After weeks of increasing publicity, the University of Manitoba issued an official response in the Gabor Lukacs case last Wednesday.
In a statement delivered to alumni, staff, students and faculty members at the U of M, president David Barnard declared his support for the student at the centre of the case, saying that they are an “exceptional” student and are “fully deserving of the PhD conferred by the University of Manitoba.”
In the statement, Barnard states that there has been “a lot of misinformation” spread about the case that has been “too easily and readily been accepted by some as fact.”
“It is incumbent upon all of us to wait for the case to work its way through the process before drawing conclusions,” said Barnard in the email sent to students and staff Wednesday afternoon.
“[ . . . ]We have nowhere near enough information to condemn our colleagues or fellow alumni.”
Barnard explained that the administration and Senate have begun discussions on how to accommodate students with disabilities. These discussion will include a review of what types of accommodations may be offered without compromising academic standards, and who should decide on if accommodations should be offered, and if so, what type.
The university filled notice that it is contesting the Lukacs case against the decision on Nov. 5.
A copy of the motion brief filed by the university was obtained by the Manitoban. It states that Lukacs does not have standing in the case, arguing that it is impossible for Lukacs to show any personal advantage or loss arising from the proceedings.
“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,” states the court document.
“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.”
Lukacs said that he thought the university’s argument that the decision to waive the requirement for the PhD student is not of interest to him was “total nonsense.”
“If the University of Manitoba gains a reputation [ . . . ] that it’s an institution of questionable credibility, who’s going to study here?” said Lukacs.
“The effect of the academic integrity of the university is absolutely profound on me. [ . . . ] It’s certainly very damning from my career’s perspective.”
The court documents filed by the university also argue that the university is a private entity, whose decisions are then private decisions affecting the governance of the university and its academic programs.
“Such acts are not analogous to public acts of governmental authority,” state the motion brief.
Lukacs said he felt that this argument also had many flaws.
“I think you have to ask yourself, what percentage of the University of Manitoba’s budget comes out of the public’s purse? So much for being a private entity,” said Lukacs.
Lukacs also argued that academic decisions at the university, including the granting of degrees, are made under the scrutiny of Senate and its committees and are “very far from being private decisions.”
U of M director of Public Affairs John Danakas felt that attention on the case has been rather one sided due to the university’s obligation to adhere to privacy and confidentiality legislation.
“I think that it’s worth saying that protecting the privacy of students, especially with respect to medical information, is really important and something that the university takes tremendously seriously,” said Danakas.
“As someone with 25 years of experience in media and media relations, I can say that I have seen first-hand many times the harm the disclosure of private information can do to individuals and their reputations.”
A joint message from dean of graduate studies, John Doering, and dean of the faculty of science, Mark Whitmore, was also sent along to students and staff with Barnard’s message, outlining the rational behind the decision to waive the PhD candidacy examination requirement for the student.
In the letter, Doering and Whitmore explain that in order to graduate from a doctoral program in mathematics, a student must complete comprehensive exams in three subject areas, for which the department defines a pass as an A grade.
The student in question successfully passed two of the exams with an A grade. However, the student attempted the last exam and scored below the A grade. In their second attempt at the third exam, the student scored much worse than they had on their first attempt and were notified they were required to withdraw from the program.
Doering and Whitmore explained that the student then appealed this decision to Doering. In their appeal application, they provided information stating that they suffered from “severe, disabling exam anxiety that appears to have significantly impeded [the student’s] ability to perform to [the student’s] potential.”
The letter states that the university was obligated to accommodate the student’s “proven, professionally-diagnosed disability,” and that, following broad consultation, the dean of graduate studies concluded that the student need not retake the third comprehensive exam in order to obtain the passing grade.
“Any previous suggestions made, that the dean of graduate studies made a unilateral decision, without consultation, are simply false and irresponsible,” state Doering and Whitmore in the letter.
However, Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director Jim Turk said that he thought the university’s absence of guidelines in regards to waiving academic requirements, especially with PhD requirements, was “unheard of.”
“That’s what’s wrong in this story. There should be a mechanism to deal with any student request, and it shouldn’t be up to a dean of graduate studies who can just act on his own to waive requirements for a PhD,” said Turk.
“There’s clearly a gap in the policies and procedures of the university that allowed this to happen, and hopefully the administration and Senate is aware of that and is going to fix the problem.”
Turk went on to say that in spite of this, students should not feel deterred from attending the U of M.
“It’s the same university it was the day before. It’s a good university. [ . . . ] I don’t think students should have any second thoughts about going to the University of Manitoba because of this,” said Turk.
“That would be total overreaction on the part of the student [ . . . ].”