A prolific Title IX activist and former Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California (USC) alleges that his school retaliated against him for his activism and that they “did all they could to sabotage” his chance of earning a Ph.D.
Now, he’s fighting back.
Kursat Pekgoz, 31, was relatively unknown until about two years ago. He studied Molecular Biology and English in Turkey and worked as a translator for some time. Five years ago he applied to USC in hopes of earning a Ph.D. in English.
By all accounts, Pekgoz was a standout candidate.
USC was smitten. Though Pekgoz received offers of admission from Tufts University and Rice University, USC wooed him away with an offer of the highly coveted Provost’s Fellowship, which covered his tuition and gave him a living stipend.
“Everything seemed fine during my first few years,” Pekgoz told TPM from his apartment in Los Angeles earlier this year. He conducted research, presented at conferences, and even taught one class a semester for three years.
But by 2017, Pekgoz noticed that his fellow male students had fewer scholarship opportunities than women. He wasn’t concerned for himself— Pekgoz received a full scholarship from USC—but for other male students.
“The injustice is obvious,” he told me.
To try to fix this, Pekgoz filed a federal complaint against USC in 2017, arguing that USC’s “women only” programs violate Title IX, a federal law that threatens to penalize schools if they fail to treat men and women fairly.
Women are the majority of undergraduate students, graduate students, and academic employees today. Despite this imbalance, many colleges offer massive scholarship opportunities and exclusive programs to promote their success.
The complaint was unprecedented. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) agreed the concerns might be legitimate, as I reported last January.
Noting his success, Pekgoz filed complaints against other colleges. Some nonprofits and attorneys followed his approach; 15 other colleges are now under federal review, according to exclusive documents provided to The Post Millennial.
Pekgoz’s unorthodox strategy catapulted him into the spotlight; both on campus and nationally. Outlets including NBC News, The Daily Wire, Refinery 29, The Chronicle of Higher Education, FOX News, USA TODAY, covered his activism efforts.
As fame graced Pekgoz, USC soon caught wind of his activism efforts. It is impossible to pinpoint exactly when his professors, dissertation committee, and fellow students started to catch on to Pekgoz’s activism.
But it caused him trouble, fast.
“I was on friendly terms with professors before they began shunning me for my stance on gender politics,” said Pekgoz. Two professors—Hilary Schor and Margaret Russett—“sabotaged my dissertation,” Pekgoz claimed.
“Hilary Schor vetoed my dissertation in secret right after she discovered about my Title IX activism, even though she gave me an A and praised my writing before.”
“Margaret Russett, a feminist professor who went to Yale, terminated my Ph.D. student status even though it was her pressure which led me to turn down offers of admission from Tufts and Rice” he added.
Neither professor responded to a request for comment.
In February 2019, Professor Emily Anderson emailed Pekgoz recommending “continuous enrollment for year 6” and noted that “that [USC] can absolutely provide a tuition/health award” if Pekgoz wanted to stay in the Ph.D. program.
But just one day before his sixth year, his dissertation committee changed course.
“I am writing in my role as Director of Graduate Studies to inform you that you will be dismissed from the Ph.D. program in English Language and Literature and the University of Southern California, effective immediately,” wrote Anderson on August 28.
She claimed Pekgoz failed to make “satisfactory progress” towards his Ph.D.
However, Pekgoz disputes the assessment and is fighting to get back to USC.
In an appeal letter submitted on September 27, Pekgoz claims USC officials singled him out, refused to grant his leave of absence request, and gave him an “arbitrary deadline” to submit his first thesis chapter which he claims no other student was subject to.
He also argued that there was “no formal precedent” for the deadline and that the stipulation that the thesis chapter be “viable” was “too vague and arbitrary.” Further, other students routinely take up to eight or nine years to finish their Ph.D., he wrote.
Pekgoz submitted an appeal on September 27. The process is ongoing.
“They were willing to honour me with distinctions before I started my advocacy, but they singled me out for persecution after my advocacy became public,” said Pekgoz. “This has a chilling effect on academic freedom and political discourse.”
“There’s no doubt my expulsion was politically motivated,” he added.
Thankfully, Pekgoz is currently employed. While he says he loves his work, he still hopes to return to USC and finish his Ph.D. Whether that will happen remains to be seen. USC offers three stages of appeal for dismissed graduate students.
The first stage, which involves a meeting with the Chair of the English Department, was denied. The second stage—which involves an appeal letter to Dean Finkle—was scheduled for November 4, but Pekgoz hasn’t heard back.
The last stage involves a formal hearing with Provost Sally Pratt. There is no date set for this hearing as of right now. “There is no date scheduled for this phase as of today. Still, [the situation] involves University employees, so I am going through the motions before taking it to Court.”
Toni Airaksinen is a columnist for PJ Media, The Post Millennial, and a digital strategist for kosher restaurants in Brooklyn, NYC. She graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University, and has also contributed to Quillette, USA TODAY, and The Daily Caller. Follow the author on Twitter: @Toni Airaksinen.