Let anyone who claims that student due process rights in higher education don’t matter stand witness to Katie Kickertz, who came within 15 minutes of graduating from dental school before being effectively extorted and expelled, and who earned a second dental degree while her lawsuit was pending.
We see many awful cases here at FIRE—cases where students or professors are treated so badly that it’s hard not to get angry. Today, however, we have a case so awful that it gives the infamous Hayden Barnes case a run for its money. It involves the expulsion of a dental student at my alma mater, New York University (NYU). The story is lengthy and will be broken up into two blogs. Today, the facts of the underlying conduct will be explored. Later this week, we will take a look at the due process violations relating to Kickertz’s expulsion "hearing."
In October, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, issued a decision in In re Katie Kickertz v. New York University, 952 N.Y.S.2d 147 (N.Y. App. Div. 2012). The facts of the case are shocking, so let me preface with good news: The appellate court took the rather unusual step of vacating Kickertz’s expulsion, essentially ordering NYU to give Kickertz her dental and undergraduate degrees. The suit was covered in the New York Post, which reports that Kickertz has, in the three years since the events took place, earned a replacement bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and dental degree from Indiana University.
On the night before her graduation from NYU’s dental program, Kickertz received an email from Dr. Harry Meeker, her group practice director, ominously calling into question her graduation the next day: "[Y]ou still owe me something." The next day, May 26, 2009, 15 minutes before she was scheduled to graduate, Meeker informed Kickertz that she had insufficient Practice Model Values (PMV) credits to graduate.
For a moment (if you can), set aside the fact that the first time Kickertz was informed that she needed extra PMV credits was on the day of her graduation. What are PMV credits? Essentially, NYU requires students to generate revenue, allegedly to provide professional experience. The revenue-generation aspect is generally masked by making the requirement time-based; dental students must perform a certain number of clinic hours of treatment to actual dental patients. At NYU, however, there was no bones about it: this was a dollar requirement. (NYU has since changed its policy to an hour requirement.)
Kickertz met with Meeker and Ivan Cornejo (the clinic manager) at a post-graduation reception. There, she was told that she was required to generate $21,000 for the dental school and that she had "only" generated $19,093.
With such short notice, Kickertz was distraught. Less than a week after she ought to have graduated, she had a suggestion for Meeker: Her family members would purchase at-home bleaching treatments to make up the revenue shortfall. Apparently, other students in Katie’s situation had been allowed to have their family make up revenue shortfalls. In an email to Meeker, Kickertz’s panic is apparent:
I am sick with grief from this situation. I have started my orientation in Boston and cannot return, nor do I have any patients to treat at NYU. I was finishing up my patients in April and in May. I had Invisalign and [oral surgery] consultations with patients and several disappointments. The only major treatment I could’ve done was on my bridge patient because he needs a total of 3 FPDs. This was the patient that you said I could not do another bridge on because there are others who needed that requirement . . . Additionally, I have been dealing with medical issues the past couple months. I am a deeply private person and did not wish to discuss this. It has been very hard and I do not want sympathy. When I checked my requirements back a few weeks ago I was fine . . . I do not know if some procedures were entered incorrectly but now I do not have enough of the PMV which I thought I did. If this was the case I certainly would not have been okay with doing only consultation and[ ] referrals and disappointments the past few weeks. I have to be in MA to start my training but I also need to graduate. I worked hard over the past four years and tried very hard to not cause any problems and follow the guidelines. I worked hard to get accepted into a specialty program and I hope with all my heart that all this hard work does slip away [sic]. I regret deeply that this has happened and need your help. I would pay the school back the money that I did not earn for treatment if needed. I am stuck between a rock and a hard place. I have 11 family members in Illinois that are willing to help me by purchasing the at-home bleaching treatments, which at $175 each for 11 people would be $1925 and would put me over the needed PMV. . . . PLEASE email me asap [sic] if this will work."
A few days later, Kickertz met with Meeker again in person, this time with David Hershkowitz, another NYU dental instructor. Meeker told Kickertz what turns out to be a key fact—that by calling the clinic directly to resolve the issue, and by emailing, Kickertz had somehow inadvertently alerted Meeker’s boss, Dr. Mark Wolff, that Kickertz had a revenue shortfall. Now that official procedure was implicated, it seems that Kickertz had to be made into an example. While other students had been allowed to have their families purchase at-home bleaching treatments to meet their revenue quotas, Kickertz would not be allowed to do so, because she was embarrassing Meeker, and the situation "would reflect poorly on him in his upcoming performance review."
Rather than having her family make up the revenue shortfall, Kickertz was allegedly instructed to simply pay the $2,000 out-of-pocket and fill out forms as if she had performed dental work for patients. NYU disputes this, but it does not dispute that Hershkowitz’s secretary accepted $200 cash and an $1,850 credit card payment from Kickertz for something. And that was the end of the story: student prevented from graduating 15 minutes before the ceremony, then shaken down for $2,050.
Just kidding—there’s more. One month later, in July 2009, Kickertz received a letter that an ethics board had convened, found her guilty of falsifying patient records (remember, she had simply paid the money, but it was supposed to come from dental treatment) and recommended that she be expelled. Let me make this eminently clear in case it’s confusing: Kickertz claims she was told by Meeker, the person who was preventing her from graduating, to pay cash money to make her problem go away. When she complied, she was found guilty of disciplinary infractions, providing a second, independent cover for NYU to expel her. Talk about a bait-and-switch.
While all this was going on, Kickertz went back to the NYU clinic and completed her revenue-generation requirement less than two weeks after she should have graduated, on June 8, 2009. Still, Assistant Dean Anthony Palatta informed Kickertz that she "needed to keep coming to clinic and continue treating patients to earn even more PMV," which she did, ultimately generating $23,648, or $2,648 more than was required. Finally, after seven years of exemplary work as an NYU undergraduate and graduate student, after hundreds of thousands of dollars, and after completing every academic requirement for graduation, Kickertz was informed by Dean Palatta on October 7, 2009, that she had been expelled with no possibility of readmission. Kickertz wasn’t even granted her undergraduate degree, since she had been enrolled in a joint undergraduate and graduate program.
As I said at the outset, the story is shocking, and if these were the only facts, the case would be horrifying. However, there are numerous violations of Kickertz’s contractual due process by NYU that make the case even more disturbing. Tune in later this week for more.