All Posts Tagged With: "Gabor Lukacs"
“Little Office” hopes to have a big impact
A new website is meant to keep Canadian scholars honest when it comes to research. The Little Office of Research Integrity posts news related to research misconduct and calls for action when it notices what it sees as problems with intellectual integrity.
Mort Shirkhanzadeh, the site’s founder and Associate Professor in Queen’s University’s Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, says that the site came out of the “gradual and painful realization that we don’t have a system in Canada to genuinely deal with research misconduct.”
How the traditional university is under attack from all sides
The epic battle waged between Gábor Lukács and the University of Manitoba, which ended last week, has shone an unflattering light onto the state of academic integrity at our universities.
Listening to most recent observers, one would think that our universities need to be completely “reinvented” because professors spend too much time either not teaching at all or at least not teaching practical job skills.
But the Lukács case shows what’s really wrong.
As universities become increasingly defined by their administrations—as opposed to their faculty—the traditional values of higher education come under assault from all sides: from management, from the public, and even from the associations that represent professors themselves.
Prof. tried to fight award of PhD to student who failed exams
The University of Manitoba says that the ongoing fight with Professor Gabor Lukács has been settled. Although specifics will remain confidential, Lukács will no longer work for the University.
The statement reads, in part: “The University has rescinded all disciplinary actions against Professor Lukács (including reprimand, suspension and denial of increment). All outstanding legal proceedings between the parties are terminated. The parties have also agreed that it is to their mutual benefit to end the employment relationship.”
Lukács was a math professor at U of M. He sued the university because his Dean gave a student who had failed exams a degree, citing the student’s “extreme exam anxiety,” which was considered a disability. A Winnipeg court found that Lukács did not have standing to challenge the Dean.
Lukács was suspended in Oct. 2010 for allegedly breaching the privacy of the student in question. At the time, university president David Barnard accused him of “having engaged in a pattern of behaviour with regard to [the] student which the university considers to be harassment.”
Student passed despite “fundamental errors” says prof.
One month ago, professor Gábor Lukács failed to gain standing in his lawsuit that accused the University of Manitoba of violating its own standards by awarding a PhD to a student who hadn’t passed a required exam because of disability related to exam anxiety.
Now, another professor at the University of Manitoba says a student who didn’t adequately meet a requirement was awarded a graduate degree.
Education professor Rodney Clifton tells Maclean’s On Campus that he was pulled from a thesis committee by an Associate Dean two days before a student’s oral defence of what he calls a substandard Master’s thesis that required serious revisions.
Clifton had served since 2006 as a member of a four-person Master’s of Education examining committee. When a draft of the thesis in question came to him in the summer of 2010, Clifton found what he considered “fundamental errors in the analysis of the data” on which the thesis was based. He pointed these problems out to the committee, including the supervisor Robert Renaud.
Clifton says Renaud assured him that the errors could be corrected after the oral defence, itself a fairly common practice when the errors are minor. But Clifton insisted that the data problems were too big for a conditional approval, that an entirely different method of analysis was called for, and that if the thesis did proceed to the oral defence, there was a good chance that he would vote against passing it. Because the university’s policies require unanimous decisions, his objections meant the student would likely have failed.
Clifton was rebuffed when he asked via e-mail to meet with the entire committee to discuss delaying the defence in order to give the student a chance to fix the mistakes. Telephone calls and e-mails Maclean’s On Campus left for Robert Renaud were not returned. But one of the e-mails Clifton received from Renaud indicates that the men disagreed over whether the whole committee should meet to discuss the errors. As the thesis defence date approached, Renaud wrote that he was not about to “waste the time of the committee” just to hear Clifton “rant” about problems Clifton had already pointed out.
A few days before the defence was scheduled, Renaud restated his case for letting the defence go ahead, insisting that he did not want the committee members to lower their academic standards, but that if the concerns about the thesis would eventually be fixed, and given that the student was approaching the deadline, why would Clifton want to “make things unnecessarily difficult?”
When Clifton still objected, Renaud wrote to express his disappointment with his refusal to compromise and cooperate. A day later, he wrote again, indicating that Clifton’s “reactions will negatively affect [the student’s] progress,” and telling him that since he was “unwilling to change [his] perspective,” Renaud was removing Clifton from the committee. Clifton fired back that Renaud had no business removing him from the committee, but that he was willing to have the student proceed to the defence to see if he could be convinced that his objections were not insurmountable. “It still remains to be seen,” Clifton warned, “if the student passes the oral examination or not.”
Less than an hour later—and only two days before the student defended the thesis—Clifton received the e-mail from Associate Dean Zana Lutfiyya saying that since “the majority of committee members are prepared to allow the student to move to the oral defence… I am comfortable with the defense proceeding, and in the change of committee membership.” The thesis was approved.
