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Schools Legal status of University catalog

  1. Jul 27, 2011 #1


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    Can someone tell me the legal status (preferably in California if you know it) of the course catalog given to public university students? In other words, if something is written in the catalog (and without any of the "this is subject to change" stuff) for the year a student enters a university, is a university legally obligated to follow those terms? And how much weight does the catalog hold in forcing a university to do something?

    The reason I ask is I was suppose to finish my MS thesis last fall. Due to the ridiculous deadlines imposed, I wasn't able to. Fair enough, few in our department ever make the deadline. So the plan was to enroll into continuation and finish up and submit during the Fall. However, as the deadline looms, there's a chance I may not even finish by that deadline (especially if I get a job offer within the next couple of weeks) and would have to go on towards the spring. Typically what some students did was, because of whatever reason, keep enrolling even past the semester beyond their thesis course. Some even took 3 years more than usual to officially graduate! The thing is, enrolling in continuation gives you two options. One is a 0-unit course so that you can just work on your thesis and be officially enrolled. This option costs students $350 a semester now; very cheap. The other option is pretty much normal enrollment paying part-time tuition which is ~$1800 but that lets you take classes and what not.

    Last semester the graduate division, out of nowhere, decided to put a stop to this. Starting in the spring semester, EVERYONE must use the half-tuition option, no 0-unit courses and we'd be forced to sign up for some sort of class. They tried to do it so that the policy started in the Fall, but people went nuts on them and they retracted that and said it would start in Spring.

    So in my catalog, it explicitly states that I have the option to do the 0-unit enrollment course if I need to prolong my admission to my university. The graduate division is trying to say no, not anymore. So clearly, I'm VERY curious as to what the legal standing of a course catalog is. My graduate adviser says this is grounds for a lawsuit, but I just wanted to get some other opinions as well.
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2011
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  3. Jul 27, 2011 #2
    The catalog for UC Davis has this disclaimer that applies to the whole catalog.....

    The General Catalog or General Catalog Supplement is not a contract nor an offer to enter into a contract. While every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided in this General Catalog or General Catalog Supplement, it must be understood that all courses, course descriptions, designations of instructors, curricular and degree requirements and other academic information described herein are subject to change or elimination at any time without notice or published amendment to this General Catalog or General Catalog Supplement. In addition, The University of California reserves the right to make changes at any time, without prior notice, to other programs, policies, procedures and information, which are described in this catalog only as a convenience to its readers. Fees and all other charges are subject to change at any time without notice. Students should consult the appropriate academic or administrative department, school, college, graduate division or other service provider for currently accurate information on any matters described in this General Catalog or General Catalog Supplement.

    It wasn't out of nowhere. California is under massive budget crunch and universities have had to change the rules in order to keep afloat.

    Your graduate adviser is likely not a lawyer, and has no more knowledge as to this than I do. It will cost you a few hundred dollars to get a consultation from an honest to god lawyer with a legal degree, and I'd encourage you to do that because I'm curious if I'm right about this (i.e. you haven't got a case).

    Also, if you really want to complain, go call your state legislator, and organize with other students to make their lives miserable until they do what you want.
  4. Jul 27, 2011 #3
    I'm not educated in the US legal system, so I can't really answer your general question on the legal status of your university's catalog. As far as your individual situation is concerned, however, I am fairly certain that, unfortunately, you are not going to be able to get your way based on legal grounds. You namely didn't yet actually gain the right to do what you're planning on doing, the right only existed potentially. For example, if they shortened the time period to finish your Masters thesis while you were in the middle of the program, that would be a violation of your right, acquired at the time of your entry into the program. On the other hand, if you were enrolled in, say, a terminal Masters, they can do whatever they want - as far as you're concerned - with their PhD program. You might be planning on satisfying the criteria to enter the program that were in place when you entered the Masters program, but that doesn't mean they have to honor them instead of those that are in place when you actually do apply for said PhD program.

    Now, that I think is the legal side of it, but you might get what you want by putting pressure on them by asserting you have a legal right to do what you were planning on doing. But even if they do budge, that doesn't mean you'd actually win the case if you went to court. It just means they either thought you had law on your side or had other reasons to let you do that.

    You still might want to talk to someone who studied law in California, just to be sure that I'm not giving you the wrong answers.
  5. Jul 27, 2011 #4


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    We have a similar disclaimer but I have always been under the impression that they can't retroactively impose these rule changes. Then again, is it even technically retroactive? I'm not arguing if they can't do this for new students, but whether or not they can for students already here.

