Should this guy have been awarded his degree? (a bit long)

Firstly, for those unfamiliar with the world of academia, i should give a short explanation. Like many published books that you find in bookstores, the theses and dissertations produced by graduate students at universities generally contain an Acknowledgements section. You know the sort of thing - a place where you thank your professors, your colleagues, the library staff, friends, family, etc., for helping you get through the academic minefield and the years of hell that are grad school.

Now to my story. In 1999, UC Santa Barbara student Christopher Brown presented his Masters thesis on “The Morphology of Calcium Carbonate: Factors Affecting Crystal Shape.” But this fascinating topic is not the subject for our discussion. No, what i want to talk about is what Brown referred to as his “Disacknowledgement” section, in which he was scathing of various people within and outside the university.

As a result of this, UCSB refused to grant his degree. Eventually, after much formal protest and filing of complaints by Brown, the university caved and awarded him his degree, but only after ABC News showed an interest in the story.

Because Brown had struggled to find a job while all this was going on, he took the university to court in a damage suit. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco sided with the defendants, saying that Brown did not have a first amendment right to his “Disacknowledgements,” and that

One judge wrote a partial dissent from this opinion. According to this article, Judge Stephen Reinhardt

Interestingly, the Materials Science faculty had passed the academic content of the thesis, but they didn’t see the offending section because it was added afterwards, just before Brown submitted the thesis to the library for cataloguing.

While Brown now has his degree, the university still refuses to add his thesis to the library, contrary to standard policy. I’m just interested in getting people’s take on this issue, and i thought GD was the place for it because of the rather debatable issues that are likely to come up. My own take is that the acknowledgements section of a thesis should not be considered part of the academic content of the work, and as such should not necessarily have to conform to regular standards of academic discourse. It is a place to express opinions and emotions, and as long as the academic content of the work is adequate, the thesis should pass. I’d be interested to hear the opinions of others.

Oh, and finally, you have to read the “Disacknowledgements” that got Brown into so much trouble. Here they are:

There is a whole website devoted to this issue here. It includes updates, links to media coverage of the issue, and the full text of the Court of Appeals decision.

I don’t see what the university did wrong. The referees decided that the final version of the thesis did not meet their standards; in that case they have the authority to refuse to accept the thesis. IMHO it’s not the bad-mouthing that got him in trouble, but the unprofessional attitude. If my physics thesis contained a 20-page rant about my love life (or lack thereof), do you think they’d accept it?

This, friends, is what is known as “shitting where you eat”. I’d have to know more about what exactly the requirements are for the thesis before I’d pass judgement on whether he should have been granted the degree or not, though. If the thesis was brilliant and flawless otherwise, you might make a case for him; if not, he can’t expect to be cut any slack.

I look at it the same way I look at someone who has a “Bad Cop! No Donut!” bumper sticker who gets pulled over more often as a result. Fair? Not completely. Understandable? Sure.

I have to say that science papers are held to very strict standards, and this was very unprofessional. He has shown that he has not learned the proper way to write a paper.

But then again, he managed to insult both Pete Wilson and the UC Regents.

He should be given an alternative place to make his views known- maybe some space in the school newspaper, and made to ammend the thesis into something that would be accepted in the scientific world.

At first I thought, “let him make his statements ~ he earned the degree”. Then I read what he said. Yeah, he comes off as un-professional. It might have been swallowable if he hadn’t stooped to personal insults. I’d give him the degree, but toss the paper in the circular file.

He should’ve been awarded his degree, but man, what a jerk.

I agree that he should make his views know in a different forum, but I have to take exception to the wording “he should be given…”. He should have been smart enough to do this in the first place. It’s not the school’s place to provide a public forum for people who have problems with the administration, faculty, or government. Nobody has to help him exercise his right to free speech - it’s his responsibility to find an appropriate venue, or to accept the consequences if he cannot do that.

According to the University attorney, he’s complied with all the requirements for the MS degree. If you comply with all the requirements of the degree, you should get the degree. It seems pretty simple to me.

