Arbitrary application of arbitrary rules

When there are rules, who decides what they are intended for and how they are applied?

This is a post in a series of Stories From My PhD. For background on this series, read the announcement post.

I have been to a few dozen dissertation defenses over the past decade. As a result of attending PhD defenses on a fairly regular basis with the same folk, their procedures got discussed. A lot.

This story is about a situation where a university's own arbitrary regulations are arbitrarily not applied.

PhD regulations may vary from university to university, but they all follow similar broad strokes. For Dutch universities, I know you can find the PhD regulations easily. For example (and for no particular reason), I looked up and found the PhD regulations of the University of Amsterdam within less than a minute.

I attended local defenses, from the department I was in or of colleagues across the university. It made me intimately familiar with the practical aspects of the formal procedures, that are incredibly arbitrary at times and discriminating at worst.

“Why do they have to start with a prayer?” was not an uncommon question at my alma mater.

“Will the male professors take off their cap” the chair would proclaim without hesitation, leaving non-male professors clearly and logically confused.

Being in the audience, there is time to think and criticize these things. There is no pressure on attending, and honestly, not every defense is as interesting. Not because of skill of the PhD candidate though. Some of the topics simply went way over my head; sometimes the committee asked trivial questions. Questions that were so generic you could predict them based on who was in the committee alone.

Sometimes, all I could do was to think about how an institute’s banal regulations shape the life event of another. A PhD is protocolled from its inception, planning, through to its closing. Oddly enough, the banality of it made me so bored, it was the perfect motivation to make terse legal documents interesting to me all of a sudden. Like when I read the bleach or soap stickers on the toilet.

During one of my boredom expeditions, I stumbled upon this clause in the regulations:

Persons other than the members of the PhD committee present at the defense may interrogate the PhD candidate, provided they have submitted a written request […] at least one week in advance and been granted his permission.

I had heard in discussions before that this existed, but I had not actually read it before. Anyone in the audience could ask questions, save they submitted them prior to the defense! I knew I wanted to ask a question at a PhD defense at least once, as an audience member.

Asking a question at such an important moment means having to get intimately familiar with the person’s work so you can ask a decent question. I joked around to ask a banal question, but never seriously wanted to do that. That would be bullying. It would also be rather obnoxious to do this out of the blue, because I know I tend to ask intense questions (and a defense can be nerve-wracking). So, I asked around with people who’s defense was coming up.

"How would you feel if I submitted a question?"

I only wanted to do this with consent — and I got it in 2017.

"Heck yeah, that's fun!" one of my colleagues responded. I latched on to that yes and got going.

In preparation, I read the entire dissertation, and formulated my question thoughtfully and seriously. I was fairly proud, because it was not my domain of expertise to begin with. The candidate told me the general idea behind my question was interesting (I did not disclose the exact question).

In a more than timely fashion, I sent my question a month in advance to the Director of the Graduate School. All I got back was the following:

This regulation is not meant for questions from the audience. You may not ask your question and the regulations will be amended to reflect that.

The regulation for questions from the audience does not say on what grounds permission may be declined. As a result, that decision can be incredibly arbitrary and may still be valid. What "Persons other than the members of the PhD committee present" means if not also the audience, I do not know.

The PhD regulations did not provide any appeal procedures for this specific scenario. All appeals related to the PhD candidate directly, not to third parties who wanted to apply those same regulations. It felt like the rules were applied arbitrarily and to the convenience of those wielding them. But because this story was intertwined with several other stories from my PhD, I decided to leave it. I did not have the energy to push this.

To this day, the regulation has not been amended (I checked). If you are at my alma mater and want to ask a question as an audience member: Check out Article 9.4.5 and let me know how it goes 😉