When Clifton asked Lutfiyya if he could see the final version of the thesis, the copy she forwarded showed, according to Clifton, that the changes to the statistical analysis were never made.
Taking him off the committee, Clifton says, violated principles of academic accountability. Faculty members must be allowed to debate the merits of a thesis. If administrators can simply replace a faculty member who objects, then that accountability disappears, he argues. The whole point of the committee, he says, is that the decision is not left up to individual administrators or even individual faculty members. ”We don’t have external agencies coming in to adjudicate us,” Clifton points out. Professors are bound to ensure the integrity of the degrees their university grants, he says.
In his more than 30 years as an academic, Clifton has never seen a case like this, he says.
Maclean’s On Campus tried to contact Dr. Lutfiyya for comment, but received notifications that she would be away until mid-October. U of M Dean of Education Robert Macmillan, the academic head of the faculty, did respond by e-mail on the school’s behalf to say that while he could not comment on the specifics of this case since he was not Dean at the time the events occurred, he had “seen instances elsewhere when committee members, and even supervisors, have been changed as a result of conflicting views over a student’s work.” In cases that he was familiar with, he said, “the decisions have not been made lightly.”
Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.
Professor protested PhD of student who failed exam
Gábor Lukács’s case against the University of Manitoba has been dismissed. The mathematics professor took his school to court over the awarding of a PhD to a student who had failed a required exam. The court has ruled that Lukács does not have legal standing in the case.
The ruling, which suggests that professors have few options when it comes to challenging decisions made by deans, is a setback to those fighting for academic integrity in Canada.
Lukács made national news when he challenged the U of M for awarding a PhD to a student who had failed a comprehensive exam and, it later turned out, had not completed all the required coursework. Normally, such a student would have had to leave the program, but because the student later produced documentation related to “exam anxiety” the normal requirements for the degree were waived and the student graduated — despite the concerns that had been raised.
I have been critical of the university since the news of the case broke last year, and repeatedly found their arguments in their own defence to be unconvincing. More importantly, though, the Lukács case demonstrates the extent to which professors at Canadian universities are remarkably powerless to defend the academic principles we need them to defend.
In this case, the dean made a decision to award a degree to a student who, by all accounts, including those of the university’s own spokespeople and the judge in the court case, had not met the ordinary requirements set out in the university’s regulations. No one unfamiliar with the details of the situation could object that the university had gone too far, because they didn’t know the details. Anyone who did know what was going on couldn’t say anything about it because the university considers that a violation of the student’s right to privacy.
And if a morally courageous professor complains anyway, as Lukács did, the university can invoke its confidentiality policies and suspend him without pay, in essence imposing a massive fine. If he tries to fight in court, he’s told it’s none of his business. In short, if a professor believes a degree has been unjustly awarded, there’s not much he can do about it.
All of this matters immensely because if professors can’t fight for academic integrity when they disagree with a dean or other administrator, who’s left to do it? There are still some white hats in the stables of university leadership, to be sure, but administrators are increasingly corporate-style executives whose attention tends to focus more and more heavily on things like fiscal management and branding. Students, some of whom may care, come and go over just a few years and neither see the big problems nor have time to fight the big fights.
Professors, for the most part, still care deeply about profound intellectual values. They couldn’t have come this far if they didn’t. But when administrators make academic decisions despite the judgements of the scholars closest to students, and when they can hide behind confidentiality policies and legal maneuverings, the future of academic integrity in this country does not look bright.
Barbara Sherwin got off easy
The news that Barbara Sherwin has received only a reprimand from McGill University is distressing to me. In 2009, the story broke that Sherwin had published a paper written at least in part by a ghost writer who had in turn been hired by a pharmaceutical company. The paper appeared only under Sherwin’s name, and when the truth came out it was something of a scandal.
At the time, I pointed out that students who took credit for other people’s work are rightly penalized for such plagiarism and universities set a bad example if they don’t take academic integrity seriously among their own professors. In this case, where health research is being done, it seems especially clear that if a study is written at the request of a pharmaceutical company and payed for by that company, at the very least, that process should be made absolutely clear upon publication. Big companies should not be able to pretend that the research is not theirs by getting a professor to front for them. And professors shouldn’t play along. Two University of Toronto law professors have said recently that the practice amounts to fraud. We already have good reason to believe that when drug companies fund research, the results are more likely to say good things about the drugs. Are we really to believe that having drug companies secretly ghost write journal articles is not going to make the bias problem worse?
