Ex-PhD candidate sues advisor, school: Colorado prof “poisoned the well” after research dispute

A former University of Colorado Boulder graduate student is suing his ex-advisor for defamation after being shooed out midway through his doctoral program.

Robert Roscow says he had to leave CU Boulder’s department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO) in the fall of 2016 with only a master’s degree after fish evolution researcher David Stock dropped him as a student. Their relationship deteriorated following a dispute about whether another student should perform experiments Roscow considered to be essential to his dissertation.

Once dropped, Roscow was offered the chance to find another advisor, but never did. In his complaint, filed April 25 in Boulder County District Court, Roscow claims he has evidence that Stock “poisoned the well” by badmouthing him in email and in person to other professors, ultimately preventing Roscow from completing his degree.

As first reported by BusinessDen, Roscow is also suing CU Boulder for a breach of contract and for failing to “provide [him] with the reasonable opportunity to pursue his PhD,” among other allegations. 

CU Boulder declined to elaborate on the case. Chief Spokesperson Ryan Huff told us:

We are reviewing the complaint. Until we’ve had a chance to fully assess it, we can’t offer any comment on this pending litigation.

Neither Roscow nor his lawyers, Jon Banashek and Jason Pink of Berg Hill Greenleaf Ruscitti, responded to our requests for comment. Stock was similarly unresponsive.

The court documents only present Roscow’s version of events, which goes something like this: In the fall of 2012, Roscow began working on a master’s degree with Stock, then transferred into the EBIO doctoral program a year later. Things were running smoothly until around the spring of 2015, when Roscow alleges his advisor “embarked upon a scheme” to use Roscow’s data and ideas: 

As part of this scheme, [Stock] began to give research work to [an undergraduate] that [Stock] knew [Roscow] was planning on performing as part of his dissertation.

Roscow complained to Stock, which began a series of escalating confrontations. In December 2015, Stock resigned as Roscow’s advisor, on the eve of a major exam that would determine whether Roscow could continue his pursuit of a PhD. Roscow never got to take the test.

After several months treading water, Roscow thought he had found a new advisor, Andrew Martin, who shared an interest in genetics. In the intervening period, the department created a new rule, requiring students to replace a lost advisor within one semester.

According to the lawsuit:

This policy did not exist at the time [Roscow] enrolled in the PhD program, and the EBIO Regulations at that time contained no provisions requiring students to replace advisors or leave the program in the event an advisor stepped down.

Before long, according to the suit, Martin reversed course and set Roscow adrift once more. Roscow got an extension over the summer and early fall to find yet another advisor, but never did. In his view, it was because of his former advisor, Stock, the suit alleges:

Stock made defamatory statements about [Roscow] to other professors in the department with the malicious intent to “poison the well,” and prevented [Roscow] from finding another co-advisor, thereby preventing him from completing the PhD program.

The court documents do not list a specific amount in damages, but Roscow — still listed in the EBIO website as a current graduate student — claims the combined actions of Stock and the university have caused him mental anguish and future earnings worth more than $100,000.

We’ll update this story as more information becomes available, either from the parties or the court. The next official action is slated to take place June 26.

Update, 2200 UTC, 8/30/20: We have removed the court documents from our site because it is now clear that they contain numerous unsupported allegations. While they remain on file in the court system, having them discoverable here is unfair to those who are the subject of those allegations.

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13 thoughts on “Ex-PhD candidate sues advisor, school: Colorado prof “poisoned the well” after research dispute”

  1. According to the lawsuit:

    “This policy did not exist at the time [Roscow] enrolled in the PhD program, and the EBIO Regulations at that time contained no provisions requiring students to replace advisors or leave the program in the event an advisor stepped down.”

    This doesn’t sound right.

    “Their relationship deteriorated following a dispute about whether another student should perform experiments Roscow considered to be essential to his dissertation.”

    Doesn’t a Professor get to decide how the research in his lab gets done and by whom?

    Students have to maintain steady progress towards the degree. They can’t for example just take a year off (with or without a stipend?) – not show up and expect to remain in a program.

    NOT a lawyer disclaimer, but Professors have an academic responsibility to provide assessments of their current and former students in class, in a grad program and for recommendations, etc. Is a bad recommendation defamation? Badmouthing?

    1. “Doesn’t a Professor get to decide how the research in his lab gets done and by whom?”

      Hm, an unconditional “yes” when it comes to technicians, or employers in an industry setting. But grad students are supposed to mount and manage their own research project, and so I think they have some power to decide, especially if they want to graduate before the funding finishes.

    2. “They can’t for example just take a year off (with or without a stipend?) – not show up and expect to remain in a program.”

      Where do you get that from?

    3. I doubt you can make a blanket statement saying all Profs can control everything in the lab. My Prof didn’t design my experiments, didn’t run them, didn’t get the external funding and definitely couldn’t make the call alone on what happens with the data given they played a tiny part in getting it. We made an agreement from day 1 that they would mentor, provide a position and advice and I would carry out my experiments and we would work together on making them papers. we kept a good dialogue up about it during the who PhD and it seemed to work well.

      “Students have to maintain steady progress towards the degree. They can’t for example just take a year off (with or without a stipend?) – not show up and expect to remain in a program”.
      Nothing in this piece points to this being the case. Why do you bring it up? Have you evidence suggesting it is relevant? Otherwise it is just throwing speculation in for the hell of it.

    4. “Doesn’t a Professor get to decide how the research in his lab gets done and by whom?”

