A failing grade on transparency


Carson Jerema –November 24th, 2010

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.

Original article on Macleans On Campus website