In the United States, PhD students defend their thesis with a public presentation. After this presentation (or sometimes, on another day), the student has a private session with the dissertation committee to evaluate whether the student earned a doctorate.
This practice is legal.
In some other countries — and in some departments in the United States as well — the doctoral students are evaluated by their committees publicly after their thesis defense talk. I’m not naming departments in this post, though several have been brought to my attention in recent days.
In the US, this practice is illegal.
Public oral examinations violate FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Just as it is illegal to post the grades of students with personally identifying information (without prior consent), it’s illegal to administer an oral exam with spectators. I’m not a lawyer, but my reading of the plain-language summary of the bill is mighty unambiguous.
For a thesis defense to be legal, everybody needs to be directed to leave once the public presentation is finished. Alternatively, the student and the committee retreat to a private area for the evaluation.
As long as the defense is genuine, in which student performance is being evaluated, and there a nonzero (though infinitesimal) probability of failure, then it cannot be public unless the student has specifically waived privacy.
I understand that the public grilling of doctoral candidates may be a time-honored tradition. If a student isn’t prepared to have their thesis publicly grilled, then the student shouldn’t be allowed to advance to this stage of the process. However, the public evaluation of the candidate’s performance for work towards the degree is simply straight-up illegal. There are a variety of legitimate reasons that a student may have for wanting to keep the evaluation process private.
When rights protected by FERPA have been violated, students may not sue the institution for damages. However, the overt violation of FERPA can threaten federal funding. Departments that publicly evaluate the performance of doctoral candidates in public are, at least in theory, putting the university at risk.
My have my own misgivings about public defenses as a faculty member, though it’s not about privacy. It has to do with the rigor of the process. While having a public defense might be seen as transparent and a sign of rigor, on the other hand it also can inhibit the members of the committee from providing an adequate evaluation. While there is a stereotype that professors can be vicious with arrogant questions and out to take students down a notch to inflate their own egos, these individuals aren’t that common. More often, committee members may be concerned about the appearance of collegiality and don’t want to be seen as unfairly attacking an unprepared student. If a student hasn’t truly done the work meeting the standard for the doctorate, the levy of that assessment would be unnecessarily cruel in public. Inadequate theses shouldn’t ever come to the defense stage. But by a product of flawed personalities and bad politics, this happens at times. A private defense might be the best way to deal with these occasions. Of course, a private defense also can cause an overstuffed committee member to unfairly sabotage a candidate. That is a flaw in the prevailing model in the US.
I don’t know which one is better. But I do know which one is legal.