Alaska Supreme Court Opinions made Available by Touch N' Go Systems and Bright Solutions

Touch N' Go, the DeskTop In-and-Out Board makes your office run smoother. Visit Touch N' Go's Website.
  This site is possible because of the following site sponsors. Please support them with your business.

You can search the entire site. or go to the recent opinions, or the chronological or subject indices. Hunt v. University of Alaska Fairbanks (8/9/2002) sp-5605

Hunt v. University of Alaska Fairbanks (8/9/2002) sp-5605

     Notice:   This opinion is subject to correction  before
     publication  in  the  Pacific  Reporter.   Readers  are
     requested to bring errors to the attention of the Clerk
     of  the  Appellate  Courts, 303  K  Street,  Anchorage,
     Alaska 99501, phone (907) 264-0608, fax (907) 264-0878.


WILLIAM HUNT,                                )
                              )    Supreme Court No. S-10115
             Appellant,                 )
                              )    Superior Court No.
     v.                       )    4FA-00-634 CI
UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA,              )    O P I N I O N
FAIRBANKS,                    )
                              )    [No. 5605 - August 9, 2002]
             Appellee.                  )

          Appeal  from the Superior Court of the  State
          of    Alaska,   Fourth   Judicial   District,
          Fairbanks, Mark I. Wood, Superior Court Judge
          Pro Tem.

          Appearances:   William Hunt,  pro  se,  North
          Pole.   Paul B. Eaglin, University of  Alaska
          Office of the General Counsel, Fairbanks, for

          Before:     Fabe,  Chief  Justice,  Matthews,
          Eastaugh, Bryner, and Carpeneti, Justices.

          CARPENETI, Justice.


          I.    William Hunt applied for and was denied  outright

admission  to the Elementary Education Program by the  School  of

Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  Instead, he was

granted  conditional acceptance.  After he was unable to  fulfill

the  conditions  of his acceptance, the university  removed  Hunt

from his student teaching class.  Hunt appealed this decision  to

the  university academic appeals committee, which found that  the

School  of  Education  acted  in accordance  with  its  published

guidelines  for  admission.  Hunt then appealed to  the  superior

court,   which  upheld  the  decision  of  the  academic  appeals

committee  and  awarded the university $3,000 in attorneys  fees.

Because  the university complied with its regulations in  denying

Hunt admission, we affirm that decision.


          William   Hunt  is  an  aspiring  elementary  education

teacher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).  After being

injured  while working as a mechanic in 1995,  Hunt  enrolled  at

UAF  using  his  workers compensation benefits  to  pay  for  his

education.   When his workers compensation benefits  ended,  Hunt

relied  on  temporary public assistance to pay for his  education

and the expenses of raising his children as a single parent.  Due

to  the constraints of the welfare program, Hunt needed to obtain

his degree by May 2000.

          In early 1999, Hunt applied for admission to the School

of  Education (SOE) at UAF, three years after first enrolling  at

the  university, as is customary for elementary education majors.

Admittance  to  the  SOE is required for an elementary  education

major  to  take  the methods block1 and student teaching  classes

(the  so-called professional year) needed to obtain  a  bachelors

degree in education.

          While  Hunt  apparently excelled in  math  and  science

classes,  his  language and reading skills  were  not  nearly  as

strong.   The committee of faculty members who reviewed  his  SOE

application (which consisted of his transcripts, recommendations,

and  timed and untimed writing samples) rated his writing  skills

as  marginal  at best.  Rather than rejecting Hunt outright,  the

committee  recommended that Hunt be allowed to  take  the  Praxis

exam,  a  test of basic reading, writing, and math skills,  after

which a decision on his acceptance into the SOE would be made.

          When Hunt entered UAF, the Praxis exam was not required

for  admission to the SOE.  In 1998, the state began  to  require

passing scores on the Praxis exam for teacher certification.   In

the  2000-2001  UAF catalog, students were, for the  first  time,

required  to report their Praxis scores to the SOE when  applying

for admission to the elementary education program.

