Last year, the Johns Hopkins University awarded doctoral degrees to 311 students, and Robert Stephen Dobkin wasn't one of them. He didn't graduate from Hopkins; he sued Hopkins. And Dobkin vs. Hopkins has become the story of his life.
At its simplest, a benign academic disagreement between one smart student and one smart university escalated into dueling multimillion-dollar lawsuits when Hopkins sued back. At its most sensational, the swamp of accusations from both sides mentions fraud, slander, cheating, sexual harassment, mental illness, cover-ups and even the Unabomber -- the person mailing murderous letter bombs.
"The only crime not alleged was arson," says Rob Dobkin -- Yale man, cancer survivor, litigant.
Both sides have been phonetically and legally joined at the hips for two years. Rob sued first. The university says it doesn't award degrees because people sue. Rob says he earned his degree and will not be intimidated. Nor will Hopkins, which flexed its legal might to defend its name.
Neither side will speak without attorneys. Most of the details and quotations for this story were mined from the mountain of paper produced by the lawsuits -- depositions, personal letters, faxes and e-mail records. The telling and only meeting with Rob comes later.
His case could go to trial in Baltimore or end unceremoniously with a short order by a federal judge. Either way, Rob Dobkin might never feel vindicated. Because for all the charges in this case, the most inflammatory claim felt by 37-year-old Robert Dobkin might well be this:
The man wasn't smart enough.
Rob Dobkin's mind and body are the heart of this story.
"Robbie is a true academic," says his mother, Rosalyn Dobkin. She and her husband, Donald, raised their family in Livingston, N.J. Robbie was such a bright boy, taking an interest in philosophy, law and medicine. Robbie was such a sick boy. He developed a disease called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, which can prematurely age the internal organs. In Rob's case, the acute disease was initiated by a drug prescribed to him in childhood. (The Dobkins' medical malpractice claim was settled in 1993 for a "substantial amount," says attorney Henry Kaufman.)
"The bulk of his existence, since age 3, has been involved with accommodating to the systematic ravages of that degenerative fallout," his parents have said.
The sickly boy became a tenacious scholar. He earned a bachelor's degree in politics from Bennington College in Vermont in June 1978. At 21, he enrolled in graduate school at Brandeis University to pursue a doctoral degree in political theory.
"Rob found that the faculty had a narrower approach to his program as well as an incompatible political orientation," wrote Mr. Kaufman, who has been advising Rob. It was agreed that Rob would leave Brandeis with a master's in politics. It wouldn't be the last time Rob butted brains with a prominent school.
When Rob was 26, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which meant repeated trips to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It also meant a change of heart and mind; Rob dropped political science for a career in public health. "He felt it a bit of a miracle. He was beating the cancer, but equally important, he had finally found his calling in life," says Rob's childhood friend, Gary Seligson.
Without any pre-med education, Rob Dobkin was accepted into the Yale University School of Medicine. He loved the university, loved that library. In May 1986, Rob received a master's degree in public health from Yale. According to his account of his medical condition, Rob was suffering "systematic degeneration of various internal organs." His ailments included: corneal erosion; chronic urinary and testicular pain; prostate enlargement; night sweats; chills; and severe arm and leg pain. But nothing was wrong with his head or self-confidence.
In 1988, Rob applied to the University of California at San Francisco. He wanted a doctoral degree in nursing, but his application was rejected. "Compared to the other applicants, he wasn't competitive," says Charlene Harrington, chairwoman of the Department of Sociology and Behavioral Science.
Rob Dobkin does not accept rejection well. He got a lawyer, and not just any lawyer. Civil rights attorney William Kunstler wrote the university on behalf of his friends, the Dobkins: "I was moved to do so because, from every point of view, I felt that the rejection of his application was a tragic mistake."
The answer was still no. In Rob's resume, his career objective still read "Formulating health care political theory and compassionate health policy to manage chronic disease." But the student still didn't have his doctoral degree, a virtual union card for work at the highest levels of laboratory research. Rob's professors from Yale mailed recommendations to the Johns Hopkins University:
"He has one of the keener intellects I know," and "He needs the opportunity to be creative with a minimum of orthodox academic restraints." And: "Sometimes I get the feeling that he is a bit too concerned about failure," a professor wrote.
