In Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing (1985), the U.S. Supreme Court faced the issue of whether university officials acted arbitrarily in violation of a student’s substantive due process rights when a faculty board dismissed him from a program without granting him an opportunity to retake a medical board examination that he failed. The Court noted the judicial deference to academic professionals on matters of substantive due process that it had granted seven years earlier in Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz (1978), another case involving the academic dismissal of a student in a medical school. Given this deference and the faculty’s conscientious and deliberate review, the Court concluded that university officials, vis-à-vis the program faculty, did not violate the student’s substantive due process rights. In light of the Court’s essentially reiterating that deference, this entry examines the history and judicial analyses in Ewing.
Facts of the Case
In 1975, the plaintiff, Ewing, began his studies at the University of Michigan in a six-year combined undergraduate and medical program known as Inteflex. The Inteflex program consisted of four years of course work followed by two years of clinical training. The record demonstrated that, as a result of academic and personal challenges, the student had difficulty completing courses on time and achieving satisfactory grades in several courses. In an attempt to support his academic progress, officials placed the student on an irregular program sequence. Eventually, in the spring of 1981, six years after his initial entry into the program, the student completed his coursework.
As a condition of entering the clinical portion of the program, students were required to pass the first part of the National Board of Medical Examiners test (NBME Part 1). When the student took the examination in the spring of 1981, he failed five of the seven subjects on the NBME Part 1 and received a score of 235; a passing score was 345. In fact, at the time, the student received the lowest score within the Inteflex program’s short history. In the summer of 1981, the Inteflex program’s nine-member Promotion and Review Board reviewed the files of a group of students including the plaintiff regarding their academic progress. After examining the student’s file, the board voted unanimously to dismiss him from the Inteflex program. When the student was notified and appealed, the board met with him over his request that he be permitted to reenter the program. The student argued that the NBME Part 1 did not accurately reflect his academic progress or capacity. Following this discussion, the board voted again and decided unanimously again to dismiss the student from the program. Subsequently, the student met on three different occasions with the executive committee of the medical school, which denied his appeals for reentry into the program.
In 1982, the student commenced legal action in a federal trial court against the university, alleging that under state law, the actions attempted by university officials breached his contract and therefore were barred by promissory estoppel, meaning that because there was the good faith expectation and reliance that they would carry through on their word, they were bound to do so. In addition, the student filed a federal claim in which he alleged that he had a property interest in continued enrollment in the Inteflex program and that the university had violated his right to substantive due process by arbitrarily and capriciously dismissing him from the program. A federal trial court in Michigan rejected the breach of contract and promissory estoppel claims due to a lack of evidence supporting the student’s claims. In addition, the court ruled that although the student had substantive due process rights at stake, university officials did not violate them, because they acted in a fair and impartial manner, after careful and deliberate consideration of his academic performance, in excluding him from the program.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit, also acknowledging the student’s constitutionally protected right to continued enrollment in the program, reversed in his favor on the basis that officials violated his substantive due process right. The court grounded its judgment in the fact that at trial the student entered evidence demonstrating that officials permitted other students to retake the NBME Part I, and he was the only person not given an opportunity to retake the test between 1975 and 1982. The court thus ordered university officials to provide the student with an opportunity to retake the examination and, if he passed, to reinstate him into the Inteflex program. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
On further review before the Supreme Court, at issue was whether university officials acted arbitrarily by behaving in a manner that substantially deviated from their academic practices when they dropped the student from the program without an opportunity to retake the examination. Viewed another way, because the legal question centered on the student’s substantive due process rights, the Court inquired as to whether university officials misjudged the student’s fitness to remain in the Inteflex program. It is interesting that the Court never addressed whether the student had a constitutionally protected right to continued enrollment in the program.
In examining the record, the Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Stevens, unanimously reversed in favor of university officials. The Court recognized that the evidence demonstrated serious concerns about the student’s academic performance, including his troubles with coursework, his placement on an irregular course pattern in order to try to help him to succeed, and his poor NBME Part 1 score. Further, the Court pointed out that the record demonstrated that officials engaged in regular academic reviews to evaluate the student’s academic status. Taking these factors into consideration, the Court reasoned that because university officials, vis-à-vis the faculty, exercised their professional judgment in a fair and impartial manner after careful and deliberate consideration, it had no choice but to uphold their action.
Justice Powell, in a brief concurring opinion, agreed with the outcome but explained that he had thought it unnecessary to have even assumed that the student had a substantive due process right at stake, insofar as, at most, he had a state law contract claim over being able to retake the examination. Justice Powell also specified that he supported the Supreme Court’s granting deference to university officials on academic matters.
Simply put, Ewing stands for the proposition that on matters of substantive due process regarding academic program decisions, courts examine whether university officials, in this case via the faculty, exercised their professional judgment in a fair and impartial manner after careful and deliberate consideration. If so, and absent other events, the courts generally defer to the faculty’s academic judgment and refuse to find violations of students’ substantive due process rights.
Jeffrey C. Sun
See also academic abstention; Due Process, Substantive and Procedural; Due Process Rights in Faculty and Staff Dismissal; Fourteenth Amendment
Berger, C. J., & Berger, V. (1999). Academic discipline: A guide to fair process for the university student. Columbia Law Review, 99, 289–364.
Ford, D. L., & Strope, J. L., Jr. (1996). Judicial responses to adverse academic decisions affecting public postsecondary institution students since Horowitz and Ewing. Education Law Reporter, 110, 517–542.
Melear, K. B. (2003). Judicial intervention in postsecondary academic decisions: The standards of arbitrary and capricious conduct. West’s Education Law Reporter, 177, 1–13.
Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78 (1978).
Regents of the University of Michigan v. Ewing, 474 U.S. 214 (1985).