To be fair, McGill could have done less than it did. A formal reprimand is taken seriously in university circles, particularly because such things usually become part of a professor’s personal record. Even so, a reprimand is still only a reprimand. Imagine if a student found guilty of plagiarism was sent a letter saying “your plagiarism was wrong and you should not to do it again, but you still get an ‘A’ on your paper.”
The lack of more serious consequences for Sherwin is particularly troubling in light of the ongoing struggles of Gabor Lukacs, who was suspended for an entire term without pay because he fought for academic integrity (not to mention the rights of airline passengers). Sherwin violates academic integrity and gets slapped with a ruler? Canadian universities, it seems, can barely tell right from wrong these days.
Prof. was suspended after questioning failing student’s PhD
The University of Manitoba didn’t issue Gabor Lukacs a cease and desist order, it’s president, David Barnard, didn’t warn him about his impending suspension and the student who Barnard accused Lukacs of harassing never even filed a complaint against him. That’s what a Manitoba labour tribunal heard from Lukac’s lawyer yesterday, reports the Winnipeg Free Press. Luckac’s is the 28-year-old math professor who was suspended for three-months without pay last year — on the president’s recommendation — after he lobbied against a dean’s decision to award a PhD to a student who had twice failed the exams required to graduate. The dean had accepted that the student could not pass the exams because of his disability — “extreme exam anxiety” — which Lukacs believed was an abuse of the rules. Barnard argued that a 2009 reprimand from the dean to stop talking about the student’s alleged medical condition should have been enough warning to Lukacs that he might be suspended. He also said that the university would not have suspended Lukacs had the professor not named the student and his medical condition in a lawsuit he filed to try and get the PhD overturned.
Prof. protested awarding of PhD to student who failed twice
David Barnard, president of the University of Manitoba, told a Winnipeg arbitrator Monday that math professor Gábor Lukács was “harassing” a student by repeatedly dissemintating personal health details about him, reports the Winnipeg Free Press. But Lukács continues to argue that he was justifiably protesting the fact that the student, whose name is protected by the tribunal, was awarded a PhD in math despite having twice failed the required exams. Lukács alleged then, as he does now, that the student was abusing the school’s policy of accommodating students with disabilities by faking “extreme anxiety.” John Doering, the Dean of Graduate Studies, had accepted the student’s condition as a valid reason for not requiring him to pass the exams. The student was awarded the doctorate. That caused Lukács to file an application with a Manitoba court asking for a reversal of the dean’s decision and an affirmation that the dean had no authority to resolve the issue without consulting a committee of academics. It was then that Barnard asked U of M’s board of governors to suspend Lukács without pay for three months, which they did, beginning in the fall. Arbitration continues. Read more coverage of the case here.
Math prof says he is being punished for taking UManitoba to court over academic standards
A University of Manitoba professor who took the school to court over academic standards has been denied his annual salary increase. Gábor Lukács, an assistant professor in the mathematics department, told the Winnipeg Free Press, that he noticed the discrepancy on his most recent pay stub. Under the collective agreement Lukács should have received an annual bump of $2,000. While the agreement permits the university to deny salary increases for unsatisfactory performance, faculty are suppose to be informed when that happens. “I received no letter, no justification,” Lukács said. Lukács was suspended for three months without pay last fall when he filed an application in Manitoba court to reverse a decision to waive an exam requirement for a PhD student. Officially the university suspended the math professor for revealing private details about the student. Lukács believes he was denied his raise as part of a campaign to punish him. The university did not comment on the specifics of the case.
Court reserves decision on whether lawsuit can be heard
On Thursday a judge appeared to have dismissed the notion that math professor Gabor Lukacs was suspended from work as punishment for suing his employer, the University of Manitoba, as has been suggested by both Lukacs and his supporters.
Lukacs filed a lawsuit against the U of M in the fall to reverse a decision, by Dean of Graduate Studies John Doering, to waive a comprehensive exam for a PhD student. The student, who had failed the exam twice and was asked to withdraw from the PhD program, is said to suffer from exam anxiety. Lukacs claims that Doering, as an administrator, has no authority to make academic decisions. Shortly after filing his court application, Lukacs received notice that he was being suspended for three months, a sanction that ended at the beginning of January.
The university has maintained that Lukacs was suspended for violating the student’s privacy, but suspicions immediately arose, mostly through dozens of online comments, but also in a petition from his students for him to be reinstated, and in official protests sent to university brass. A grievance filed by the faculty association argued that Lukacs was treated “unreasonably, unfairly and in a manner contrary to the collective agreement.” Surely, many observers argued, Lukacs was suspended for daring to challenge the administration.