In 1990, Rob Dobkin was admitted to the Hopkins' School of Hygiene and Public Health. His new field was gerontology -- the study of aging.
His academic adviser was Dr. Pearl German, a 69-year-old professor who has taught at Hopkins since 1972. Dr. German was offering a few students a National Institute of Aging traineeship for her Interdepartmental Gerontology Program. She had worked for years to get the grant for the university. Dr. German had one particular student in mind -- a bright young man from New Jersey.
Dr. German was very impressed with Rob Dobkin. After all, the man had been through so much medical turmoil. "I thought his attitude and his experience would add up to a very committed student in gerontology," she said.
Rob's tuition and medical insurance would be covered while at Hopkins. He would add the traineeship to his resume.
Dobkin at Hopkins
Rob Dobkin tore through his course requirements in one year at Hopkins; students usually need two years. "I wanted to accelerate quickly because I did not know how bad my medical problems would get," Rob said. The young man felt he was dying inside. And the longer he took, the more money he would have to pay back the federal government -- providers of his grant.
Rob had no interest in taking four or five years to get his doctoral degree. He planned to graduate in a record two or three years with a doctorate in public health and a gerontology certificate. But in Dr. Pearl German's experience, students typically need four years. Not this student, Rob says. Every time was crunch time for him.
In May 1991, Rob submitted his dissertation proposal. He wanted to study the accelerated aging of older people who have suffered the loss of a spouse. Rob says his faculty adviser, Dr. German, deliberately slowed his progress by making him re-write his proposal 11 times. She felt his early graduation would "devalue" the esteemed grant, Rob says. No, the student just wasn't ready, Dr. German says. "If we had a seven-day wonder who could finish in two years, we'd be so proud we'd frame it."
The academic dispute was esoteric. Rob protested "the cleansing of all empirical and bio-scientific methodology" from his paper. Years later, Rob said, "Marx, Marx, Marx . . . I didn't go to school to have Dr. German's academic agenda shoved down my throat." But in the opinion of Dr. German, "The dissertation topic will be difficult to relate to issues central to health policy or gerontology in a meaningful and carefully reasoned way."
It was decided that Rob needed another adviser. He met Dr. Arthur Freed on an elevator and pitched his case to him. Dr. Freed became Rob's adviser.
"I think personality clashes were at the bottom of this," Dr. Freed says of the situation he inherited. "To succeed, it's very important to get along with your adviser."
Rob had not won over the public health faculty. He could be a little intimidating; he wasn't afraid to tell faculty members they were wrong, Dr. Freed says. "I do know Rob can alienate people."
In June, Rob sat for his oral exam before a panel that included Dr. Freed but not Dr. German. Rob failed, according to the majority opinion. The day after, Rob wrote to Hopkins professor Dr. George Rebok. "Dr. Rebok, I did not know and was not prepared for models in health services research (choke, choke, strangle, choke) or Medicare/Medicaid stuff."
Rob wasn't the first student to fail his orals. Each student is entitled to retake the test; Rob was given three months to try again.
Then, on June 29, 1992, he was notified that Hopkins was recommending his traineeship be terminated. The advisory panel for gerontology, led by Dr. German, cited Rob's failure of the oral exam and "serious gaps in your knowledge of fundamental health policy." Dr. Freed disagreed and said Rob's past performance suggested he could quickly fill in the gaps. Other grant students have failed their oral exam and re-taken it and retained their traineeships, Dr. Freed argued.
The government terminated Rob's traineeship July 31, 1992. Rob was still enrolled at Hopkins and still could pursue his doctoral degree. He would just have to pay his way -- nearly $18,000 a year in tuition. And he would have to re-group academically, according to the faculty.
"What everybody felt was that we had no right to use public money to help him fill in those gaps," Dr. German said.
"I was unwilling to pay tuition," Rob Dobkin said. "Dammit, I earned that degree."
"Rob," Dr. Freed said, "lives and dies by his principles."
