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12/30/94 MARILYN BILUT v. NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

December 30, 1994

MARILYN BILUT, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE
v.
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY. HONORABLE EDWIN BERMAN, JUDGE PRESIDING.

As Corrected January 5, 1995.

The Honorable Justice Rizzi delivered the opinion of the court: Tully, P.j., and Cerda, J., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rizzi

The Honorable Justice RIZZI delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, Marilyn Bilut, by her complaint alleged that defendant, Northwestern University, breached its contract with her when it did not award her a Ph. D. degree. In count I of her complaint, plaintiff sought specific performance. In count II, she sought contract damages from defendant. Plaintiff later amended her complaint to add Professor Gerald Canter as a defendant and to include counts III and IV which were claims for tortious interference with contract and punitive damages against him. The trial court found in favor of defendant on count I and transferred counts II, III and IV to the law division for a determination of damages. Defendant now appeals. The sole issue for review by this court is whether the trial court erred in awarding plaintiff a mandatory injunction. We reverse and remand.

Plaintiff was a candidate for a Ph.D. degree in speech and language pathology. In order to be recommended for a Ph. D. degree, a student admitted to candidacy must successfully complete each of the following steps: (1) Prepare a prospectus which is acceptable to the dissertation director and the dissertation committee members, all of whom are selected by the student; (2) undertake original and creative research; (3) complete a written dissertation based upon that research; and (4) pass an oral examination. An acceptable prospectus is a research plan for a dissertation. In a prospectus, the student sets forth scientific questions to be answered in the dissertation; demonstrates how those questions fit into the previous research in the field; explains how the research will contribute original and creative knowledge to the field; and describes in detail the methodology of research. An acceptable prospectus demonstrates that the student has carefully thought through the research design and is capable of undertaking and completing the research. The dissertation committee is a group composed of three faculty members chosen by the candidate. The committee reviews the prospectus drafts and determines whether or not the student's proposed research is feasible and would contribute something new to the field in which the student wants to obtain a degree. It is also the responsibility of the student to select and obtain a dissertation director who provides one-on-one guidance to the student during the prospectus and dissertation phases of the student's candidacy.

Plaintiff began working on a prospectus in apraxia. Plaintiff asked Professor Canter to be her director. Plaintiff selected a prospectus committee which, in addition to Professor Canter, consisted of Professors Larson, Rutherford, Smith and Trommer. Plaintiff consulted with Professor Canter on the prospectus during the period from early 1984 through November of 1985. Plaintiff decided to work on the topic of apraxia even though Professor Canter advised her to choose another topic. Professor Canter's recommendation was based upon the fact the plaintiff had difficulties in that topic prior to her admission to candidacy.

During this period, plaintiff accused Professor Canter of having "usurped" her research idea. Plaintiff reported this accusation to Professor Larson, Professor Gregory, Chairman of the Speech and Language Pathology Program, and Professor Logemann, Chairman of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Professor Logemann recommended to plaintiff that she ask Professor Burns, an adjunct professor in the Speech and Language Pathology Program who had expertise in aphasia and apraxia, to replace Professor Canter as plaintiff's dissertation director. Plaintiff, however, decided to continue working with Professor Canter.

In the fall of 1985, Professor Canter concluded, after providing academic counseling to plaintiff for a year and a half, that continued academic counseling on his part would not help plaintiff improve her prospectus. He decided that plaintiff's prospectus should be presented to her full dissertation committee for review. Professor Canter convened the committee in the hopes that it would confirm or correct his judgment about plaintiff's work and provide collective guidance to plaintiff. Each of the members of plaintiff's dissertation committee independently reviewed her draft prospectus. Each member concluded that the prospectus had serious flaws and was unacceptable. Plaintiff presented her proposed research and the committee asked her questions. The committee then asked her to leave the room, after which they concluded that plaintiff's prospectus was unacceptable and that plaintiff should be told that there were serious deficiencies which needed to be corrected in order for her to proceed to a successful dissertation. Professor Canter then summarized the committee's conclusions and communicated them to plaintiff.

After this meeting, plaintiff, however, elected to continue working on her chosen topic. She prepared a second draft prospectus on the same topic and submitted it to each committee member. Each member reviewed the draft and met on January 29, 1986, to discuss it. The consensus of the committee was that the latest draft of plaintiff's prospectus was also unacceptable and that it would not lead to a performable dissertation project. Many of the material flaws and omissions in the prospectus that were previously discussed with plaintiff at the November 1985 meeting remained. Plaintiff was informed in detail of the problems with her prospectus by a letter from Professor Canter dated February 4, 1986. The letter restated the advice that the committee gave her in November of 1985. The committee, by this letter, advised plaintiff to pursue a topic other than apraxia because it was clear to the committee that she had not adequately conceptualized research questions and research methods on that topic.

Thereafter, plaintiff asked Professors Logemann and Gregory to convene and attend another meeting because plaintiff felt that the committee did not understand what she was attempting to do. Professors Logemann and Gregory nevertheless granted her request for a third meeting. In addition, plaintiff prevailed upon Professor Logemann prior to the meeting and asked her to review the latest draft of her prospectus. Professor Logemann did so and independently concluded that the draft was unacceptable for a number of reasons. The third meeting to review plaintiff's prospectus occurred on March 17, 1986. Again, the faculty members present deemed plaintiff's work unacceptable. They each concluded that in order for plaintiff to be able to successfully complete a dissertation, she should select a topic other than apraxia.

Despite having been told that she should pursue a topic other than apraxia, plaintiff, submitted a third prospectus on apraxia to Professors Canter and Larson. In June and October of 1986, Professors Gregory and Logemann wrote letters to plaintiff reiterating the previous conclusions and admonitions of the committee concerning her prospectus. In a December 1986 meeting attended by Professors Gregory and Logemann, plaintiff was again informed of deficiencies in her prospectus in writing and told that she should select a topic other than apraxia.

In early 1987, plaintiff accepted the recommendation of the faculty and began to work on a new topic which was the use of acoustic analysis of speech to distinguish between two types of aphasics. For the next year and a half, members of the faculty provided guidance and assistance to plaintiff with respect to this prospectus. She first sought assistance from Professor Carrell. After reviewing an outline of her proposal, he agreed to work with her and to be on her dissertation committee. On Professor Carrell's recommendation, plaintiff also asked Professors Burns, Sapir and Smith to be on her dissertation committee and to review her proposed prospectus. Professor Smith reviewed a number of draft prospectus proposals and sent her a series of lengthy and detailed letters wherein he set forth his criticisms and recommendations for improvement of plaintiff's prospectus. Professors Burns and Sapir relayed their conclusions about plaintiff's draft prospectus to her in conversations with her, and via letters and comments written on her prospectus draft. Each of the abovementioned professors who evaluated plaintiff's draft prospectus on acoustic analysis, found that plaintiff's work was not academically acceptable.

Plaintiff stopped working on her prospectus on acoustic analysis in August of 1988. In September of 1988, she complained to Associate Dean Leila Edwards that she had not received approval from her professors on her prospectuses. In December of 1988, plaintiff submitted a letter to David Cohen, then Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School, complaining about the treatment she had received. Plaintiff accused Professor Canter of having "usurped her idea." She also accused Professor Canter of having asked her "out for drinks" and asked to "spend time with [her]" in 1984 and 1985. At Dean Cohen's request, ...


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