Lessons from Lukács

How the traditional university is under attack from all sides


Professor Alone. Photo by Shaylor on Flickr

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.

Lukács, recall, is the wunderkind mathematician who sued his university when it granted a PhD to a student who had not completed all the normal requirements, a decision, he felt, was an intolerable violation of academic integrity. University officials defended the decision on the grounds that the student’s documented “exam anxiety” constituted a disability and they had a duty to accommodate.

Lukács’ lawsuit stalled when a court ruled he had no legal standing in the case. Meanwhile, the university had suspended him without pay because, they said, he had violated the privacy of the student in question. Lukács filed a grievance protesting his suspension, and the whole mess was finally resolved in a legal settlement that leaves Lukács looking for a new job and the university looking, well, you be the judge. Here are the difficulties I think have been highlighted by this saga.

One fundamental problem is the differing ways responsibility is understood at universities today. Professors, by and large, see the university as part of a noble tradition of higher education. They see themselves as guardians of high intellectual standards. By virtue of their long years of education, their records of scholarly publications, and their years of teaching and service, they understand that they have earned the right to teach and conduct research as they see fit.

And, for that matter, to decide who else has accomplished enough to meet the high standards they themselves were held to. That is generally demonstrated when students pass required exams.

Many administrators, on the other hand, see their responsibilities in terms of meeting the legal requirements under which their institutions operate. We might say that these differing views are complementary, except that, as this case has shown, ultimately, administrators have the power. In a battle between the idealist and the bureaucrat, the former is usually right, but the latter usually wins.

Every university is different, of course, and undoubtedly there must be universities where the priorities of administrators mesh beautifully with the ideals of faculty. But few examples leap to mind. Take a look at the ugly strike dragging on at Brandon University and you’ll see what I mean.

That the court would not recognize the legal standing of a professor contesting the awarding of a degree in his own program shows the alarming extent to which universities are now viewed as private enterprises, rather than the public institutions they used to be. Indeed, this was a key element of the court’s ruling: that Lukacs was not affected by the awarding of the degree.

But the fact is, if a university compromises its integrity, we are all affected because we rely on universities to produce graduates whose skills we can rely on. Put another way, the more we see universities as private entities, the less we expect them to produce public goods like broadly-educated citizens. More and more we see universities as merely advanced job-training facilities.

At the end of the day, our economy may be richer, but our civilization will be poorer.

It is sad that Lukacs’ only hope for justice was as a member of a union. That there is still some forum for aggrieved academics is heartening, but it’s unfortunate that this forum is the adversarial arena of labour board star chambers. For one thing, these proceedings can drag on for years. For another, they reinforce the destructive notion that professors are merely employees who work at the university, rather than the professional collective that fundamentally forms the university.

Taking university reform seriously means addressing these problems. We must find and reward Deans and Presidents who value intellectual integrity above all else and are willing to fight for it—to fight bad laws when necessary. We need to restore the notion of universities as powerful forces for the general welfare, not greenhouses for mindless cupidity. And we need to put more power in the hands of professors so that they don’t have to rely on the rusty machinery of the trade union.

Addressing these problems would be fixing the university system in a way far more profound than asking profs to teach more or focus more heavily on job training. Had the University of Manitoba been clearer on its priorities, it would have put standards ahead of accommodation, and it would have avoided a public-relations nightmare. And Gábor Lukács would, most likely, still have a job.


Lessons from Lukács

  1. I blame the University of Manitoba faculty squarely for this mess. The Maths Graduate Committee could have resigned together. The Faculty Senate subcommittee initially proposed that Dean Doering be granted the power. The motion faltered because by that time the Lukacs case has become public. I also blame the Faculty Union. They should have joined Lukacs and taken the case up to the Supreme Court. They could have also requested CAUT to censor U Manitoba.

  2. Sceptic, You can blame the lower-middle management (what faculty’s been reduced to) because that perhaps best reflects your ideology, or perhaps you focus your disappointment on people of lower status who pretend to have immeasurable personal capacity. But faculty at lower-tier universities are rarely solidaristic, especially not when the structural constraints and remnant professional meritocracy ideology combine to impose an incentive system discouraging solidarity and encouraging profs to distinguish and protect themselves via the higher incomes of administrators and Monsanto revolving-door subcontractors. That’s the sad reason why faculty need rusty, suboptimal unions and even less-suitable legal recourse. Otherwise, professors couldn’t maintain any more work autonomy than the janitors sold into demeaning, cheap, disposable private company-servitude, that their former incomes may be transformed into concentrated private profit.

    I appreciate this article’s more substantial outline assessment of the problems of installing a high-inequality, admin-heavy, proletarianizing corporate model in place of a low-overhead professional institutional model (such as Sweden has). …But no, the imposed corporate model doesn’t make the economy richer. That’s just the marketing line. What it does is it adds to the neoliberal, economy-rotting concentration of wealth and power.

  3. This is not the only incident of passing an unqualified PhD candidate by a Canadian university department. I know of two others, whose failed exam papers were erased from their official academic records. One was the graduate student of the other, and they both are now professors in Canadian universities. For attempting to block the granting of a PhD to a candidate incapable of passing the required examinations, Dr. Gabor Lukacs has been effectively fired from his job. The University of Manitoba’s Mathematics Department is thereby promoting the incompetent and discarding genius. It is nothing less than a scandal and a disgrace. It cheapens the value of the doctorate decree and results in the degradation of the academic standards of Canadian universities. Readers of Macleans On Campus might know of more examples of fraudulent PhD’s. Here’s your chance to reveal your secrets.

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