A man of letters
Rob took a leave of absence from Hopkins in September 1992. The government wanted repayment of the traineeship, valued at $25,000 a year. Rob wanted the traineeship back. Losing the grant was stigmatizing his reputation and career, he argued. He wrote Health and Human Services, which wrote back: "A decision to terminate a trainee is within the discretion of the program director." In other words, Dr. German.
Rob offered to settle the "academic dispute." He would accept a master's degree from Hopkins. "It is the School's position that Mr. Dobkin has not satisfied the requirements for a master's degree," said Estelle Fishbein, Hopkins' vice president and general counsel. "It is important to note that . . . he failed to demonstrate the most basic and minimal knowledge of health policy."
By 1993, the university had become wary of Robert Dobkin. Dr. German received harassing phone calls beginning in the summer. Her home phone would ring at 2 a.m., and she would hear only breathing, Hopkins says. The calls prompted university officials to monitor Dr. German's phone.
Nothing but a smear campaign, Rob said. He claimed the university also spread rumors that he sexually harassed Dr. German. She says he came into her office once in 1993 wearing ragged, short shorts. Sitting in her office, he spread his legs and exposed his genitals, Dr. German says. "I don't know whether it was inadvertent or purposeful," she has testified.
Based on Rob's phone records, Hopkins determined no calls were made to Dr. German from Rob's home. But the university's apprehension took another twist. Hopkins wondered whether Mr. Dobkin had any connection to the Unabomber. Believed to be responsible for 16 letter bombs nationwide, the Unabomber struck that June at Yale University, where a computer science professor was critically injured. Rob had attended Yale -- as have thousands of other students.
Unabomber bulletins were posted throughout the Hopkins campus. University security instructed Dr. German to take extra precautions when leaving the building and when going to her car.
In New Jersey, Rob and his parents opened a letter-writing campaign. They wrote single-spaced, encyclopedic letters to public figures -- Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ross Perot, Bob Dole. Rob wrote his U.S. Congressman, the late Dean Gallo. Rob wrote the National Institutes of Health, the grant's underwriter.
The Dobkin family's letters accused Dr. German of "committing a felony by lying to the government," accused Hopkins of "fraudulently" administering the training grant, and accused Ms. Fishbein of "covering-up" the alleged fraud. In April 1993, Rob again called on William Kunstler -- defender of Jack Ruby, John Gotti, and Malcolm X's daughter.
"Rob seemed like a loner to me, who was bucking the system. And like other loners, they struggle on with no let up. I kind of admire that," Mr. Kunstler says. The radical criminal attorney didn't accept the case because it was a civil action. But he hasn't forgotten Rob Dobkin.
"Hell will freeze over before this guy will let go."
In July 1993, Ms. Fishbein obtained copies of the Dobkins' letters through the Freedom of Information Act. In a letter to Rob's Washington attorney, David Frulla, Ms. Fishbein said, "You and your firm have a legal duty to warn any person . . . if any contact with your client leads to a reasonable belief that he is inclined to commit a violent act."
Nothing in those letters suggests violent behavior, and the Dobkins have the First Amendment right to petition their elected officials, said Mr. Frulla. "In this case, you have simply labeled a dissident 'psychologically unstable,' " he wrote Hopkins.
Hopkins was so apprehensive about Rob that it spent $1,125 for a private investigation. The investigator reported that Dobkin has no criminal convictions and had not bought any firearms. A Hopkins electronic message about the Dobkin investigation said, The issue with getting photos of him is that he does not emerge from his house. . . . There is concern that he fits the classic picture of someone who might 'lose it' one day, especially if his legal recourses are denied."
The Dobkin house in New Jersey was watched for 19 hours over three days. The July 21, 1993, surveillance included these highlights:
7 a.m. Arrived at the subject premises.
8:47 a.m. The woman observed on previous surveillance and thought to be subject's mother, is seen exiting the garage.
9:20 a.m. The woman is picking twigs, etc., from the property.
Nine days later, Rob Dobkin made his move. He says he had exhausted his options -- his lawyers had unsuccessfully petitioned the government to re-instate his traineeship. Rob felt he should sue.
"I advised him he was crazy to go up against the university," Dr. Freed remembers. "It's no-win."
