Rejected Chinese history Ph.D. applicant files federal lawsuit

Elizabeth Ruggiero, a 44-year-old Massachusetts woman with multiple sclerosis, has sued Yale in federal court for age and disability discrimination after being denied admission to the University’s Ph.D. program for Chinese history.


Although University policy typically limits the discussion of individual admissions decisions, Yale officials have denied that Ruggiero’s age or disability were factors in her rejection from the highly competitive program. Yale’s program, which typically accepts one to three applicants per year, is consistently ranked first or second among comparable programs nationwide. But Ruggiero, a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese who earned her Master of Arts degree in Asian Studies at Harvard, said few candidates possess comparable academic qualifications.


“If I was younger and I didn’t have any physical limitations, it would have been a much different story,” Ruggiero said.


Ruggiero, who served as an East Asian tour guide and has lived in China, started a Chinese language instruction program at a high school near her hometown of Cambridge, Mass. last year. She has also run a Chinese translation service for nearly a decade.


But Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky noted that the U.S. Office of Civil Rights dismissed Ruggiero’s complaint during the pretrial arbitration process, and she said the University is prepared to defend itself.


“Admissions to Yale are very competitive, and without commenting on Ms. Ruggerio, many candidates with strong aspects of their background are turned away,” Klasky said in a statement. “The government does not have, nor does it claim to have, the right to set admissions standards for institutions receiving federal funding. It does have the right to enforce civil rights laws, including nondiscrimination requirements, and we support that.”


Still, William Palmieri, a New Haven civil rights lawyer who is representing Ruggiero, said his client’s qualifications leave no academic rationale for her rejection.


“She would have made an absolutely perfect candidate,” Palmieri said.


Palmieri said Ruggiero’s story is not unique. Statistics provided by the University indicate that its graduate programs accepted roughly 14 percent of all applicants between in the past six years, but only 5 percent of those accepted were older than 40, he said.


Yale General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said she could not comment on specifics with a court date pending, but denied the allegations of discrimination. No history professors specializing in East Asian Studies agreed to comment on the pending lawsuit, but some stressed that competition for the program is steep.


Although Ruggiero was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the onset of adulthood, she said her physical limitations are minimal and would not affect her work. She is not confined to a wheelchair, says she “manages” on her own under a doctor’s care, and would only request that Yale ensure her a handicapped parking space for quicker access to buildings.


Arney Rosenblat, Public Affairs Director at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said although she supports antidiscrimination claims made by anyone with the disease, such suits are typically extremely thorny.


“It’s very hard to unravel these issues,” Rosenblat said. “If someone is not hired, or if someone is replaced from a job, is it because MS has played a role in it, or is because they can’t do the work?”


Ruggiero’s lawsuit seeks financial reparation and admission to the program — she will attend if she prevails in her suit — but she said she also wants to set an example.


“Age discrimination is really a law that’s been swept under the rug in many cases,” she said. “Why should [college admission] just be exclusive to an 18-year-old as opposed to an 80-year-old? The attitude is they’re not as useful.”


Although Yale is a private university, Palmieri cited the ongoing federal investigation into University accounting practices and the recent battle against the Solomon Amendment, spearheaded by Yale Law School professors, as reminders that the University remains subject to conditions of the federal law — including the influence of antidiscrimination law on admissions criteria.


The Solomon case ended in March with a decisive victory for governmental authority over private universities that accept federal funding. In that case, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts held that institutions willing to accept such funds could be required, without violation of its First Amendment rights, to provide equal access to military recruiters.


Although Ruggiero might have some momentum from these recent events, from a technical perspective, her suit may be difficult to win. Precedent for an individual to sue a private university for admission –especially on the basis of age — is not extensive.


Robert Post, a Law School professor with particular expertise in affirmative action matters, said courts typically treat universities with extraordinary deference. Post cited the landmark affirmative action decision of Grutter v. Bollinger, which he said includes admissions criteria among the academic freedoms of higher education.


In the filed complaint, Palmieri alleges that Yale violated three antidiscrimination statutes enacted by Congress during the early 1970s: the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, the Rehabilitation Act, and Title IX.


Post said while these antidiscrimination acts have been readily used in issues of employment discrimination, admissions are less typically applied to this act. He said applicability of relevant statues presents the first question for lawyers on both sides to answer.


According to the Age Discrimination Act, “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of age, be excluded from participation in … any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” The act includes “a college, university, or other postsecondary education” as one definition of a ‘program or activity’ liable to be sued.


The Rehabilitation Act is less explicit, but it does call for programs receiving financial assistance to adhere to the principle of “inclusion, integration, and full participation of the individuals” with physical limitations.


But regardless of past interpretations, Palmieri said Ruggiero’s case will clarify the application of these laws to a university framework.


“If there’s not precedent, Elizabeth Ruggiero is the perfect person to set such precedent,” Palmieri said. “This is really kind of cutting edge law.”


Yale has several weeks to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed in Connecticut’s federal district court on July 28.

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