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UC Berkeley Press Release

UC Berkeley stunned by decision to deny students opportunity for prestigious Fulbright dissertation fellowships

– In a decision that has stunned UC Berkeley faculty, administrators and many graduate students, the U.S. Department of Education has informed the campus that all 30 of the advanced graduate students who applied this year for a prestigious Fulbright doctoral research abroad fellowship will not be considered because of what the department contends was a missed application deadline.

The decision announced Friday, Jan. 30, by the Department of Education came after weeks of escalating appeals, including a special trip to Washington, D.C., by Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl in mid-January to meet with department officials.

The department ruled that when an overnight courier service failed to make a scheduled pick-up of the UC Berkeley applications, the application deadline was technically missed and there would be no recourse for the students. This decision was reached even though the mailing date on the package airbill met the deadline.

"No one could have imagined the Department of Education could have reacted the way it did," said Berdahl today (Wednesday, Feb. 4).

"For these students to lose out on the opportunity to compete for the Fulbright award in this way is outrageous. These awards are among the most prestigious research abroad fellowships available and are crucial to many students' ability to complete their dissertations," said Berdahl.

The Fulbright program, named for the late Sen. William Fulbright, is the premier international educational program of the U.S. government. Its Doctoral Dissertation Research Award provides opportunities for graduate students to undertake full-time dissertation research abroad.

Last year, 30 Berkeley graduate students applied for Fulbright grants ranging from $19,593 to $63,947 and half the students were awarded fellowships. Again this year, 30 students from a number of fields were applying for fellowships for the '04-'05 school year

"This decision is devastating to many of the students. With the assistance of UC's federal relations office in Washington, we did everything possible to work with the Department of Education to find a resolution that did not punish the students. But every step along the way we were met with intransigence. It is senseless bureaucracy at its worst," said Mary Ann Mason, dean of the Graduate Division at UC Berkeley.

Although the Berkeley campus cannot make up for the prestige that a Fulbright grant provides, she said, "We will make every effort possible to help these students achieve their research goals."

Campus officials strenuously dispute the Education Department's position that the Oct. 20 mailing deadline was missed, the reason the department has given for denying consideration of all UC Berkeley applications this year.

The problem, according to UC Berkeley officials, occurred when a Federal Express courier failed to pick up the applications from the Graduate Division offices as scheduled, even though a university employee called FedEx the morning of Oct. 20 and again that afternoon confirming the pick-up.

In its appeal to the Department of Education, the campus provided two letters from Federal Express officials acknowledging FedEx was fully responsible for failing to pick up the application package at the agreed upon time on Oct. 20. FedEx cited the installation of updated software for the error.

Even with the missed pick-up, the FedEx airbill dated Oct. 20 should have met the department's regulation stating that a properly dated shipping label from a common carrier is sufficient to meet the deadline. If an employee in the Graduate Division had not taken the extra step to contact the Department of Education informing it of the missed pick-up, department officials acknowledged that they might never have known the applications were late.

In September, graduate students and the Graduate Division had attempted to submit applications online using the Department of Education's new e-Grants electronic filing system. But problems with that system caused the campus to have to submit paper applications.

In the past, the applications were sent by overnight courier two to three days before the deadline, according to the Graduate Division. This year, because of the problems with the online filing system, the campus extended its internal deadline to give students time to complete the paper applications. The applications were processed and ready Friday, Oct. 17, and overnight express pick-up was scheduled for Monday, Oct. 20, the postmark deadline.

The dissertation fellowships are one of two Fulbright award programs. The International Institute of Education Fulbright program, which is run out of the Department of State, is not related and students applying to it are unaffected by the Department of Education decision.