Light and untruth at Yale

lux et veritas

Lux et nonveritas?

It is not a good year for Yale.  First, its endowment dropped 30%, about $1 billion more than projected.  Now it is being sued for $50 million by a major private Korean university.  Dongguk University, a 103-year-old Buddhist institution, has filed a lawsuit against Yale, alleging negligence, recklessness, and defamation after Yale officials mistakenly identified a Dongguk professor as having received a Ph.D. from Yale.

In what has become known in the media as “Shingate,” Shin Jeong-ah, a Dongguk art professor, forged a certificate from Yale to get a job at Dongguk in 2005.  After questions about her credentials arose, Dongguk sent a letter to Yale asking for authentication on a document that Shin provided, which bore the signature of a Yale official and stated that Shin had received a Ph.D. from Yale.  The document was a fake, but the Yale official whose name appeared in the document confirmed its authenticity, apparently without checking Yale records.

After more inquiries from Dongguk, Yale finally investigated and then announced in 2007 that Shin did not receive a degree from Yale.  It denied at first, however, about having received the first inquiry in 2005.  Yale did not acknowledge its mistake until later that year and issued a letter of apology.  Shin eventually resigned and was convicted of falsifying records and of embezzlement.

Gongguk then brought suit against Yale in the federal district court of Connecticut, claiming that Yale’s mistake and negligence had damaged Gongguk’s reputation and resulted in loss contributions. The court rejected Yale’s effort to dismiss the suit in June.

What caught my eyes about this lawsuit is not just the fact that Yale is my alma mater, but because the suit highlights an oft-overlooked function of our higher education institutions.  When we think about the role of a university, we often think of it as either “the producer of knowledge” or as the educator of its students (though, as I pointed out in previous posts, universities that actually produce knowledge are fairly rare).  We often forget a third and equally important social function of the university — evaluating our youths, judging their competence, sorting them into various categories, and stamping them with grades and a degree.

Admittedly, grades and degrees are not everything, and their importance in a person’s career decrease with time.  But they are not nothing.  For better or for worse, our society — employers, schools, consumers, and the general public — rely on information about a person’s educational history and performance in school as tools to judge someone’s intelligence and ability.  In many cases, such as in the case of Ms. Shin, these credentials are the prerequisite for receiving benefits and opportunities.

It seems remarkable then that this important social function of our universities are largely self-regulated.  There is some oversight for the admissions process — the freedom of a public university to admit and reject students is somewhat limited by racial discrimination laws.  (For private universities, the incentive against racial discrimination comes largely from requirements attached to receiving federal funding and the tax exemption status.)  But once students enter the college gates, the evaluative function of the university is largely unsupervised due to the academic abstention doctrine.  At least theoretically, a professor can grade papers by throwing them down the stairs and assign letter grades based on where the paper lands, and a student has no legal recourse if the university refuses to act.

The lack of legal recourses for students implies that the university has no legal duty towards them to provide a fair, impartial, and non-arbitrary evaluation process.  As a society, we trust the universities themselves to perform this self-regulation.  This trust — whatever its roots are — has deep roots in the legal community.  Lawsuits against schools over alleged unfair grading policies have been largely unsuccessful.

The Dongguk lawsuit challenges this notion from another angle.  At issue is not the responsibility of the university towards its students, but towards third parties who might rely on the university’s representation about its students (or, in this case, its non-student).  The logic, if extended, could create legal duties in other situations.  Could an employer prevail in a suit against a university for sloppy record-keeping that mistakenly identified a C-student as an A-student?  Could a scholarship committee prevail in a suit against a college or university after discovering that the high grades of an award recipient resulted from random or arbitrary grading practices?

Realistically speaking, the chances of the Dongguk suit actually going to trial is slim.  The strong rhetoric from both parties reflect attempts to stake out better negotiation positions that would lead to a favorable settlement.  The suit would probably never result in precedent-setting law or any real duties on the part of the university.  But alas, one can dream.

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