    Yah they can do that with tuition increases, that's fine, but this really is out of nowhere. I've never seen a policy change instituted by the university that isn't explicitly stated as "Beginning with students starting at the university this coming year". Never has a policy come in for students already enrolled and in attendance. Beyond the cost increase, I'd be forced to take classes. What classes? I've taken every course we offer.

    Indeed. Thankfully one of our departments students (and I do actually know him, not just know of him) is a practicing lawyer and has his own law firm. They specialize in class-action and discrimination lawsuits so I have a feeling he'll at the very least know if I have standing in regards to this.

    The fact that a few e-mails from the chairs of our department got them to immediately push back when this would go into effect (Spring instead of Fall) makes me think they might realize they're on flimsy grounds with this. Consider we have only ~3000 graduates (out of about 25000 students) in our university total, I can't imagine this saving the university all that much money in the first place.
  6. Jul 27, 2011 #5


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    Hmm I'm a bit confused here. I am in a terminal masters program and have been in it for 2 years now. There is no PhD program here.

    That's actually as far as I'd even try to take it. I don't think they'd want to deal with a lawsuit for something so insignificant. I figure with 3,000 grads, maybe 10% having to do this with a gain for them of about $1500 per student, it's not very significant to a university with a $300M budget.
  7. Jul 27, 2011 #6
    It was just an example.
  8. Jul 27, 2011 #7
    Universities have legal staffs to write these sorts of disclaimers. I very seriously doubt that you are the first person in the history of the UC system to try to use that argument, and I also doubt that the lawyers haven't arranged things so that the university can do whatever the hell it wants. That's why universities hire lawyers.

    But there is not that much point in arguing the issue here. My position is that the chances of winning something like this are so low that it isn't even worth paying the $200-300 to have a lawyer "officially" tell you that you don't have a case or spending the next three weeks in the law library reading up on education law. Either you agree or you don't. If you don't agree, then you need to get an "official" opinion, and I'd be interested in what that is.

    The other thing about lawsuits is that you have to compare the costs of fighting the lawsuit with the cost of recovery.

    When you have the worst financial crisis in fifty years, lots of unusual things happen.

    In a lot of these sorts of situations, the person that screams the least gets killed.

    It won't, but when you have your funds dry up, you start squeezing anything you can.
  9. Jul 27, 2011 #8
    When I read this all I could think is that you are the one changing the agreement with the university by extending the time-frame for your thesis. When there's money floating around they can be lenient with this but if the budget cuts that twofish-quant mentions are necessary then I can see why they would want a turn-over of students. Good luck, I guess.

    EDIT: After 30 seconds of contemplation, I think there is a potential for an Atticus Finch moment here and thoroughly endorse any attempts for you to stick it to The man. Give 'em hell.
  10. Jul 27, 2011 #9
    This is something that I have some experience in doing.

    You will get nowhere if you just say "you cannot legally do X." What you have to do in order to make things happen is to spend three or four weeks teaching yourself education law, so that you can write a memo that says "under section X of article Y and referring the case of Z" you cannot legally do X. And this point, they will hand this letter to their lawyers and if you have a strong legal argument, they'll cave.

    Or you can pay someone a few hundred dollars to write that letter for you.

    Personally, I'm sort of a geek when it comes to these things, and since no one is going to get killed if I do something wrong, it's sort of fun to get into these arguments especially if you end up with $$$$ in the end.

    Or you can study the law yourself.
  11. Jul 27, 2011 #10


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    It's amazing how often these schools (I'm actually at a CSU, not UC) DO get sued though.

    Actually there's never any agreement on how long a student will take to finish their masters. In fact, the only thing that even resembles a deadline is the fact that they will not accept courses taken more than 5 years earlier for your MS. I don't really think they have much in the way of kicking someone out.
  12. Jul 27, 2011 #11
    It's not a big deal for an institution to get sued. If you have to sue the school, then in practice you are doomed, because it means that the school thinks that they have a strong enough case and interest to fight, and they have more money and lawyers than you.

    The one bit of hope that I can see is that the people making the decisions on curriculum aren't lawyers, so it isn't uncommon for people in large companies or large schools to do something that actually is illegal but they don't know it.

    If you can find legal grounds to challenge the decisions, what usually happens is that once they get the letter it goes to the legal department, people have meetings, and then the legal department will tell them to stop doing something.