          Hunt took the Praxis exam in spring 1999 and failed the

reading and writing portions.  The SOE informed Hunt that, unless

he  retook  and  passed the Praxis exam, he would  be  unable  to

proceed into his professional year.  As he did not believe he was

required  to  take the exam under his catalog year2 of  1996-1997

and  the  exam  was offered only in Anchorage that  summer,  Hunt

requested  a waiver of the exam.  Hunt was eventually  granted  a

partial  waiver  that allowed him to take the Fall  1999  methods

classes  on  the conditions that he pass the Praxis  exam  before

beginning student teaching in Spring 2000 and that he attend  the

Writing Center at UAF to further develop his language skills.

          Hunt  took  the  exam again in Fall 1999  but  did  not

receive  a passing score.  After passing his methods classes  and

submitting  an  essay for student teaching that exhibited  better

writing skills than those exhibited in his initial application to

the  SOE,  Hunt  again applied to the student  teaching  program.

Though  Hunt  began  student teaching in  January  2000,  he  was

informed  by  the  SOE that he was unable to  continue  with  his

student  teaching because he had failed to fulfill the  condition

of passing the Praxis exam.  He was then removed from the class.

          Hunt  appealed the SOEs decision to UAF.  A university-

wide  academic appeals committee held a hearing on Hunts case  in

February  2000.  In that hearing, it was established  that  Hunts

approval  to student teach was contingent only on his passing  of

the  Praxis  exam.  The appeals committee decided to  uphold  the

requirement  that Hunt pass all three parts of  the  Praxis  exam

before he began student teaching.

          Hunt  appealed  this  decision to the  superior  court.

Superior  Court Judge Pro Tem Mark I. Wood held that UAF complied

with its catalog in requiring Hunt to pass the Praxis exam before

student teaching.  Finding that UAFs decision to require Hunt  to

pass  the  exam was a reasonable exercise of its discretion,  the

court  held  that  the  final decision of  the  academic  appeals

committee  was not arbitrary or unreasonable.  Judge  Wood  later

          granted UAF attorneys fees in the amount of $3,000.  Hunt now



          I.   In administrative appeals, we directly review the agency

action in question.3  Review of whether UAF complied with its own

regulations is limited to a determination of whether the decision

was  arbitrary,  unreasonable, or an abuse  of  discretion.4   An

abuse of discretion is found when we are left with a definite and

firm conviction, after reviewing the whole record, that the trial

court  erred  in  its  ruling.5  In matters  of  academic  merit,

curriculum, and advancement, courts afford university faculty and

administrators substantial discretion.6

          We  review  the imposition of an attorneys  fees  award

under an abuse of discretion standard.7


     A.   UAF Was Entitled To Require Hunt To Pass the Praxis Exam as

          a Condition of Admission to the Elementary Education Program.

          Hunt  argues  that  UAF ignored all  the  factors  that

demonstrated  he was ready and able to complete his  professional

year.  He claims that UAF arbitrarily and capriciously based  its

decision solely on whether he passed the Praxis exam.  He  claims

that  the university failed to comply with the terms of  the  UAF

catalog because successful completion of the Praxis exam  is  not

required in the catalog.

          The  UAF catalog requires that, to be admitted  to  the

SOE, a student must formally apply for admission to the Fairbanks

elementary education program . . . .8

          The   Elementary  Education  Program   is   a

          selective teacher education program . .  .  .

