Earlier this month Gabor Lukacs received two letters from University of Manitoba president David Barnard. One invited the assistant professor of mathematics to a dinner in acknowledgement of his teaching excellence award. The other informed him that he was being suspended without pay.
Lukacs is accused of violating the university’s privacy regulations with respect to the identity of a PhD student who had been asked to withdraw from the program after twice failing a comprehensive exam. The student later successfully appealed that decision to the Dean of Graduate Studies, John Doering, who, in fall 2009, waived the requirement that the student take the exam at all. The student is said to suffer from “extreme exam anxiety.”
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After months of attempting to use university channels to have Doering’s decision reversed, Lukacs filed an application in late September at Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench. The application calls for Doering’s decision to be quashed and for an affirmation that the dean had no authority to resolve the issue without consulting an appeal committee of academics. Lukacs alleges that Doering violated Faculty of Graduate Studies regulations and the University of Manitoba Act.
Although the student’s identity was included in Lukacs original court application, at a hearing Thursday morning a judge ordered a publication ban on the name.
When outlining the reasons for Lukacs’ suspension, Barnard cites the court application directly in his letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Maclean’s. “These documents include unauthorized reference to a student’s personal and personal health information,” Barnard wrote. The university president calls Lukacs “insubordinate” and further accuses him of “having engaged in a pattern of behaviour with regard to [the] student which the university considers to be harassment.”
Several people contacted for this story, including Dean Doering and certain professors in the Department of Mathematics, either declined to speak to the matter, did not respond to a request to be interviewed, or redirected Maclean’s to the university’s Director of Public Affairs, John Danakas. Danakas declined to speak to the specifics of the case, citing “personnel” and “privacy” issues, but agreed to address university policy in general terms.
In a written response, Danakas stated that all university employees are bound by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Personal Health Information Act. “In general personal information about a student, with or without the name attached, may only be disclosed to other university employees who absolutely need to know the information for the purposes of performing other duties,” he wrote.
As for the powers of the dean, Danakas stated that “It is university practice to attempt to resolve appeals at the lowest possible level. This could include a dean achieving an informal resolution with a student after a broad consultation.”
Lukacs, who says he did not meet the student in person until he served the student with court papers, says he is motivated by a desire to protect academic standards. “I have a personal interest in protecting the integrity of the PhD program in Mathematics, because it affects my reputation whether I am a member of a respectable department or a diploma-mill,” he stated via email.
When asked to respond to allegations that he violated the student’s privacy, Lukacs defended himself: “The right for privacy cannot trump the need for review of decisions made without jurisdiction, or decisions that are patently unreasonable.”
According to emails and other documents included with an affidavit filed by Lukacs, the dispute began in March 2009 when the student failed for the second time a comprehensive exam in analysis. Under regulations outlined by the Faculty of Graduate Studies the student was required to withdraw from the PhD program.
In July, after an unsuccessful appeal to an associate dean, the student appealed the withdrawal to Dean Doering on the basis of suffering from “extreme exam anxiety.” Doering reinstated the student and requested that the Graduate Studies Committee in the Department of Mathematics devise an alternate examination option.
The committee, after consulting with disability services, agreed to allow the student to retake the exam with more time and relaxed conditions.
In late August 2009, Doering rejected that proposal and requested that the student be given an oral exam. When the graduate studies committee did not agree to those terms, Doering waived the exam requirement altogether.
Lukacs first became involved with the case in October 2009, after he was elected to replace a member of the graduate studies committee who had resigned, allegedly in protest of the dean’s decision.
Lukacs was briefed on the case and was informed that the department was awaiting written confirmation from Doering that the exam requirement was indeed waived for the student. Lukacs then took it upon himself to investigate the matter further and, in an email dated October 30 2009, requested that Doering affirm his decision.
Lukacs also challenged the dean’s authority to settle academic appeals, writing: “my understanding is that the Dean has no jurisdiction to determine academic appeals at all—that power is reserved for the Appeal Committee of the [Faculty of Graduate Studies].”
In an email response, a copy of which has been filed in court, Doering confirmed that he waived the exam requirement and disputed the claim that he did not have the authority to do so. “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 wrote. “Moreover, I would note many of the things a dean can do are not written down.”
When Lukacs persisted, Doering referred him to the university’s legal counsel, who affirmed the assertion that the dean acted within his powers. Lukacs subsequently contacted the university secretary, as well as the vice-president academic. Each time he was told either that Doering acted correctly or was referred elsewhere.
On December 2, 2009, Lukacs called a meeting of the mathematics department council to discuss taking the case directly to the university’s senate. In the notice sent to the department, some details of the case were revealed but the student’s name was not given.
As a result, Mark Whitmore, Dean of the Faculty of Science reprimanded Lukacs, arguing that “this disclosure has exposed the university to a potential complaint by the student” in relation to a breach of “privacy.” Lukacs was advised to consider the matter closed and warned that further disciplinary action could be taken.
Several faculty members of the math department signed a letter in protest of the reprimand.
One of those colleagues was George Gratzer, a distinguished professor of mathematics who told Maclean’s that while a dean has authority to decide if a student appeal has merit and may try to mediate a resolution, an appeal committee of academics has to be called if conciliation is not possible. “In this case the dean decides he had powers not written down, and that counter the published regulations of the faculty of graduate studies,” Gratzer said. “This strikes me as something as incredibly inappropriate.” