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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