          Admission to UAF as a degree student majoring

          in education does not automatically qualify a

          student   for  admission  to  the  Elementary

          Teacher Education Program.  Admission to  the

          Program  is  based on a comprehensive  system

          that  includes more than one measure  and  is

          used  by the education faculty to assess  the

          personal characteristics, communications, and

          basic   skills   proficiency  of   candidates

          preparing to teach.[9]

Applicants  are measured on multiple factors, which  are  weighed

and  assessed by various means, and include, but are not  limited

to,  faculty  rating  forms,  letters  of  reference,  university

transcripts,  writing samples, and evaluations  from  University-

sponsored practicum placements.10

          Hunts  overall  grade point average of 3.58  on  a  4.0

scale  exceeded the 2.7 GPA required for admission.    Though  he

received  no grades lower than a C, Hunts lowest grades  were  in

his  English  courses.  In his application for admission  to  his

professional year, Hunt received recommendations from Pat Wise, a

teacher at North Pole Elementary School who had worked with  Hunt

when  his  daughters were in her class, and Dan  File,  Assistant

Principal at North Pole Middle School.

          Wise  recommended that Hunt be admitted to the  methods

classes  at  UAF,  stating  that his  earnestness,  concern,  and

knowledge   of  typical  school  programs  would  be  beneficial.

However,  Wise  also stated that Hunt needed more  experience  in

classrooms.   She  found  his area of  weakness  to  be  language

presentation,   stating  that  he  needed  to  practice   correct

grammatical and written skills.  Because of his conscientiousness

and  willingness to learn and practice, Wise felt that Hunt would

be  able to succeed in a methods class with proper guidance so as

to avoid any language hindrances.

          Files recommendation was more reserved.  He found  Hunt

to  be extremely reliable and motivated, dedicated to his goal of

achieving  a teaching certificate, as well as a dedicated  single

father  of three girls.  Files concern centered on Hunts  ability

to deal with middle school students.  He felt that Hunt may be  a

better  fit  at  the intermediate grades and that Hunts  lack  of

          experience would work itself out in his methods classes and

student teaching.

          Also  as  part of the application process,  Hunt  wrote

three untimed essays  and one timed, extemporaneous essay.  These

essays,  as  well  as the other aspects of his application,  were

reviewed   by  a  three-member  committee  that  made  admissions


          All three committee members ranked Hunts interpersonal,

intercultural, and professional indicators on the high end of the

scale.  His basic written communication/literacy skills, however,

were   an   area  of  concern  for  the  evaluators.    For   his

extemporaneous  writing  sample,  one  evaluator   circled   both

marginal and fail, another circled between marginal and fail, and

the last circled marginal.  One evaluator found weakness apparent

in  all  areas and especially in written communications.  Another

found  serious  writing  problems  grammar,  sentence  structure,

spelling,  etc.  The other evaluator found Hunt to  have  writing

difficulties  mechanical/grammar.

          For  his  untimed  application  essays,  Hunt  received

similar   scores  of  marginal  to  fail.   One   evaluator   was

surpris[ed] (and discourag[ed]) to find errors in essays prepared

with  plenty of opportunity and time to make corrections,  proof-

read, etc.

          In  their final recommendations, two evaluators did not

choose between the admit and reject options, and the third  chose

reject.   One  of  the  undecided evaluators stated  that  Praxis

scores  were needed before a decision could be made.  The  other,

who  placed  a  question mark next to each  option,  stated  that

[w]ith  writing marginal, its important to receive Praxis  scores

before   making  a  determination  about  methods.    The   final

evaluator, who chose to reject Hunt, stated that [t]his is  tough

he  still lacks necessary skills and knowledge for the profession

He certainly is progressing.

          Ultimately,   in  April  1999,  the  SOE  conditionally

accepted  Hunt  into  the  Elementary  Education  Program.    His

acceptance  into the methods blocks was contingent  upon  passing

scores  on  PRAXIS  I,  successful completion  of  all  remaining

required  courses,  availability  of  practica  placements,   and

resources in the School of Education.  In addition, the School of

Education  require[d] that [Hunt] attend the  Writing  Center  to

further develop and refine [his] writing skills.  As noted above,

Hunt failed the Praxis exam in both the spring and fall of 1999.

