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At Harvard, extraordinary court battle between Ph.D. student and prominent researcher grinds on

Earlier this year, ScienceInsider reported on a dispute between a graduate student and a prominent biomedical researcher at Harvard University that escalated into an unusual legal confrontation. The chain of events included the student’s allegation of misconduct against the researcher, a forced mental exam of the student, and an extraordinary court order preventing the scientist from working in his laboratory while the student is present. (You can learn all the details in our 18 January story.) Since that story, the conflict between Gustavo German, a Harvard doctoral student in biomedicine, and Lee Rubin, a prominent stem cell researcher, has continued to evolve. Alison McCook, the editor of Retraction Watch who wrote the original story, provides this update:

Amid continued legal jousting, the situation has remained difficult for all of the parties involved in this tumultuous episode.  Nearly a year after Elizabeth Fahey, a Justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, ordered Harvard in August 2016 to allow German to work in Rubin’s lab to complete the final months of his degree, German still does not have his Ph.D.—and Harvard has moved to kick him out of the university.

German says he was able to make some progress toward his degree this past February and March, but that came to a halt over disagreements about who would serve as German’s dissertation adviser. This past April, that dispute led Harvard to place him on academic probation, and on 16 May it withdrew him from the university, saying he had violated the terms of the probation.  Afraid that the withdrawal would expose him to deportation, German—an Argentine citizen in the United States on a student visa—filed an emergency motion with the court after he was put on probation. On 31 May, Fahey ruled that Harvard could not notify federal authorities about German’s immigration status, nor respond to federal authorities’ requests about it.

German also went to court to challenge other actions by Harvard, including the posting of security guards at Rubin’s laboratory, that he argued had hindered his academic advancement. On 7 July, Fahey issued a revised order, essentially reiterating the rules she established last year and scolding the university for not complying. “All German has sought is the chance to resume his research and continue his work in the same position he was in prior to the harassment by Rubin,” Fahey wrote in her order. “It appears to this court that as of today, ten months after this court ordered just such relief for German, Harvard and Rubin continue to frustrate German’s efforts.” 

Things are far from settled. On 10 July, Harvard filed a request for a stay on Fahey’s ruling with the Massachusetts Appeals Court, which granted it. In its motion, Harvard argued that there is always security on campus, and members of the Rubin lab were concerned for their safety. It further noted that the court’s mandate it reinstate German was an “unprecedented and unwarranted intrusion by the trial court into Harvard’s academic decision-making.” (A spokesperson for Harvard declined to comment further.)

As of this writing, Harvard has not reinstated German as a student. Rubin is appealing the 7 July order, and German has filed oppositions to the stay.