But yesterday, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Deborah McCawley seems to have quashed that argument. Addressing Lukacs’ lawyer Robert Tapper, the judge said, “Your client was not ordered to desist discussion of academic integrity. It’s not right to say it’s effectively a muzzle order.” On that particular point, the judge was siding with U of M counsel, Jamie Kagan, who had argued “When you disobey your employer, there is going to be a consequence, and Dr. Lukacs felt that consequence.”
When Lukacs first filed his court application, the student was identified by name. The name was later redacted, and replaced with the initials AZ, after a publication ban was ordered.
Despite arguments surrounding whether or not Lukacs was legitimately suspended, Thursday’s hearing, the Winnipeg Free Press reports, was dedicated to the question of standing. Kagan argued that Lukacs, who didn’t teach the student, and was not on the math department’s Graduate Studies Committee until after the exam was waived, was not individually harmed. “His rights are not affected. He has no skin in the game,” Kagan said.
Tapper countered that Lukacs, as a member of the math department, has a direct interest in the case because if the university comes to be seen as a “diploma mill” his own reputation will be at stake. “The University of Manitoba has nothing to be proud of in this case,” Tapper said.
For now, McCawley is reserving her decision on whether Lukacs’ lawsuit will even be heard. But even if the court rules that Lukacs has no standing, the university will still likely find it difficult to claim anything but a narrow legal victory. In November U of M faculty rejected a senate motion that would have recognized “that the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies has jurisdiction to waive academic requirements.”
Even when the story is no longer of interest to media types, grudges within universities can be held for years, and often decades.
First reports of court case start rolling in
Preliminary reports on the court case between the University of Manitoba and Gabor Lukacs are starting to come in. The Canadian Press reports that the U of M’s lawyer, Jamie Kagan, argued that because the student has already received his degree that “There is no longer any framework for there to be a dispute.” Lukacs is asking the court to reverse a decision by the Dean of Graduate studies to waive an exam requirement for a PhD student. The student is said to suffer from exam anxiety.
As expected, Kagan argued the decision has not caused any direct harm to Lukacs and that he has no standing to argue the case. “His rights are not affected. He has no skin in the game,” Kagan said. Lukacs was also dismissed as a “busybody.”
The assistant math professor’s lawyer is addressing those arguments this afternoon and Justice Deborah McCawley is expected to reserve her decision.
For background on this story, please see our earlier coverage.
UManitoba to defend waiving exam requirement for PhD student
The University of Manitoba and math professor Gabor Lukacs are in court this morning over the awarding of a PhD to a student who did not meet all the requirements. Lukacs filed a court application in the fall to reverse a decision, made by the Dean of Graduate Studies John Doering, to waive an exam requirement for the student. The student had failed the exam twice and under faculty rules, he was required to withdraw from the program. The student, whose name is protected by a publication ban, is said to suffer from exam anxiety.
In response, university president David Barnard sent a letter notifying Lukacs that he would be suspended for three months, on the grounds that he violated the student’s privacy. In court Lukacs is expected to argue that Doering, as an administrator, had no authority to waive the exam, particularly since it was against the wishes of the Graduate Studies Committee in the math department. The university for its part will likely argue that Lukacs has no standing, and that he cannot claim to have been harmed in any way by the decision.
UPDATE: This story has been updated here.
Gabor Lukacs’ three month suspension is over
A University of Manitoba math professor, who had been suspended for three months, is scheduled to return to normal teaching duties Tuesday. Gabor Lukacs was suspended in October after he filed a complaint in Manitoba court to reverse a decision by the university to waive an exam requirement for to had failed a comprehensive exam. The university says Lukacs violated the student’s right to privacy by initially revealing the student’s name in court documents as well as details regarding the student’s medical history. The student is said to suffer from exam anxiety. “My suspension was until Dec. 31, 2010, and I have not received any communication from the university about further suspension or termination,” Lukacs said to the Winnipeg Free Press. Lukacs case against the university is scheduled to be heard in court later this month.
Graduate Students’ Association endorses suspension of Gabor Lukacs
The University of Manitoba Graduate Students’ Association has come out in support of the decision to suspend math professor Gabor Lukacs. Lukacs was suspended for three months without pay after he filed an application in Manitoba court to reverse a decision by John Doering, Dean of Graduate Studies, to waive a comprehensive exam requirement for a PhD student. After he filed his court papers, the university suspended him on the official grounds that he violated the students’ privacy. The student, whose name is protected by a publication ban, is said to suffer from “extreme exam anxiety.”
In a recent letter distributed to various media outlets, including Maclean’s, Meaghan Labine, president of the Graduate Students’ Association endorsed the decision to suspend Lukacs.