          Although  the  Praxis  exam was not  a  requirement  of

admission  to  the  Elementary  Education  Program  during  Hunts

catalog  year,  Hunts demonstrated weaknesses  in  the  areas  of

language  and  communication gave UAF  a  justifiable  reason  to

require  that  he  pass the Praxis exam before  admittance.   The

requirements  state that the measures listed are merely  examples

that  do  not  encompass everything the admissions committee  may

consider.  Rather than requiring Hunt to pass the Praxis exam  as

a  newly-created requirement to the program, the committee sought

to  give Hunt a chance to enter the program in spite of his  weak

language  skills.   With the Praxis exam, the committee  afforded

Hunt  an  objective opportunity to demonstrate his  capacity  for

reading and writing.

          Furthermore,  the  choice of the Praxis  exam  as  this

objective  measure  was  appropriate.   In  July  1998,   a   new

requirement   for  those  seeking  an  initial  regular   teacher

certificate  took effect  successful completion of  a  competency

examination  by  the standards established by the  state.11   The

competency  exam chosen by the state was the Praxis  exam.12   As

such,  the committees decision to require Hunt to pass the Praxis

exam  as a condition of his admission to the SOE was not an abuse

of  discretion.   Rather,  it  was  a  legitimate  choice  of  an

objective  measurement  of his skills that  he  would  have  been

required to pass in order to be licensed in the state.  Requiring

Hunt to pass the exam before applying for his license merely gave

Hunt  an  extra  chance to be admitted to  the  program  when  he

          otherwise would have been denied admission based on his

application.  The university thus complied with the terms of  the

UAF  catalog  and  did not abuse its discretion  in  conditioning

Hunts admission on his successful completion of the Praxis exam.

     B.   There  Is  No  Evidence that UAF Violated  Hunts  Equal

          Protection Rights.

          A.   Hunt argues that he was treated differently than other

students who had applied for admission to the SOE.  Citing  Jones

v. Central Peninsula General Hospital,13 Hunt argues that the SOEs

decision  to admit certain students into the Elementary Education

Program  while not admitting him was unlawful.  He  asserts  that

UAF  has  acknowledged  that  it  is  unacceptable  for  UAF   to

arbitrarily and capriciously grade students.  This standard, Hunt

argues, should be applied to the subjective decisions of the  SOE

on admissions to the professional year.

          However,  the  record before us does not support  Hunts

claim.   Hunt rests his argument on a spreadsheet of test scores,

majors,  and  GPAs.   It is unclear from this  spreadsheet  which

students  were  admitted  to  the professional  year,  which  had

successfully completed the methods block, and which were  allowed

to  student  teach.  Furthermore, in regard to the students  Hunt

discusses  in his brief, there is no indication who was  admitted

to  the professional year or any evidence of the other aspects of

their application, i.e., writing samples, evaluations, or grades.

To determine whether Hunts equal protection rights were violated,

evidence  would  be needed of students with marginal/failing  SOE

applications  who were admitted to the program notwithstanding  a

failing score on the Praxis exam.  Based on this record, Hunt has

failed to show that he was treated differently from students in a

similar situation.

     C.   Because UAF Complied with Its Catalog, We Need Not Decide

          Whether the Catalog Created a Contract between Hunt and UAF.

          Hunt  argues that UAFs policy of allowing him  to  pick

the  catalog he wanted to use to guide him through his final year

          created a contract.  In Bruner v. Petersen,14 we found that,

because the University of Alaska Anchorage had complied with  the

provisions of the course catalog and the student handbook, we did

not  have  to  reach  the  question of whether  the  catalog  and

handbook   resulted  in  a  contract  between  Bruner   and   the


          The  decision  to  admit a student  to  the  SOE  is  a

subjective one, involving the consideration of many factors.   We

have  held that where matters of academic merit, curriculum,  and

advancement  are concerned, university faculty and administrators

should  be  afforded substantial discretion.16   When judges  are

asked to review the substance of a genuinely academic decision  .