As far as recovering damages because he couldn’t find a job… that’s his own damn fault. Certainly Brown has a constitutional right to free speech, but he has no right to immunity from the repurcussions of what he says. If you were hiring somebody with a graduate degree in materials science, would you want to read the thesis? Would you even consider hiring somebody who included a section like that? I would never hire him - I wouldn’t be able to trust him as a representative of the organization.

Brown also asserts that, by keeping his thesis out of the library, UCSB has denied him “the same priveleges granted to other students.” I don’t see how. Unless there is a policy specifically stated at the University, I don’t think that the library has any obligation to Brown to make a copy of his thesis available to the public. He could make a case that the library is academically irresponsible by doing so (I would agree with him), but I don’t think that the library would be required to shelve the thesis.

Finally, I’m disturbed that Brown tries to couch his Disacknowledgement section in terms of academic freedom. The concept of academic freedom is intended to promote free research, even into subjects deemed unpopular or controversial. The American Association of University Professors defines three components to academic freedom: full freedom in research, the freedom to introduce into a classroom discussion any subject, and the freedom from institutional censorship when the academic speaks as a citizen. However, I do not believe that the personal attacks made in the Brown’s disacknowledgement can be justified in any academic terms. I think that by hiding behind “academic freedom,” Brown is doing more to undermine it than he is to protect it.

I don’t think though that free speech entitles one to a degree.


Yeesh, what a moron!

From the Disacknowledgments:

What is a “large” argument?

The most important thing is that the world needs very much to know about The Morphology of Calcium Carbonate: Factors Affecting Crystal Shape. So by all means put the thesis in the library, minus the venom. Everybody wins, he got a chance to blw off his steam, he got his degree, the university has his research for the benefit of future students. He does not sound like the nicest man in the world, and the business about telling off Science tells me there may be some serious mental issues here.

I certainly agree with you that such comments could reasonably be expected to hinder Brown’s search for a job. That sort of attitude towards one’s institution and its people is not the sort of thing most employers are looking for.

I do want to point out one thing, however. You concede that if he complied with all the requirements of the BS degree (as conceded by the university’s attorney), then he should receive the degree. As far as i could tell, his damages claim was premised on the fact that his problems getting a job arose from the fact that the university had failed to award his degree. He wasn’t making the claim for damages based on the content of his Disacknowledgements, but based on the fact that his degree should have been awarded, and the fact that it wasn’t led to difficulties finding a job.

If the university had no right to withhold his degree, and if the lack of an MS degree prevented him from getting a job, then it seems to me that the university is to some degree responsible for his unemployment.

Dissertations and theses have very strict formatting criteria. While I think he has a right to his degree, the university should not be obligated in any way to publish his very non-professional thesis. It would reflect poorly on the school and set a very bad precedence.

I’ve heard of horror stories from my colleagues about theses which were rejected for the smallest imperfections. If a school can withhold a diploma for an incorrect margin, they can do just about anything they want.

I really wanted to support this guy…but…

…while graduate school can be stressful (I am nearing the completion of my own PhD)…when someone has THAT many problems with so many different folks (I mean come on, the library staff for $%#@'s sake?)…one begins to suspect that the problem comes not so much from without as from within.

I can understand the temptation, but I do believe that the University has the right to set standards on what they expect. Could you imagine if someone you loathe, and who loathes you insisted that you print flyers saying that you are an ass and pass them out to all of your neighbors. Why should the University by expected to participate in a publishing effort that is so polemic and unprofessional.

And yes, if wind of that “disacknowledgment” section gets to potential employers, he will have a difficult time getting a job.

I think he was wrong to try and sneak those disacknowledgements in but part of me sympathizes with him wanting to burn these people if they really were that bad.

The problem is that getting the thesis accepted and published is usually a requirement for the degree. If the university doesn’t accept the thesis then he isn’t entitled to a degree.

I think the university should have told him that they would accept the thesis if the offending section were removed. If they didn’t do that then that seems a bit harsh. If they did and he refused to comply then he’s a jerk who doesn’t deserve a degree.