FedEx Error Foils Fulbright Hopes of UCB Students

Friday February 06, 2004

Carl Freire absolutely, positively has to be in Japan next year. But a botched pick-up by Federal Express has cost the UC Berkeley doctoral candidate and 29 of his colleagues their best shot at a prestigious fellowship allowing them to study abroad.  

A computer glitch caused Federal Express to miss a scheduled pick-up of student applications for the Fulbright-Hayes fellowship Oct. 20, the postmark deadline date for all applications. 

Even though the applications were sent the following day with the airbill marked Oct. 20, the U.S. Department of Education ruled them invalid last week, much to the disgust of campus officials. 

“This is just a nightmare. It’s so stupid and senseless,” said Mary Ann Mason, dean of the graduate division. 

The university had spent weeks pleading their case, but appeals to Secretary of Education Rod Paige and a trip to Washington, D.C. by Chancellor Robert Berdahl failed to sway the department. 

“The facts are indisputable: UC Berkeley was negligent in failing to mail its application on time despite the fact that for years the university has applied for this program each fall,” wrote Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Sally L. Stroup in a prepared statement. 

Campus officials broke the news to students Tuesday, who had been kept in the dark about the bungled delivery. 

“I don’t know what my thoughts are,” Freire said, a doctoral candidate in Japanese history who needs to visit archives in Japan to complete his dissertation. “A little bit of responsibility seems to be spread around on this one.” 

Fulbrights are among the most prestigious and generous fellowships offered to graduate students. Unlike other fellowships, Fulbrights allow students to propose their own budgets and receive allowances for spouses. Under application rules, individuals must apply through their university. 

Last year, half of Berkeley’s 30 applicants received grants ranging from $19,593 to $63,947, according to the university. 

Problems with the application process first arose in September, campus officials said, when students and professors had difficulty navigating the Department of Education’s online filing system, causing the campus to request a waiver to mail paper applications. 

In previous years, applications went out several days before the deadline, school officials said, but due to problems with the department’s online application system, applicants got a late start, so the deadline was pushed back to Friday, Oct. 17, with overnight express pick-up scheduled for Oct. 20. 

But despite two calls from UC, Federal Express never came. In a letter sent with the applications on Oct. 21, Federal Express Dispatch Operations Manager blamed the botched pick-up on “problems with a new system rollout.” 

Campus officials contended that since the shipping labels for the applications were dated Oct. 20 they should qualify under department rules, but Stroup held UC accountable for the mishap. 

“The university blames Federal Express and the department. However, the reality is that when it became apparent that Federal Express would not arrive in time, a simple trip to the post office would have ensured that the university’s application met the deadline. Sixty other institutions met the application deadline.” 

An employee for the Institute of International Education, which oversees a different class of Fulbrights for the State Department, was shocked by the Department of Education’s ruling. “To me it’s inconceivable that any grant provider would be that rigid. I can’t imagine that we would quibble like that,” said the employee.  

Mason said the university would offer some money to affected students, though not enough to compensate for the potential loss of a Fulbright. 

Freire, who had applied for about $30,000 to fund his time in Japan is hoping one of the other fellowships he applied for comes through. “The archives I need are only in Japan,” he said. “I have to get there one way or another.”