.  . they should show great respect for the facultys professional

judgment. 17 Therefore, the SOE committees decision to not  admit

Hunt  to the SOE due to his weak writing skills, and the academic

appeals  committees review of that decision, should  be  afforded

deference.   As  Hunt  has not presented any evidence  indicating

that  the  decision was made for a reason other than his language

abilities and because we hold that UAF complied with its catalog,

we need not decide whether the catalog created a contract between

Hunt and UAF.

     D.   UAF  Did  Not  Violate  the Alaska  Statutes  and  UAFs


          Hunt  argues  that  UAF  has  violated  several  Alaska

statutes  and university policies and regulations by forcing  him

to  take  the  Praxis exam before being admitted to the  teaching

program.   Specifically,  Hunt points to AS  14.40.170(b),  which

provides  that  the Board of Regents may adopt reasonable  rules,

orders, and plans for the government of UAF.18  Hunt states  that

UAF  complied with this requirement by adopting a policy allowing

students  to  choose  any catalog in effect when  enrolled  as  a

degree-seeking  student, with a seven-year limit on  the  catalog


          Further, Hunt argues, the state has adopted a policy of

          protecting students by prohibiting misleading literature.19  He

claims this policy was violated by UAFs requirement that he  take

the  Praxis  exam.   Hunt  also  argues  that  UAF  violated   AS

14.48.060(b)(4)20 by changing his graduation requirements and that

he would not have enrolled had he known this was going to happen.

          UAFs  requirement that Hunt take the Praxis exam before

admitting  him  to the Elementary Education Program  was  not  an

additional requirement that was misleading to Hunt or a  changing

of  the  requirements Hunt needed in order to graduate from  UAF.

Rather,  the  requirement of the Praxis exam was  an  alternative

measure the committee employed to give Hunt a chance to enter the

program  because without it he would have been denied  admission.

Instead of changing requirements in the middle of his UAF career,

therefore,  UAF  gave Hunt an extra, alternative  opportunity  to

fulfill  the established requirements for entry into the teaching


     E.   The   Superior  Court  Did  Not  Err  in  Awarding  UAF

          Attorneys Fees.

          Hunt  challenges the superior courts order that he  pay

$3,000  in  legal  fees  to UAF.  He argues  that  the  award  of

attorneys fees is based on the superior courts finding  that  UAF

did  not  act  arbitrarily or capriciously and did not  breach  a

contract  with Hunt.  As this finding by the court was incorrect,

Hunt argues, the award of attorneys fees should be reversed.

          Hunt does not, and could not, dispute that UAF was  the

prevailing party in the action, instead basing his appeal on  the

claim  that  the superior court erred in its underlying  decision

and therefore erred in its award of fees.  In the superior court,

Hunt did not offer any other reason to deny fees to UAF.  Rather,

in  his  opposition motion to UAFs fee request, Hunt argued  that

the  trial  court  should apply the standard of  Civil  Rule  82,

providing  for  an  award  of thirty percent  of  reasonably  and

necessarily incurred costs and fees.

          Attorneys  fees were awarded in this case  pursuant  to

          Alaska Rule of Appellate Procedure 508(e).21   Such fees should

only  partially compensate a party for its fees.22   In  awarding

fees,  a court may exercise its sound discretion in making awards

that  are justified and reasonable.23  While Hunt argued  to  the

superior  court  that if fees were to be awarded,  no  more  than

$4,779  should  be granted, the superior court only  awarded  UAF

$3,000.   Because Hunt offered no other reason, either before  us

or  the  court  below, for challenging the award, we  affirm  the

superior courts award of attorneys fees.


           Because UAF complied with its catalog requirement when

it  required Hunt to pass the Praxis exam before admitting him to

the  Elementary Education Program, and because the court  awarded

UAF  fees  less than the amount suggested by Hunt, we AFFIRM  the

decision of the superior court in all respects.

     1     The  methods block is a hands-on class where  students
learn  to  teach  particular subjects to  students.   During  the
blocks  (usually  one for each subject elementary  educators  are
responsible  for), students prepare lesson plans  and  work  with
teachers in a classroom setting.

