Doctoral student sues Duquesne U. over unfinished dissertation

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When Martha Yablonsky began her Ph.D. program in counseling education at Duquesne University in 2003, there was no requirement in place limiting the amount of time she had to get it done.

She completed her coursework after a few years, but took longer in working on her dissertation.

She was working full time as a quality manager for Medicaid, spent 10 to 15 hours each week at her private practice in Squirrel Hill as a counselor and taught as an adjunct at two universities.

After contemplating a variety of topics for her dissertation, Ms. Yablonsky finally settled on one: Women in Recovery. She continued working on it -- and paying Duquesne money -- each semester.

"I was trying to pace it out so I could continue working full-time plus," she said.

But in June, she received notice from the program chair that she would not be permitted to complete her degree because she had run out of time.

Last month, Ms. Yablonsky, 39, of Glassport filed a lawsuit against Duquesne alleging breach of contract and unfair trade practices.

Bridget Fare, a spokeswoman for the university, said she could not comment specifically on Ms. Yablonsky's case because of federal privacy rules.

"All degrees have requirements students are expected to meet, and when they are not, the students are not permitted to remain in the program," she said.

According to the suit, even though there was no time limitation placed on the Ph.D. program in 2003, one was implemented for students the following year.

That requirement said the degree must be completed within eight years of the start of coursework, with the possibility of "one year extensions." A later statute, from 2007, included the possibility of just a single, one-year extension, the lawsuit said.

Edward Olds, the attorney representing Ms. Yablonsky, wrote in the complaint that in the fall of 2011, the new School of Education graduate catalog implemented a new, shorter statute of limitations for students who entered the program after 2011.

For students who began prior to fall 2011, it read that the program requirements must be completed within eight years from the beginning of coursework.

"Students may petition for one or more one-year extensions (years 9 and 10) with written support from the chair and approval of the doctoral program," the rule said.

In May 2011, recognizing that other students were being held to the time limitations, Ms. Yablonsky requested a one-year extension, which was granted.

"Please be aware that granting of this extension is not automatic, and further extensions may not be granted if you do not make significant progress toward the completion of your program," the notice said.

On July 13, 2011, Ms. Yablonsky received another notice setting her deadline for completion of her dissertation as June 30, 2012. In April, she realized she would not make the June deadline. She requested one additional extension from her dissertation chairperson. It was approved unanimously by the program faculty May 23, she said.

Ms. Yablonsky was able to show the required progress in the program, she said, having completed the first three of the five chapters of her dissertation.

At that point, she had been in the program for nine years. According to the complaint, under the rules published in 2011, that should have left her with one additional year to complete the work.

But 12 days after being told she had an extension, Ms. Yablonsky received an email from Tammy Hughes, the chair of the School of Education Counseling Program, telling her the faculty decision was reversed and she was being removed from the program unless she completed her dissertation by July 13.

"Impossible," Ms. Yablonsky said. "I think, that weekend, I worked around the clock researching, how did I miss that in policies and procedures?"

By the end of that weekend, she realized she had missed nothing, she said.

"They changed the rules on her in the last year," Mr. Olds said.

According to Robert Sowell, vice president for programs and operations at the Council of Graduate Schools, having a time requirement on doctoral degrees is common. Information in a specific field changes over time, and students are expected to have the most recent, cutting-edge knowledge.

"Statutes of limitations are important because degrees are granted based on evidence of contemporary knowledge," Ms. Fare said.

Even Ms. Yablonsky supports a statute of limitations -- agreeing with the idea expressed by the university that it enhances the integrity of the program.

"But, for me, I was under the impression that I had one more year," she said. "I have a strong belief in policies and procedures. I think they're important to use as a guide so there isn't a gray area."

Mr. Sowell, who has no knowledge of Ms. Yablonsky's specific case, said it has been his experience that a student is permitted to graduate under the rules in place at the time they enter a program.

Mr. Olds called the email kicking Ms. Yablonsky out of the program "deceitful and inaccurate."

"Moreover, the decision was totally arbitrary, disreputable and mean-spirited, and by no means did it embody good faith and fair dealing," he wrote.

He said Ms. Hughes' decision stemmed from "spite and ill will" between her and members of the faculty. "Thus, Yablonsky became an innocent victim of turf wars and petty bickering which governed Hughes' relationship with the program's faculty."

Ms. Yablonsky attempted to appeal Ms. Hughes' decision, but it was denied by the dean and provost.

Mr. Olds, who expects to file for a preliminary injunction, notes in the complaint that other Ph.D. candidates received a one-year extension, including students in their ninth year.

Ms. Yablonsky said she was never given a specific reason for the university wanting to remove her from the program.

"I just always thought that it was a shared goal of the institution and the student to have the education completed," she said.

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