A November trial date has been set in the case of a former University of Oregon graduate student whose gender bias lawsuit has sent ripples through the national academic community.
Monica Emeldi claims in the lawsuit that she was blocked from getting a doctoral degree in education in retaliation for expressing her belief that faculty in the College of Education were biased against women, a claim the university vigorously denies. The suit has attracted attention because it is the first time that a federal law banning discrimination in federally funded schools, known as Title IX, has been used in an academic setting rather than in athletics.
Emeldi’s lawsuit initially was dismissed in federal court here but was reinstated after an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The UO asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case and again dismiss it, but the highest court recently declined and left the appeals court ruling in place.
U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, newly appointed to the federal bench in Eugene, set a Nov. 12 trial date during a conference with attorneys Tuesday. However, trial dates in federal court often must be changed depending on the complexity of the case and other factors, and the Emeldi case could be rescheduled for a later date.
Emeldi already has waited nearly five years. She filed the suit in 2008 after professor Robert Horner resigned as chairman of her dissertation committee and none of the 15 other faculty members she approached would agree to replace him.
“She’s thrilled to finally have a day in court,” said David Force, Emeldi’s Eugene attorney, said Tuesday. “Up until now it’s all been about legal issues, and now she finally has a chance to put her case before a jury.”
The UO maintains that Horner’s decision to step down as Emeldi’s doctoral advisor and the refusal of other professors to fill in was based entirely on Emeldi’s academic record and potential, and was not motivated by bias.
“The university is a strong proponent of the protections provided by both Title IX and academic freedom,” said an unattributed statement issued by the university. “The record in the case reflects that professor Horner’s decision to resign as Monica Emeldi’s dissertation advisor was an appropriate and important exercise of academic judgment unaffected by discrimination.”
In her lawsuit, Emeldi claims Horner and other faculty members retaliated against her because she and other graduate students had previously complained to College of Education administrators about a perceived lack of women on the faculty and the absence of positive role models for female graduate students seeking advanced degrees. Emeldi maintains those complaints were conveyed to Horner, after which he became more distant, treated her less favorably than male doctoral students and soon resigned as her advisor.
As a result, Emeldi was unable to complete her doctoral degree in special education and left in 2008. She had been encouraged to attend the university in 2004 to pursue a doctorate in special education.
The university argued that Horner resigned as Emeldi’s advisor for a legitimate academic reason, namely that Emeldi did not follow his research advice. Likewise, it argues that the reasons other faculty members declined to take on the role — that they were unavailable or not qualified to advise her research — were proper and unrelated to Emeldi’s bias complaints.
The university asked a judge to throw out the lawsuit for failing to meet the minimal requirements for a showing of retaliation, and the judge agreed. But Emeldi appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit ruled 2-1 that she had presented sufficient evidence to let a jury decide the case.
A request to have the appeal heard by a larger panel of judges failed, as did the university’s request to put the case before the Supreme Court.
At trial, the case may hinge on whether Emeldi can convince a jury that Horner’s decision to step down and the refusal of other faculty to assist her was motivated by her complaints of gender bias rather than for academic reasons. Force believes she can.
“She was an outstanding student,” he said. “There was no obstacle to her getting the Ph.D until she made the complaint that Dr. Horner was treating her differently than Ph.D candidates who were male.”
The case has attracted national attention because it could insert Title IX’s ban on discrimination into the student-teacher relationship, something that has not happened before. Title IX is best known for its wide-ranging effect on athletics, pushing many schools to vastly increase opportunities for women in sports.
Universities fear a ruling in Emeldi’s favor could open the floodgates to litigation by establishing a low threshold for students to challenge academic decisions. Force disagrees, saying earlier that it would only prevent universities from using academic freedom as a disguise for discrimination.