On July 30, 1993, Rob's attorneys filed a 182-paragraph civil suit against the Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Pearl German, Vice President Fishbein, two associate professors, one assistant professor, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging. The thick suit was lined with allegations:
Rob sued because he claims Hopkins gave him an invalid oral exam and broke a "contract" by not awarding him his degree.
Rob sued for defamation because he claims Hopkins told people he was psychologically unstable, that he cheated his way through Hopkins and Yale, and that he had sexually harassed Dr. German and threatened bodily harm against Ms. Fishbein.
Rob sued to get his traineeship back.
Rob sued for a master's degree in public health and a five-year extension to pay back the traineeship money.
Rob sued for $10.5 million.
"The destruction of Mr. Dobkin's academic and personal reputation will not only haunt him throughout his life, but will prevent him from finishing his studies elsewhere," the lawsuit said.
To borrow Rob Dobkin's words, the only crime not alleged was arson.
Dobkin after Hopkins
In 1994, Robert Dobkin was no longer a student at Johns Hopkins. He wanted public support and money for his cause. He got involved in the Asian Pacific American Heritage Festival in New York. The quiet, serious man would show up at the organizational meetings. He brought his own cause.
"It sounded like a fantastic story," says Cyril Nishimoto, director of Japanese American Social Services. "On a gut feeling, I felt this connection to him."
Mr. Nishimoto gave Rob $10,000 of his own money. "God wanted me to give money to Rob's cause," says Mr. Nishimoto, 38. He believes it's a question of a powerful, deep-pocketed university out-manning and out-gunning one wronged guy.
Rob fished for lawyers. His lobbying was "a one-sided sympathy and propaganda campaign," as Hopkins described it. Still, Rob tried to drop his case on the doorsteps of former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former attorney general nominee Lani Guinier.
Rob's father, Donald Dobkin, had gone to City College with a man named Jeremiah Gutman, now a lawyer in New York City. "I just thought justice was on their side," says Mr. Gutman, who agreed to help Rob without charge. Mr. Gutman enlisted Henry Kaufman of New York, whose specialty is the First Amendment. They were not, however, Rob's attorneys of record. He didn't have one and still doesn't.
On Sept. 26, 1994, Johns Hopkins University sued Robert, Rosalyn and Donald Dobkin for defamation. The seven-page suit was to the point:
Hopkins sued for defamation because the Dobkins wrote letters stating that Dr. German "committed a felony by lying to the government" and "fraudulently" administered the NIH grant.
Hopkins sued because Dr. German had subsequent grants denied by federal agencies. The university's business dealings had been hurt by the Dobkins' letters, Hopkins claimed.
Hopkins sued for $12 million.
"This is an example of how the legal system allows matters that really should not be in court to take up the time and energies of many people," says Frederick Savage, associate general counsel for Hopkins.
Henry Kaufman, the lawyer helping the Dobkins, contends that citizens have certain privileges when petitioning the government. writing the letters, Rob's parents were exercising their prerogative of being parents."
As for Hopkins' lawsuit, he says, "A Goliath has pushed a David to the wall."
Matters of the mind
Rob Dobkin mastered Yale on brains. He got into Hopkins on brains. All his life, Rob has relied on his mind. When he sued Johns Hopkins over an academic dispute, he planned to win the case based on the facts -- so clear and logical in his mind. Anybody with any sense would see he was right.
Rob Dobkin's mind would become the point of this case. Not in the way he planned, but in the way he tried to avoid. From now on, there would be little formal discussion about the academic dispute between Rob and Dr. Pearl German.
In a March 1994 hearing in Dobkin vs. Hopkins, the university requested more of Rob's medical records. The Dobkins argued that his physical or psychological condition was irrelevant; that the issues were academic due process and proper grant administration. Hopkins is illegally invading Rob's privacy and harassing him, the family said.
But Hopkins said Rob opened the question of his medical condition in his lawsuit by originally stating he wanted to finish school quickly out of fear his health problems could "prevent him from his course of study and having a career."
Hopkins wonders how sick Rob Dobkin was or is. Whether he has been institutionalized or treated for depression could be important, too. Is he psychologically unbalanced?