    You don't want to sue the school, because that is extremely expensive. What you want is for someone to write a letter to school in which you can convince the legal department that you are right, at which point you've won.

    Been there, done that.

    One thing that helps is that doing this sort of thing means burying yourself in a library for weeks on end, reading obscure treatises, and learning bizarre concepts, to come up with an argument about how the world works. Sort of like doing a physics Ph.D.
  13. Jul 27, 2011 #12
    Just curious what country you are from. The notion of a contract as a juristic act that modifies the legal rights and obligations is something that is basic in French and German law, but US/English contract law is based on very different principles. In US law, a "right" is usually considered to be a restriction on the power of the government, and contractual interactions between private individuals are seldom analyzed in terms of rights.

    In the US, a contract is a legally binding agreement that satisfies a number of legal requirements for formation (consideration, meeting of the minds, yadda, yadda). I'm pretty pessimistic that you are going to be able to convince anyone that there was a contract since the document you are referencing has this disclaimer "this is not a contract."
  14. Jul 27, 2011 #13
    You guessed it right that I'm from a European country, whose legal system is heavily rooted in the German one. And I understand the legal institute of a contract there differs from the English one, but some (a lot, actually) similarities still exist. I've been convinced of that during a course, where the book we used was basically a book on considerations that come into place when judging whether a contract was made or not in the US legal system.

    Either way, I'm not saying there was a contract concluded between Pengwuino and the university, and I don't know where I gave off that I do. However, the disclaimer you're referencing is in all probability of not much legal relevance, as they usually tend to be. If you have certain obligations by law, then you can't set yourself free of them by posting a disclaimer. On the other hand, if you already have the right the to change your catalog, then you also don't need a disclaimer to make that happen. In this case, I assume they can change their catalog, and that the disclaimer is there for cosmetic purposes.

    But I'm not trying to get into a long legal argument here, since I find law kind of boring nowadays, and it's also why I got the **** out of the field.
  15. Jul 27, 2011 #14
    I agree with that. But in my experience, these scare tactics only work on people who don't know what their legal standing really is. I highly doubt that is the case here, since the university is sure to have either a dedicated legal department or a handful of lawyers on their side to cover the legal side of their actions and policies. However, they might have other reasons why they'd cave. If they think arguments he can come up with would impress the lay public and give a bad reputation to the university, they might do it just to avoid that.

    But I guess it is sort of fun to try and argue your own way to get what you want, so in general I do agree with what you're saying.
    Yeah, he can do that, but much to lay people's chagrin, he won't be able to get a valid answer by spending a few hours looking up legal acts. Law isn't looking up clauses and articles in acts in isolation, it's about knowing how the whole thing works, what the underlying general principles are etc. It's why there's always so much disappointment when someone looks up a favourable condition, and then later wonders why they lost the case. But article 5.3 (or case X vs. Y, if you prefer) said that I could?!

    Now if he's interested in spending an ample amount of time to really learn it, sure, he can go ahead. Seeing as how I somehow don't think he's intently interested in law, I don't think it's worth his time, but that's just my opinion.
  16. Jul 27, 2011 #15


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    In general, my experience has been that universities tend to honour the program requirements a they've been published at the time the student first registers (with thet exception of tuition increases). I don't know to what degree what is published is legally binding and what is simply a case of the university chosing to honour what they've published out of fairness.

    In either case, if your situation were mine, I would just suck it up.

    If you try to bring a personal lawsuit against the university, that will take time and money - probably more time and money than it would take you to finish the degree under the new conditions.

    The best way of challenging a decision like this is collectively through your student union. Student representatives on the committees that make these decisions should have voiced objections at the time and argued for phasing such a decision in for new students entering the program this year.
  17. Jul 27, 2011 #16
    I think the problem here is that what Pengwuino is talking about isn't a program requirement. If it were, then I agree they'd absolutely have to honor it.
  18. Jul 27, 2011 #17
    Cool. One reason that I noticed is that I've studied a lot of Chinese law, and a lot of that involves looking at the differences between PRC/Taiwan contract law which is German-based, and Hong Kong contract law, which comes from English law.

    This is a classic example of how German based systems different from English-based systems. Under US law, it is much, much easier to disclaim legal liability by putting in a disclaimer. Under German-based systems, trying to disclaim legal liability by putting in a disclaimer that there is no contract is usually considered a breach of good faith and is legally invalid, and you may have general legal obligations that arise from outside of contract.

    Under US law, having that disclaimer prevents a contract from coming into effect in the first place. Without an enforceable contract, there are no judicially enforceable legal obligations.