Graduate students value the protection and privacy of their personal information. The UMGSA supports the protection of all students’ personal and private information that is required by law. The University of Manitoba’s response in dealing with this breach of confidentiality reflects the university’s commitment to ensuring the confidentiality of a student’s personal information. Consequently, to the extent that the university’s decision to suspend its faculty member may have been based on the unauthorized disclosure of personal health information, the UMGSA feels this Human Resources decision was justified.
Although Labine does not address the specific circumstances surrounding the waiving of the exam requirement for the student, she criticizes the characterization of the U of M as a “PhD mill” and implications that the university has been granting “compassionate degrees.” She writes: “It has been our collective experience that the University of Manitoba adheres to regulated standards for academic achievement within all disciplines ensuring that program requirements and achievements fulfill degree requirements and equifinality.”
The GSA letter advances a different position than the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, who is supporting Lukacs by grieving his suspension. “I don’t know if its an automatic thing that we do, but it’s such a harsh thing that we usually try to find some other way to resolve the issue aside from some sort of formal discipline,” Cameron Morrill, UMFA president told the Manitoban.
In a letter published by the Winnipeg Free Press, Morrill also questioned the university’s definition of reasonable accommodation when exam anxiety is concerned.
In cases where a diagnosis of exam anxiety means that the usual methods of examination do not provide a fair evaluation of a student’s abilities, reasonable accommodation routinely takes the form of allowing the student additional time or other special conditions under which to take the exam. Reasonable accommodation does not mean that the student does not have to demonstrate the competencies required by the degree.
Similarly, some 86 mathematicians from around the world have issued a letter of protest addressed to the university administration against the decision to waive the exam requirement.
[A]s members of the mathematical community, we wish to express our deep concern about the repercussions this affair will have at the national and international levels. Indeed, given the current cohesiveness of the mathematical community, and the speed at which information now travels, the negative publicity your institution is receiving threatens to cast a shadow on all future mathematics degrees awarded by the University of Manitoba. In the current context of intense competition, many of your students will find it difficult to overcome such a handicap.
While Lukacs’ grievance against his suspension will not be heard until the spring, a hearing on his court application, where a judge is being asked to rule whether Doering, as an administrator, had the authority to waive PhD requirements, is scheduled for tomorrow January 20, 2011(Update: The hearing was originally scheduled for Nov 30th, but that has since changed). The university’s primary defense is that Lukacs has no standing.
Dr. Lukacs has no individual rights in law or equity that are at stake or in issue. He does not have a direct and personal interest in the alleged improper acts of Dr. Doering or the university. . . . Further, there is no evidence that he has suffered, or is likely to suffer, special damages peculiar to himself as a result of the accommodation afforded to [the student] by the university and any decision made by the university as a consequence of said accommodation.
UManitoba blames the media for its own PR disaster in Lukacs case
The University of Manitoba has been the target of a lot of negative attention over the suspension of math professor Gabor Lukacs. Nearly three weeks after the story was first covered here at On Campus, the university released a statement attacking “misinformation” on the part of the “mass media.” It is a ridiculous assertion.
Lukacs, it should be recalled, was suspended without pay after filing an application in Manitoba court to reverse a decision made by John Doering, Dean of Graduate Studies, to waive a comprehensive exam requirement for a PhD student. The student had failed the exam twice, and under Faculty of Graduate Studies regulations was initially required to withdraw from the program. The official reason for Lukacs’s suspension is that he violated the student’s privacy. The last professor to be suspended without pay was facing charges of sexual assault.
In his court application Lukacs argues that Doering, as an administrator, did not have the authority to make such a decision without consulting an appeal committee of academics, particularly since there was widespread opposition in the math department to the move.
Before waiving the exam altogether, Doering asked the graduate studies committee in the department of mathematics to administer an oral exam, since the student, whose name is protected by a publication ban, is said to suffer from “extreme exam anxiety.” The committee offered instead to allow the student to write a third comprehensive with double time and relaxed conditions, but it refused to proceed with an oral exam.
“The graduate studies committee indicated its preference for a waiver of the exam as opposed to an oral exam in this unique situation,” reads a joint message from Doering and Mark Whitmore, Dean of Science. “Any previous suggestions made that the Dean of Graduate Studies made a unilateral decision, without consultation, are simply false and irresponsible.”
Doering says he also consulted with student advocacy and disability services. But even if those bodies supported an oral exam, that doesn’t negate the fact that those actually responsible for overseeing academics in the math department rejected the Dean’s idea. What’s more, any consultation the dean may or may not have done before finally waiving the exam requirement does not absolve him of responsibility. He made the final decision, and he is on record taking credit for it.