"That's what the case is about. That's what everybody's trying to prove," U.S. District Judge Clarence Goetz said at the hearing in Baltimore.
Rob resisted turning over more medical records, arguing that Hopkins had enough. In January, the court declared Rob's medical condition relevant and ordered him to undergo a mental examination. He did not. In March, he was given one last chance.
"Failure to comply could lead to the dismissal of Dobkin's case," the court said.
This month, the court set a Nov. 6 trial date in Baltimore. Also this month, Rob Dobkin -- representing himself -- began discussing with an attorney for Hopkins the details of undergoing a mental examination. They haven't agreed on this issue.
At the School of Hygiene and Public Health, Dr. Arthur Freed says if possible, Rob could continue his studies in his lab, where the student did solid work in 1992. Rob still would make a very good doctoral candidate and a fine public health official, Dr. Freed says.
"If he's given the chance."
Finally, Rob Dobkin at first sight. In Jeremiah Gutman's Manhattan law office, Rob sits on a couch with his mother and father. He has brown hair worn in a pony tail, beautiful brown eyes, and he wears a black leather jacket and work boots. He looks like a brainy and thin biker. His parents look tired.
Until now, Rob has been glimpsed only in depositions, lawsuits and letters. In this meeting, he is thoroughly tense, defensive and sincere. The man's energy and anger can wear you out. The man can make you uneasy.
So, how are you doing?
"Just keeping up with Jeff," Rob says. Jeff Ayers is Hopkins' attorney in the case.
This whole thing is a mess.
"It's not a mess I made," Rob says.
He looks good, and it looks as though that's the wrong thing to say. "I look like I'm doing OK, but I'm in constant pain." He declines to have his picture taken for this story. He says Mr. Ayers might use the picture against him.
As Rob retells his story of "academic abuse," Donald and Rosalyn Dobkin try to add to his iron narrative. He interrupts them. The family's cause is shredding the family's patience. He scolds them for referring to his medical history. "Depression isn't a crime," his mother says. We must stick to the point, Rob demands.
What was the point? Rob's father remembers looking up "fraud" in Webster's and using the word in their 1993 letters to describe Hopkins' actions. In retrospect, Mr. Kaufman would have recommended against that language. "For God's sake, don't sue," Mr. Gutman would have also advised. But they weren't advising the Dobkins then.
What was the academic dispute between Rob and Dr. German? Something about Marx. Something about Rob's interest in bio-gerontology and "freezing time." Something about his success "devaluing" her prized program. Something almost forgotten.
Rob spends his afternoons here, gorging himself on Mr. Gutman's law books. Rob's parents wanted him to be a lawyer. The prospect makes him smile, a wonderful smile that doesn't get out much. "I would go to law school because it's a fixed time," Rob says. No faculty members imposing their academic agenda. Three years and out. Rob will forever feel pressed for time.
He doesn't work. His goal was to be a laboratory scientist for the National Institutes of Health. But he still doesn't have a doctoral degree. Surely there must be jobs for people with a master's degree from Yale.
"I don't relish the option of seeking work knowing my personal integrity has been impugned," says Rob.
He says he's broke, ruined and virtually friendless because of Hopkins. "My norm is not having a normal or happy life." Devotedly listening, as always, his 66-year-old mother winces. Tears dangle in her eyes. "He was a happy, wonderful, delicious child," she says.
Rob, what does your heart treasure?
"To have their golden years returned," he says, realizing a 37-year-old man with three degrees shouldn't be living at home. He should be on his own, married with children. But it was a family decision to spend the malpractice money and all this time on the cause.
"I am resolute and determined to have my name cleared," Rob Dobkin says.
And those are his final words.
Robert Dobkin's 72-year-old father palms a frayed New Yorker cartoon. A kneeling man is pictured at his bed, and the caption reads: "Please Lord, enough already." Donald Dobkin, the former infantryman, looks ready to surrender.
"I think everything is already lost," he says.
Henry Kaufman also considers the prospect of Rob losing his case. "A family that litigates together," he begins . . .
"Perishes together," Rob's father finishes.