Public thesis defenses are illegal in the USA


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.

Thanks to Canadians Alex Bond and Andrea Kirkwood, with whom I discussed private/public defenses on twitter. I can’t tell you anything about Canadian law, are they still a monarchy?

7 thoughts on “Public thesis defenses are illegal in the USA

  1. We’re a constitutional monarchy. Queen is the head of state represented in Canada by the Governor General with an elected parliament. But I don’t think that was your real question.

    In Canada matters of public education are the responsibility of the provinces. So it may be that in some provinces a public defense could be legal, but illegal in others. I did my Masters in New Brunswick and my PhD in Alberta, my MSc. defense was open; the PhD defense was closed.

    • Like most things in the US, regulation is an amalgam of local, state, and federal laws. I was joking about the Queen, just to be clear :) I’m mostly jealous of the constitutional monarchies out there, which seem to have better investments into education, healthcare, and so on. I don’t think it’s because of monarchy, but the antiestablishment fervor that led us to fight ours off doesn’t serve our less advantaged citizens adequately.

  2. I did both an MSc and PhD in Canada. The masters defense was entirely public, but my department had a two stage defense process for the PhD, where the internal defense had a closed examination, and if successful was followed a few weeks later by a public defense that included an external thesis reviewer from another institute. This allowed rigor and privacy for the first stage, and transparency for the big final defense, which I think worked well.

  3. We never really had ‘thesis defenses’ at Berkeley. I guess if you can pass your oral prelims, and produce a signed-off dissertation, you’re in the very-large UCB-PhD club. They did have me do a fifteen-minute public talk in a symposium with other fellow-finishers… but there was no ‘defense’ element; the chance of failure at that point was zero. I think the Berkeley de-valuation of ‘defense’ recognizes the reality that the only thing that really counts these days is pubs and grants- your thesis will definitely be judged, but only by how well it breaks up into publishable or fundable units. A dissertation, to maximize career value, should be, “K papers and a staple,” as one of my grad-profs used to say.

  4. Here in Germany it is certainly the norm that PhD defenses are public, although the university has the right to decide. In most other European countries I have been to it is the same (UK might be an exception).

    I have the feeling that for people here the defense is not so much about the grade, but about defending your research in public (usually not only the thesis committee, but also all other researchers present can ask questions, although this right is seldom used).

    I think a public defense is actually in favor of the candidates – friends and colleagues are usually there, often the family – the defense committee doesn’t want to be especially nasty in this situation.

  5. I think it’s important to distinguish what forms part of the “defence”. My experience at three PhD-granting universities is that the oral presentation, and Q&A are open to all, then the examiners go in camera (even the candidate leaves), they deliberate, usually briefly, and then come and get the candidate to tell them the results.

    But the oral portion is usually a formality, as examiners must tick a box when they submit their written comments on the thesis that indicates they think the thesis is ready for defence. If it’s not, it’s turned back, and the candidate must revise & resubmit. So the oral component really has little weight. I don’t know if there’s an actual grading weight applied to it vs. the written component or Q&A to determine whether the thesis passes, or if it’s like smut – one knows it when one sees it ;)

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