     2     A  students  degree requirements  are  established  by
choosing  the requirements listed in the catalog for one  of  the
academic years in which he or she is enrolled as a degree-seeking

     3     Northern Alaska Envtl. Ctr. v. State, Dept of  Natural
Res., 2 P.3d 629, 633 (Alaska 2000).

     4    Nickerson v. Univ. of Alaska Anchorage, 975 P.2d 46, 50
n.1  (Alaska 1999) (quoting Szejner v. Univ. of Alaska, 944  P.2d
481, 484-85 n.2 (Alaska 1997)).

     5     Peter  Pan Seafoods, Inc. v. Stepanoff, 650 P.2d  375,
378-79 (Alaska 1982).

     6    Bruner v. Petersen, 944 P.2d 43, 48 (Alaska 1997).

     7    Id. at 49.

     8     University of Alaska, Fairbanks 1996-97 Annual Catalog

     9    Id. at 81.

     10    Id.

     11    AS 14.20.020(i) states, in part:

          Beginning  on July 1, 1998, a person  is  not
          eligible  for  an  initial  regular   teacher
          certificate unless the person has  taken  and
          successfully    completed    a     competency
          examination  or  examinations designated,  at
          the  time  the person took the test,  by  the
     12    4 Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) 12.010(b)(5) (2002)

          [F]or  an applicant as to whom the provisions
          of AS 14.20.020(i) apply, the official scores
          on  the  required  Praxis I: Academic  Skills
          Assessments demonstrating that the  applicant
          meets   or   exceeds  the  following   Alaska
          qualifying  scores  [for the  computer  based
          exam] on the competency examinations:
               (A) reading: 322;
               (B) writing: 321; and
               (C) math: 318.
     13     779 P.2d 783, 789 n.6 (Alaska 1989) (recognizing that
contractual  covenant  of good faith and  fair  dealing  requires
employers to treat similarly situated employees equally).

     14    944 P.2d 43 (Alaska 1997).

     15    Id. at 48.

     16    Id.

     17     Id. (quoting Regents of Univ. of Mich. v. Ewing,  474
U.S. 214, 225 (1985)).

     18    AS 14.40.170(b)(1) provides, in part:

                 The   Board  of  Regents   may   adopt
          reasonable  rules,  orders,  and  plans  with
          reasonable  penalties for the good government
          of  the university and for the regulation  of
          the Board of Regents  . . . .
     19    AS 14.48.010(a)(4) provides, in part:

          It  is the purpose of this chapter to provide
          for the protection, education, and welfare of
          the  citizens of the state, its postsecondary
          educational  institutions, and its  students,
               . . . .
               (4)  prohibiting misleading  literature,
          advertising,  solicitation, or representation
          by educational institutions or their agents .
          . . .
     20    AS 14.48.060(b)(4) states, in part:

          [T]he  institution  provides  a  catalog   or
          brochure  containing  information  describing
          the  programs  offered,  program  objectives,
          length of program, schedule of tuition, fees,
          and  all other charges and expenses necessary
          for   completion  of  the  course  of  study,
          cancellation and refund policies,  and  other
          material facts concerning the institution and
          the program or course of instruction that are
          reasonably  likely to affect the decision  of
          the  student  to  enroll, together  with  any
          other disclosures specified by the commission
          by   regulation;  and  this  information   is
          provided   to  prospective  students   before
          enrollment . . . .
     21    Alaska Rule of Appellate Procedure 508(e) provides:

          Attorneys fees may be allowed in an amount to
          be  determined by the court . . . .   If  the
          court  determines  that an appeal  or  cross-
          appeal  is  frivolous or  that  it  has  been
          brought simply for purposes of delay,  actual
          attorneys fees may be awarded to the appellee
          or cross-appellee.
     22     Carr-Gottstein  Props. v. State, 899  P.2d  136,  148
(Alaska 1995).

     23    Id.