Stanley Fish has a really good, informative blog post up about academic abstention.
As recently as 1979, legal academics Virginia Nordin and Harry Edwards were able to say that “historically American courts have adhered fairly consistently to the doctrine of academic abstention in order to avoid excessive judicial oversight of academic institutions” (Higher Education and the Law). Academic abstention is the doctrine (never formally promulgated) that courts should defer to colleges and universities when it comes to matters like promotions, curricula, admission policies, grading, tenure, etc. The reasoning is that courts lack the competence to monitor academic behavior; they should get out of the way and let the professionals do the job. “Courts are particularly ill-equipped,” Chief Justice Rehnquist declared in 1978, “to evaluate academic performance.” (Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz)
In 2009, courts still pay lip service to this doctrine but in practice, Amy Gajda tells us in her terrific new book, “The Trials of Academe,” they now boldly go where their predecessors feared to tread. Once, “if a student or faculty member had the temerity to bring a grievance to court, is was likely to be bounced out in short order.” Now, however, “courts feel free to enter . . . from the ground up, parceling out the right and obligations of each disputant down to the last dollar.” Indeed, “litigation and ‘rights talk’ have permeated every crease and wrinkle of academic life.”
This has led to some interesting cases:
My favorite (and Gajda’s, too) involves a student in osteopathic medicine who, after failing an important rotation, was dismissed because “he didn’t have the basic understanding that he should have as a fourth-year medical student.” The student sued on the grounds that he had been promised a degree by a phrase in a student handbook that described the program he was enrolled in as “a four-year curriculum leading to the DO degree.”
Astoundingly, he won—to the tune of $4.3 million.