      If it is the professor’s funding we are talking about, then yes I suppose the professor “gets to decide”. But it is not always the professor’s grant money that supports his/her students. Even when it is, though, a graduate education should encourage the involvement of the student on the “deciding” part.

      I’d go so far as to say that once a person is beyond a master’s level of proficiency, most of the “deciding” should be left to them, with only the mentor providing support and advice. If the professor makes all of these decisions, then what do we end up with as a final product?

      Answer: A person with a PhD that needs a nursemaid when he/she goes to work.

  2. This is giving me bad flashbacks. I had a similar experience, on a similar time frame (kicked out after years in a lab), including the badmouthing, but I did finish my PhD. It’s hard to pass any judgment, given the “your word against mine” nature of this dispute. My thoughts are:

    – I agree that a professor has the right to decide who is in his/her lab and what experiments are done. But it doesn’t mean that the student should have no say, after spending presumably years on a project, or that a professor should be able to kick someone out without any accountability.

    – I think the department should have helped the student. It does seem very strange that they let him languish. They could have used their power to encourage a professor to take him on. This is basically what happened for me, I think.

  3. CompuEmologist – it gives me flashbacks too. I spent two years trying to do a PhD that was doomed from the start with a supervisor who was useless – they dismissed my (very legitimate) concerns, didn’t give any support and just left me to flounder. I was unable to show sufficient progress after that time and my funding stopped, but even if they’d let me continue I’d decided I’d had enough. I discussed lodging a formal complaint against my supervisor but was told it wouldn’t do anything except probably mark me down as a troublemaker, so I decided to just leave and move on.

    While it’s a shame that legal routes such as those described in the post are having to be pursued, it may be necessary to start making universities take supervision seriously. The time and money people invest in PhDs is significant and if a supervisor isn’t up to the job then they shouldn’t be allowed to supervise.

    1. Sam, that’s an awful story. Yes, this is what I’ve been saying, the current system makes it so that the student/postdoc’s word has no value at all, and the supervisor has no accountability, for example https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/feb/10/i-was-made-redundant-after-having-a-baby-i-worry-i-wont-find-another-job

      Because of lawsuits, in the private sector, it seems harder to fire someone, and you generally have to show that it was not just a personal dispute.

      1. Lawsuits can have an impact, but due to both the complexities of employment and educational law they are limited in scope. I also think litigation in these areas is minimal because the potential financial awards are very often little to nothing, even when someone “wins”.

        I am very much in favor of what I call the “day light” approach. We live in the digital/ electronic age. Information- and more specifically, knowledge, is power. There are faculty who are notoriously incompetent and/ or nearly impossible to work with. We all know who they are once we have been with a given institution for some period of time.

        Academia suffers as the Catholic Church once did in that academia labors to conceal and hide the offenders and their offenses. The downside of tenure is that it creates an inbred system where the “good people” (i.e., those who are competent and productive) often shield the bad apples by saying and doing nothing to curtail the bad behavior. The reality is, no one wants to become involved in the ugliness of firing someone with tenure.

        Sharing information online is one very powerful way of addressing these problems. So long as a person does not report false information or issue any threats of violence, you can report whatever you wish online, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop you. I believe if we ever reach a point where everyone is comfortable in identifying the bad actors to the public, then academia will change. But for now, there is simply no incentive for them to protect vulnerable graduate students.

    2. supervisors who can’t supervise generally dont have much of a career, since their students will get nothing done, their grants will not be funded, and they will not get tenure.

  4. Huh, fancy that. Who’d a thunk, really. The “advisor stepping down” routine has not only gotten old, but it is an abuse, period. If a student has adhered to the lawful requirements of a program, then that should be all that is required to remain in a program. That we continue to allow faculty to disrupt the lives of hard-working students just because they have a difference of opinion with that person, or do not care for someone’s brand of humor, or whatever is simply ridiculous. The time is long past due for our faculty to “suck it up,” and accept that life isn’t always fair. Sometimes we make decisions (like accepting a grad student) and later regret it because of any number of potential conflicts. But the truth is, as long as that student performs adequately, you have a duty to serve that student. It’s an education, not a beauty contest.

  5. The other side of this is that there are sometimes grad students that have an exaggerated sense of their own abilities and rights to autonomy. Fortunately this is rare but I have experienced quite serious problems with two or three over the years. In my field, research is costly, and I obtain funding to carry it out at great personal expense and effort. When funding is limited, decisions on how to spend it for best effect are critical and can only really be made by me, as they affect the jobs and careers of multiple people, not just one aggrieved student. In the best cases, decisions can involve collegial discussions with engaged and respectful students, but it is never appropriate for someone to be insisting on their right to spend my research money in the way that they want, without consultation. I have seen students to come to the view that spending more on expensive assays, sequencing, materials etc…is an easy route to ensure a “better” thesis, and it is then a short step to believing that if I do not endorse a particular approach then they are being disadvantaged and victimized. The sense of entitlement and lack of perspective that can develop around this can make them very difficult to deal with, to the point that it is destabilizing to the entire group. Significantly, it has also been my experience that such people are also very likely to know the absolute letter of their rights and adopt a litigious mindset. Unfortunately, universities rarely support the academic as they enter damage control mode. I am not dismissing the valid view that there are some very exploitative/uninterested/incompetent advisors out there, but there is another side to these issues. So lets have some respect for the long and difficult road walked by many a professor/advisor who has built a respected research program and is genuinely aiming to do their best for their group members.

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