    One thing about US law is that US contract law is extremely harsh since a lot of it dates from the 16th century, and so a lot of things have been done to "soften" that harshness. This is why Penguinwo might get lucky if he does some legal research. Under general principles of US contract law, he has no grounds for a lawsuit, but there may be something specific in California law (either a act of the legislature or a judicial ruling) that gives him something. Probably not.

    Analyzing things in terms of "rights" and "obligations" is German-based legal logic. It's the wrong analysis for US-based law. One thing that I like about German law is that in writing the German Civil Code, the Germans tried and did a good job of creating a "grand unified theory of law." They came up with an abstract legal framework that is very systematic.

    US contract law is a series of ad-hoc rules, some of them being centuries old.

    Part of the reason this comes up with China is that a lot of Chinese legal thinking has to do with trying to get PRC/German based law to "interoperate" with Hong Kong/English law.

    Curious, since I find law fascinating.

    This also helps me get what I want. I think law is cool, and I don't mind spending weeks locked up in a library, learning obscure rules, and coming up with even more obscure arguments.

    Most lawyers don't. So what happens, is that after I go the library, and come up with a strong legal argument saying that I should get X, the lawyer at the other end of the memo realizes that either he has to spend weeks of his time coming up with counterarguments, or he can just make things easy and give me what I want.
  19. Jul 27, 2011 #18
    It's not scare tactics. You argue that what the university does is illegal. What you are hoping will happen is that someone with legal background will read your argument and then agree that what they are doing is illegal, and that they will be in a heap of trouble if they keep doing it.

    Now this means knowing the law well enough so that you can make a convincing argument to a lawyer that what they are doing is in fact illegal. My guess is that it isn't, in which case you lose.

    Also it works the other way. You can get a nasty-gram from a lawyer that sounds official and scary, but it turns out that they are blowing smoke.

    Sometimes you can. My guess is that if he goes into a law library, picks up a book like "Introduction to Educational Law" goes into the chapter on course catalogs, and then finds that the law is clear and that he is sunk. One reason I'm interested in this is that I'm pretty sure he is going to lose, but I'm interested in seeing *how* he loses.

    Like physics? Also there are a lot of intro law books that explain the general principles.

    That's why legal thinking is very useful mental training. You have to be able to look at the dispute from the other side, and be able to see their argument. This is also why in anything non-trivial, lawyers hire their own lawyers. If you are involved in your own battle, it becomes too easy to become so emotionally attached to your goal, that you can't see your own weaknesses.

    Again the parallels with Ph.D. physics are interesting because it's like preparing for your dissertation defense.

    Also in dealing with bureaucracies if there is any legal rationale that they can use and if there is any reason they have to fight, then your are in for trench warfare and it may not be worth it. One reason going through legal is useful is that the lawyers aren't motivated by money. If you go through the departments, if they agree with you, then they lose money. The lawyers in a university don't have that constraint.

    Also, it helps if you go in with the right attitude. A lot of times, I know I'm legally screwed, but I curious in finding out *exactly in what way* I'm screwed.
  20. Jul 27, 2011 #19
    I'm not so sure. One thing I find about Europeans is that they are often shocked at how few legal protections Americans have, even for very basic things.
  21. Jul 28, 2011 #20
    One other place to do research is with the regional accreditation policies (which in your case is WASC). My memory is that there are is basically no legal recourse if a US university starts changing program requirements at random because the catalog is not a contract, but the regional accreditors for the school are going to get very annoyed. My memory could be very wrong, which is why I'm pushing you a little to do some research on this. :-) :-) :-)

    The difficulty here is that different regional accreditors have very different standards and educational philosophies (just like different countries have wildly different contract law). I'm most familiar with the standards for SACS and Middle States, and SACS is much more "here are the rules, now follow them" than either WASC or Middle States.

    Pushing this back to physics, I've found that physics training is remarkably useful in trying to understand the law. One thing that you can do is to take some things that look very different like the accreditation standards for SACS and Middle States or the Contract laws of the US and Germany, and try to figure out what the *basic principle* is.

    This is especially useful because once you understand the basic principle of the laws, you can then write down some equations that describe how the laws work. For example, there is a stock exchange out there that has this very special law regarding how certain derivatives can be sold, and some co-workers of mine did a project figuring out how that particular law changes (or didn't change) the equations that people use to price those derivatives. (I'll give you names and places over private mail if you are interested.)

    Really cool.
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2011
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