In Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the issue of whether officials at a public university’s medical school afforded one of their students procedural due process when they took steps to dismiss her from an academic program. According to the Court, university officials satisfied the constitutional requirements of procedural due process for academic dismissals when it acted in a two-stage process. First, the Court pointed out, officials had notified the student of her academic deficiencies and identified potential outcomes in the event that she failed to remedy these deficiencies, including the possibility that she could be dismissed from the program. Second, the Court acknowledged that because the student had been fully informed about her academic standing and the consequences of failing to improve, the decision to dismiss her occurred only after a careful and deliberate review of her academic performance.
Facts of the Case
During the fall of 1971, Charlotte Horowitz entered the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) Medical School with advanced standing that would have required her to spend only two years in medical school. The final two years of the student’s study were to be dedicated to rotational units of academic and clinical experiences on a variety of specialized areas. During Horowitz’s first of two years at UMKC, several faculty members evaluated her clinical performance, indicating that her work did not measure up to that of her peers. At the end of that first year, the academic review team, known as the Council on Evaluation, which was composed of both faculty and students, recommended Horowitz’s continuation in the program on a probationary basis. During the first half of Horowitz’s second year, faculty members expressed additional concerns about her capacity to perform the required clinical skills, rating her work as unsatisfactory. In the middle of that year, the Council again reviewed her academic progress. This time, the Council recommended that Horowitz not be considered for graduation at the end of the academic year. Further, the Council indicated that unless Horowitz displayed dramatic improvement in her poor clinical performance, she should be dismissed from the medical school.
Affording Horowitz another opportunity to demonstrate her academic competencies, officials at the medical school allowed her to participate in a set of oral and clinical examinations. As part of the examinations, seven well-regarded practicing physicians evaluated Horowitz’s performance. The evaluations drew mixed results: Two medical doctors recommended graduation that year, two suggested immediate dismissal, and three called for deferring graduation and revisiting her academic review when the other evaluations of her clinical experiences were received. Later that academic year, the Council reconvened after receiving additional poor ratings of Horowitz’s clinical requirements. On reviewing Horowitz’s performance, the Council unanimously recommended that she be dismissed from the medical school. A committee of the faculty known as the Coordinating Board affirmed that recommendation to the dean. The dean agreed and notified Horowitz of her academic dismissal from the medical school. Horowitz appealed to the university provost for health sciences. On review, the provost upheld the medical school’s decision. Subsequently, Horowitz unsuccessfully filed suit against the UMKC Medical School in federal trial court based on constitutional claims, including one alleging violation of her rights to procedural due process.
In dismissing her claim, the trial court was convinced that Horowitz received due process. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed in favor of the student, and the University of Missouri appealed. On final appeal, the Supreme Court reversed in favor of the UMKC.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
The Supreme Court began by identifying the issue at hand as the procedures that university officials had to perform in the face of challenges filed by students who were about to be dismissed when they claimed that they were being denied their rights to due process. In its analysis, the Court declared that institutions of higher education and their faculty have far more flexibility in dealing with procedural due process for academic dismissals than for student dismissals based on conduct.
On the merits of the case, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that even though university officials had no obligation to afford Horowitz a formal hearing, they did not violate her right to procedural due process, because they had fully informed her of her academic standing and the possibility of academic dismissal if her work did not improve. Further, the Court found that the eventual decision to dismiss the student was not arbitrary or capricious, because it occurred after careful and deliberate review of Horowitz’s inability to improve her academic performance. Accordingly, the UMKC prevailed in a case that helped to establish the legal guidelines for procedural due process of academic dismissals of students.
Jeffrey C. Sun
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- Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78 (1978).