As reported in our earlier story, when responding to an email from Lukacs who challenged the dean’s powers, Doering replied, “I heard that appeal and rendered a decision, i.e., I reinstated the student and waived any requirement to sit another comprehensive exam.” The dean then added, “Moreover, I would note many of the things a dean can do are not written down.”
There is evidence to suggest that Doering was not trying to accommodate the student, so much as he was trying to find a way for the student to pass no matter what.
In his court affidavit (page 19), Lukacs quotes a memorandum sent from Doering to the head of the mathematics department giving instructions for how a supposed oral exam would take place. “Each oral examiner should convey to me the outcome of his respective oral exam of [the student]. In the event that failure is reported, alternative testing will likely be explored,” the memo reads. (Emphasis added).
The entirety of this document has not yet been made available to the courts, but that Doering intended for the student to pass is further supported by an email from Yong Zhang, who was chair of the graduate studies committee at the time of the decision.
“[Doering] directed the department to give some oral exams to [the student] to let him pass the exam,” Zhang wrote, adding that the “committee refused to set such an exam because it could not keep the standard of the comprehensive.”
Doering also elevated a fourth-year course to a PhD level course because the student was short one class to meet graduation requirements.
In explaining his decision to waive the exam, in the statement coauthored with science dean Mark Whitmore, Doering noted that the student “scored slightly below an ‘A’ grade,” but failed because the Faculty of Graduate Studies considers an “A” to be a pass for comprehensive exams.
As Todd has already pointed out, if the student’s examiners had considered his grade sufficient, they would have passed him in the first place. That the student failed with a grade just short of an “A” attests to the standards employed by most reputable universities when awarding doctorates. If a “B+” is to be considered a pass, then the regulations should be amended to reflect this.
When researching our original story, Maclean’s requested an interview with Dean Doering. He did not respond. Science Dean Mark Whitmore did respond to a request but referred all inquiries to the university’s public affairs department, where a representative declined to speak to specifics. Maclean’s also contacted the head of the math department—who did not respond—and the student’s advisor (who hung up the phone). In the weeks following the publication of the story, no one from the university contacted Maclean’s to dispute the facts as presented.
Important questions still unanswered in the Lukacs affair.
Officials at the University of Manitoba have issued an official response in the controversial Gabor Lukacs case. Happily, the President’s section of the response includes a promise to review the university’s practices regarding how it will better handle similar cases in the future. This is welcome news and must be accounted a victory for Lukacs and his supporters.
But the defence provided by the Deans Jay Doering and Mark Whitmore does little to answer the serious concerns that have been raised about academic integrity in this case. Though the statement bristles with affront over media coverage of the matter, the Deans’ defence, read carefully, does little to refute the numerous concerns that have come up.
Related: A failing grade on transparency
For instance, the Deans admit that the mathematics department considers an A a passing grade on the comprehensive exam and that the student earned “slightly below” that grade. So what are we to conclude? That almost passing is the same as passing? Surely the examiners knew that they were giving a failing grade. If they thought it was close enough, they would have raised the grade in the first place. And what about the allegations that the student in question did not complete all the necessary graduate courses and that undergraduate courses were elevated in their place?
Next, the Deans confirm that the student’s documentation regarding severe exam anxiety was provided only after the two failures occurred. This point has raised many eyebrows among commentators who have suggested that surely a student with a disability should declare that disability beforehand. Moreover, if the exam anxiety was so debilitating, how did the student pass other exams, including the other comprehensives? Is there really no threat to academic integrity when students can claim they have a disability but only when they fail?
Then comes the strangest passage in their brief:
The graduate studies committee of the department of mathematics recommended a written alternative. Disability Services recommended the student be accommodated with an oral format. The graduate studies committee indicated its preference for a waiver of the exam as opposed to an oral exam in this unique situation.
This math story does not add up. The department proposes an alternative written format (this is consistent with media reports that the student was offered more time). This accommodation is rejected and the disability office recommends an oral exam. Then the department counters with no exam at all? That strains credibility. I can see why the department would reject an oral exam, but why would they suddenly give up on the exam altogether? If they didn’t think the exam was necessary, why didn’t they propose the waiver in the first place? Did they become so frustrated with the administration that they just gave up? Did someone jokingly say “An oral exam? We might as well give no exam at all! No, wait, I was just kidding . . . ” At the very least, this requires fuller explanation.
But even if for some reason the department did propose waiving the exam, it seems to me that it was incumbent upon the Dean to reject that proposal, because it was his job to defend the academic standards of the university. Not so, say the Deans because
Under the Manitoba Human Rights Code, the University was obligated to accommodate this proven, professionally-diagnosed disability.
