise reduction in certain types of sensors. While advising Morein, Kalata had a financial relationship with a corporation called K-Tron Corp. and took some of Morein’s work to the company. Morein and Kalata had a dispute over this, which led Morein to bring his concerns to the chair of the program, Dr. Moshe Kam. Kam and Kalata were both named defendants along with Drexel University. Kam refused to assign a different adviser to Morein and instead formed a committee consisting of four professors to oversee the student’s work. Morein, however, met infrequently with the committee, and said the committee did not provide him with guidance on how to prepare his thesis. In January 1995, Morein made a presentation to the committee, which was deemed insufficient. Morein was then dismissed from the program by a unanimous vote because he had not completed the program in five years as required by the university’s rules. Sylvester relied heavily on the Swartley opinion to establish that a school has a contractual obligation to its students and are bound by written guidelines and procedures, in this case, Drexel’s graduate bulletin. The bulletin provides that the faculty will “teach and direct” students. Sylvester ruled that given the guidelines outlined in the bulletin, the defendants “unequivocally failed to meet those standards.” The court ruled that both the committee and Kalata failed to provide guidance to Morein, therefore breaching the written contract. But the Superior Court said the bulletin was “scarcely a detailed agreement.” It quoted a section of the bulletin that reads: “Doctor of Philosophy programs are quite flexible, for it is at this level that the educational process becomes very personal.” The Superior Court, therefore, said Sylvester’s reliance on the bulletin was misplaced. “Pursuant to Swartley, the contract between a university and its student is ‘comprised of the written guidelines, policies and procedures’ distributed to the student during his course of enrollment,’” the opinion said. “The language cited by the trial court is found in the introductory paragraphs of the graduate bulletin, and clearly does not constitute guidelines or procedures of the University.” The Superior Court majority also did not agree with Sylvester that Drexel failed to follow the grievance procedures provided for in the bulletin. FACULTY’S KNOWLEDGE But the majority was most “disturbed” by the trial court’s finding that “the faculty reviewing [Morein's] work was incapable of understanding it,” the opinion said. “In making its pronouncement, the court has favorably assessed the quality of [Morein's] work product, but dismissed as deficient the abilities of all those who concluded otherwise, measuring them against a standard which is never disclosed,” the opinion said. “Essentially, the trial court has unilaterally declared the intellectual incompetence of at least four, if not more, of the members of the electrical engineering department of the university.” The majority said there was no basis for such reasoning. There were problems with Morein’s work from the time he took his candidacy exam, the majority said. “This occurred prior to any claim that [Morein's] work was advanced beyond the comprehension of the examiners,” the majority said. “[Morein] failed to seek the remediation recommended by the committee, and the shortcomings of his performance observed by the committee echo in all of the later comments on his work.” Just as in Swartley, the majority said, Morein did not prove Drexel violated any provision of the contract. ABOVE THE LAW In his six-page dissent, Superior Court Judge Stephen McEwen insinuated that Drexel’s argument tried to place universities above the common law. “The positions of the university, and, apparently, of academia, as set forth in the numerous amicus briefs which have been filed, all raise a chant that the tradition of academic freedom precludes application to the university of a duty to afford basic fairness in the expression of grievance by those within its realm,” McEwen said. “Such a claim overlooks the rather monumental ascendancy of the individual effected by the revolutions of 1776 and 1793, and by the American Labor Movement. Rather, academia, in somewhat caste-like fashion, would prefer to remain aloof and, invoking the special privileges conferred upon universities by monarchs several centuries ago, refuses to yield to the concept of right and the correlative of duty, but instead clings to the concept of privilege and the correlative of no-duty.” McEwen seemed appalled that the university had not taken a more involved look into Morein’s claims. “However arguable the contention that the university had theretofore been patient with the pace and performance of [Morein],” McEwen said, “and however ample the evidentiary basis for the conclusion that [Morein] consistently refused to accept the counsel of his advisers with regard to recommended courses and protocol, termination is so final, even fatal, a decision that the university should have afforded [Morein] the hearing he sought, an encounter denied him because, as the vice provost testified, there were ‘many other things that our office has to deal with.’ “

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