Graduate students in America live like ancient monks: they subside primarily off of stale noodles and rice, in constant fear that bureaucratic politics or the whims of their superiors will end their careers at a moment’s notice. They spend a little time researching and a lot of time inflating egos and toiling in drudgery, too overwhelmed with the full professors’ work to complete their dissertations.

Part of the problem arises from the nature of academia. As the eminent physicist Max Planck said decades ago, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The old guard will also look unfavorably upon any threat to their intellectual hegemony; most graduate students learn quickly to think what they like but to act like everyone else, feigning unwavering support for their advisors’ pet theories. Part of the problem arises from the total absence of accountability in academia, and the acceptance across many disciplines that graduate students are unpaid laborers who can be terminated at will rather than grant-supported students who represent the next generation of higher education.

It’s not like the dismal state of graduate studies is a big secret. The creator of PhD Comics (a.k.a. “Piled Higher and Deeper”) makes a living out of lampooning it. Earlier this week an email at an Astronomy PhD program was leaked (more here at Slashdot); helpful advice for succeeding with a stipend of around $20,000 annually includes, “We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity.” It’s not a recent problem; one widely circulated letter from a Chemistry professor to his post-doctoral researcher in 1996 warned, “I have noticed that you have failed to come in to lab on several weekends, and more recently have failed to show up in the evenings.” To many universities, graduate programs are a for-profit racket not unlike medical residency.

Unfortunately, there’s a certain segment of the population — comprised mostly of people who hold tenure of some sort, like full professors, federal judges, and prominent newspaper columnists — that believes graduate students are insufficiently obsequious and afraid, and that academic freedom is in great peril when a professor can’t destroy a student’s career for some sort of grave “fault,” like being a girl (despite Title IX). 
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As a Yale alum, I was shocked and horrified by the death of Annie Le, a Yale School of Medicine student murdered just a week before her own wedding. Like the Petit family murders, the crime was just a depraved act by a stranger, despite attempts by some to downplay it as a “crime of passion” or “workplace violence,” as if any rape-murder were less evil if the perpetrator had delusions of attachment at the time of the crime or if they happened to be employed by the same company. She was targeted and it was murder; we know that from the guilty plea. It may have been sexual assault, too; Raymond Clark submitted an Alford plea to that.

Last week, just before the statute of limitations for negligence would run, Le’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Yale:

The estate of former pharmacology student Annie Le GRD ’13 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University in New Haven Superior Court on Tuesday, alleging that pervasive sexual harrassment at the University “emboldened” her killer, Raymond Clark III, who is serving a 44-year sentence for the murder and who the suit claims was hired through Yale’s negligence.

The complaint is here. While I can understand why the estate’s lawyers, Joseph Tacopina (Greenfield, who knows him, has a bit more about him here) and Paul Slager, want to tie Le’s death to the Title IX problems at Yale and thereby generally show university indifference to women’s safety, I don’t see that serving as enough of a factual basis for an independent legal claim. There’s no clear causal connection between Yale’s sexual harassment / sexual assault policies and Le’s death; as far as I’ve seen, Le never filed any sort of sexual harassment or sexual assault claim at the school, so it’s hard to claim that, if those policies had been better, she wouldn’t have been murdered.

Although there’s technically an inadequate security claim in there arising from the security of the building and the failure to search for Le, I don’t see the causal connection there: from all accounts, it seems that, if they had searched earlier, they just would have found Le’s body earlier, rather than preventing the attack.

The strongest claim is predicated on the hiring of Clark himself, and that claim has a bit more behind it and a much closer connection to her death:

The complaint alleges that Yale was negligent in its screening of Clark, who had shown “a violent propensity towards women” before he was hired in 2004. As police began to investigate his possible involvement in Le’s death in mid-September 2009, the New Haven Independent reported that Clark forced his high school girlfriend to have sex with him when they were students …

In addition to Clark’s records, the suit alleges Yale had access to information about Clark’s violent past because the University also employed Clark’s sister and brother-in-law as laboratory technicians in the 10 Amistad St. building where Le was killed. Those two employees were both “well aware” of Clark’s past behavior given their relationship to him, the suit claims.

This sort of negligent hiring claim isn’t novel. The primary case in that field is Ponticas v. KMS Investments, 331 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. 1983). It wasn’t the first, but it’s probably the most frequently cited, and it set the path for tort liability where an employer is alleged to have negligently hired a dangerous or incompetent person:

Liability is predicated on the negligence of an employer in placing a person with known propensities, or propensities which should have been discovered by reasonable investigation, in an employment position in which, because of the circumstances of the employment, it should have been foreseeable that the hired individual posed a threat of injury to others.

Connecticut’s appellate court has already adopted the same theory in Seguro v. Cummiskey, 82 Conn.App. 186 (2004):

A review of case law in other jurisdictions reveals that employers may be directly liable for the negligent hiring, retention or supervision of an employee who, through a tortious act, injures a third party. See, e.g., Island City Flying Service v. General Electric Credit Corp., 585 So. 2d 274, 276 (Fla. 1991)(“employer is liable for the willful tort of his employee committed against a third person if he knew or should have known that the employee was a threat to others”); Henley v. Prince George’s County, 305 Md. 320, 336, 503 A.2d 1333 (1986) (employer has duty to use reasonable care to select employees competent and fit for work assigned to them); Ponticas v.K.M.S. Investments, 331 N.W.2d 907, 910 (Minn. 1983) (“person injured by a negligently retained employee may recover damages from the employer”); Di Cosala v. Kay, 91 N.J. 159, 170-71, 450 A.2d 508 (1982) (“employer whose employees are brought into contact with members of the public in the course of their employment is responsible for exercising a duty of reasonable care in the selection or retention of its employees”); Soares v. Ann & Hope of Rhode Island, Inc., 637 A.2d 339, 346 (R.I. 1994) (recognizing “`direct liability of an employer to third parties who are injured by acts of unfit, incompetent, or unsuitable employees’”); Welsh Mfg. v. Pinkerton’s, Inc., 474 A.2d 436, 440 (R.I. 1984) (“employer may be directly liable for wrongful acts of its negligently hired employee”); J. v. Victory Tabernacle Baptist Church, 236 Va. 206, 208-209, 372 S.E.2d 391 (1988) (recognizing tort of negligent hiring).

Unfortunately, it looks like a hard sell for the Le estate.
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