The U of M has used this rhetorical trick before, claiming they are legally required to make accommodations when, in fact, they are only obligated to make reasonable accomodations. Dean Doering could have insisted that more time was a reasonable accommodation. Further, he could have pointed out that section 13 (1) of the Human Rights Code allows for some kinds of discrimination if the causes are “bona fide and reasonable.” Surely, a university has some right to discriminate against students who can’t show a mastery of the required subject matter.
The Deans then give a list of other achievements of the student, none of which, of course, are relevant, before turning on Gabor Lukacs. On one hand, they cite only one motive for Lukacs’ position, a desire to “have the student’s degree revoked,” making no mention of the idea that perhaps Lukacs is taking a stand on principle. They then point out that Lukacs was not directly involved in the student’s education at U of M, a point that only strengthens Lukacs’s position. Why would he protest the conferral of a degree upon a student he did not know or teach unless it was not about this student at all, but about upholding academic integrity?
And while we are on the subject of Lukacs, why was he given such harsh punishment? A three month suspension without pay? The maximum fine for a first offence of animal cruelty in Manitoba is $5000. Lukacs is being made to forgo something like three times that amount. How is that reasonable?
The Deans say it is now time to move forward. If they really mean it, they can start by reinstating professor Lukacs and paying him his back salary.
Are our chief academic bodies on life support?
A recent conference in British Columbia asked what universities ought to do with their Senates. Once the sites of fiery debate over academic issues, Senates are now mostly “comatose,” said one participant, and need to be “revived.”
I recently finished a two-year Senate term at my august institution, and, in my experience, there is some truth to the concerns. Senate meetings are so long, members often don’t want to make a fuss lest the meeting go even longer. Some senators may only be there because no one else was willing to do it, so they are just waiting out their term. Moreover, since most things go through a long process of approval and consultation before they get to Senate, senators often feel that it is not their place to object.
That said, I attended more than one Senate meeting in my two years that featured intense debate. One particularly memorable exchange focused on a controversial report over the role of the university in prioritizing certain kinds of research. Less fiery, but equally rich, was a long Senate debate over the introduction of a fall study break. The Senate at the University of Manitoba recently entertained a controversial motion about the power of deans, a motion clearly raised in the light of the Gabor Lukacs affair, and which inspired just the kind of debate over principle that supposedly no longer exists. Still further, it was not that long ago that the Trent University Senate rang with debates over their residential college system. In short, the reports of Senate comas are greatly exagerated.
It must also be noted that the quiet meetings of Senate itself can be misleading because such bodies usually have sub-committees who consider matters in separate meetings and then make recommendations to be considered on the floor of Senate itself. It is in these meetings that much of serious debate happens and when I was a member of the Academic Committee of Senate, vigorous debate was the norm at our meetings, though you would not always know it by the time the recommendations (complete with compromises and explanations) came to Senate proper. In other words, a quiet meeting may only be the final step in a very loud process.
In the end, I don’t think there is very much wrong with the Senate system as it is. If faculty don’t want to serve on Senate, they are going to have to suck it up. If Senators don’t want to engage in debate, they are going to have to remember to embody what we teach our students about critical thinking and citizenship. But apathy, laziness, and the sense that someone else can do it are not unique to university senates, and like most other human institutions, they revive when things get serious.
They are only making it worse.
John Danakas of the University of Manitoba has written to the Winnipeg Free Press to defend his university amid the growing storm over the suspension of math prof Gabor Lukacs. His defense, though, only further embarrasses the U of M by employing the same flawed logic and the same disregard for academic regulations that got the university into this mess in the first place.
Danakas’ argument boils down to two claims:
1. The university is bound by law to make reasonable accomodations to those with medical disabilities, and since exam anxiety is recognized legally and medically as a disability, the university has to let some students forgo their exams. To do otherwise would be “irresponsible and unlawful.”
2. The “ultimate test” of a PhD candidate is the dissertation and its defence, so we should not be too concerned over whether a particular student passed any particular exam or passed any particular course.
Here’s what wrong with these arguments:
1. The obligation to make accommodation need not extend to waiving exams altogether or ignoring missing courses. The department was willing to allow the student more time — surely that is a reasonable accomodation. The Dean wanted to give the student an oral exam, but while I am not a mathematician, my sense of advanced math is that you cannot do it in your head and you cannot explain it without writing it down. Perhaps professional mathematicians out there can weigh in on this.
In short, Danakas invokes “reasonable accomodation” and then leaves out the “reasonable” part. Surely reasonable accomodation does not mean every possible accomodation.
