Can Colleges Punish Students for Off-Campus, Non-Criminal Behavior?

A federal district court in Ohio made an interesting ruling Wednesday in a lawsuit filed against Case Western Medical School by a student who had not reported his DWI arrest to school administraators. The issue was somewhat afield from the current debates about due process in higher education, but the reasoning of Judge James Gwin, a Clinton appointee, was encouraging.

The case involved a student named Amir Al-Dabagh, who was expecting a medical degree from Case Western. Al-Dabagh fulfilled all of his academic requirements, but appears to have been a less-than-stellar personal character (he had a couple of incidents involving alcohol and behavior). Nonetheless, Case Western gave him a glowing recommendation to a residency, and appeared ready to award him a degree, when the school alleged that he had failed to report an arrest on DWI charges in North Carolina—even though, as Judge Gwin’s ruling pointed out, “Case’s own student handbook only required students to report convictions and did not require students to report arrests.”

Gwin sided with Al-Dabagh and ordered Case Western to grant him his degree. But the judge’s reasoning has broader resonance. After dismissing Case Western’s claim that the handbook shouldn’t be seen as legally binding on the school, he recognized that “educational institutions receive extreme latitude when deciding whether students meet educational standards.” But the issue before the court was “what discretion courts should give educational institutions when the educational institution judges character, not academic competence.”

Case Western’s character analysis, it seems, went “well beyond academic or patient related matters,” with the university expressing “a moral judgment” about the student, “rather than an evaluation against a set of specialized criteria.” As a result, Gwin concluded that “although courts should give almost complete deference to university judgments regarding academic issues, the same deference does not follow university character judgments, especially on character judgments only distantly related to medical education.”

Given that finding, Gwin elected to “probe Case’s explanations more closely” than would be the case in a routine academic matter. And he found little to corroborate its assertions that not reporting a DWI arrest constituted grounds for dismissing a student. He also dismissed the school’s claims that judicial interference would harm Case’s academic reputation, correctly noting that the school was basically arguing that it would “suffer irreparable injury if someone disagrees with it.”

The good-character test is, of course, much in the news lately: Duke had used an identical “character” rationale to justify its decision not to award Lewis McLeod a degree. (The case in Durham is now going to trial, after a judge placed on hold Duke’s attempts to expel McLeod.)

More broadly, Judge Gwin’s reasoning correctly recognizes the importance of the courts in challenging university actions—and alleged university violations of fairness and due process—on non-academic matters.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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