2. Of course the thesis is the biggest part of any Canadian PhD program, but it is not for Danakas to say that the other requirements are unimportant, any more than it is for the Dean of Graduate studies to do so. The pre-dissertation work for the U of M PhD in math looks to me like it would take at least two years of full-time study. What will Danakas say to all those U of M Ph.D. students who, according to him, are wasting their time?
Danakas says that besides the dissertation, there are “a number factors that come into play” when determining whether one gets a doctorate or not. Wrong. There is no play of factors. This is not a branding meeting; it’s an academic degree. There are a series of requirements.
Which ones matter? Let me say it one more time.
IT IS NOT FOR HIM TO SAY.
Let me put it this way. Would you want to be represented by a lawyer who hadn’t actually passed the bar exam because some official said it didn’t matter? Would you be comfortable being operated on by a surgeon who had been excused from her exams because they made her too anxious? Would you want to drive over a bridge everyday if you weren’t sure the people who designed it got the math right?
Besides, as I have said elsewhere, if courses and exams can be waived, why not the thesis, too? One might answer that of course no one would ever do that, but up until last week I would have assumed that no one would ever do this.
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Degree minus requirements equals zero.
The case of Gabor Lukacs continues to spur debate at the University of Manitoba and across the country. Lukacs, recall, is the mathematics professor who was suspended after he rebelled against a Dean’s decision to allow a PhD student to graduate without passing a comprehensive exam. If U of M officials thought suspending Lukacs for “insubordination” (among other things) would make the case go away, they were wrong.
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The National Post, among other media outlets, has picked up the story and Joseph Brean’s article reminds readers of details that must surely now be embarrassing to the Winnipeg university. Of particular interest is the fact that the mathematics department did try to accommodate the student by giving him more time to write the exam, but that attempt at accommodation was refused by Dean John Doering. Also of interest is the fact that Doering allowed the student in question to count an undergraduate course towards his graduate degree.
While minor university regulations are sometimes waived under special circumstances, it is hard for this humble blogger to see how waiving such major requirements could ever be countenanced, even given the need for reasonable accommodation of medical conditions. It is not for a dean, or any administrator, or, indeed any individual, to waive a major regulation at will, especially contrary to the wishes of the department. Dr Doering, though well qualified to be a dean, is not a mathematician, and even if he was, he should not presume to decide on his own which requirements count and which do not.
If the comprehensive exam is deemed not necessary for a Ph.D. in mathematics, the requirement should be eliminated according to the academic procedures of the university. That way the merits of the regulation can be fully debated by those best able to judge them. If a dean can waive the requirement for the exam and for coursework, what’s to stop him from waiving the requirement for a thesis, too (perhaps on the basis of a student’s thesis anxiety)? And then what is left?
Hours ago, reports began to circulate that the U of M Senate entertained a motion that would have, in effect, vindicated Doering’s decision by affirming that the Dean had the authority to waive regulations all along. For the time being, that motion has been referred back to the U of M Senate executive. Let’s hope it never finds its way back to the Senate floor.
If this is a small victory for those of us committed to academic integrity, it is still a victory. This writer hopes it will not be the last.
After tense debate, controversial Senate motion to grant Dean of Graduate Studies sweeping powers tabled–for now
Faculty members at the University of Manitoba refused to pass a motion at a Senate meeting Wednesday that would have given the dean of Graduate Studies the authority to waive certain academic requirements when resolving student appeals.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Procedures recommended that granting the dean authority to waive academic requirements was consistent with the university’s policy to resolve student appeals at the lowest level possible.
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The motion read: “Senate, based upon the University bylaw granting Deans a broad and general oversight of the ‘general supervision and direction over the Faculty’ and the approved Academic Guide of the Faculty of Graduate Studies which tasks the Dean with seeking informal solutions to student appeals before a hearing, rule that the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies has jurisdiction to waive academic requirements.”
The motion was brought before Senate after math professor Gabor Lukacs took legal action against the university over what he believed was an unfair decision on the part of Dean of Graduate Studies, John Doering, to award a student their PhD without passing a comprehensive PhD exam required to graduate.
Although several faculty members indirectly referred to Lukacs’ ongoing battle with the university when discussing the motion, U of M president David Barnard steered the conversation away from the case. Barnard explained that, considering it is an ongoing personnel matter, it was inappropriate to discuss details of the case during open session.
Over half a dozen faculty members expressed their concern with passing the motion. Some members felt that it would essentially give the dean the power to grant degrees, which was particularly concerning in regards to granting degrees at the Masters or PhD level.
U of M Graduate Students Association president Meaghan Labine pointed out that there needed to be a more consistency in the appeals process and “a greater definition of what deans can do.”
Senate members voted to table the motion for further review by the Senate Executive Committee.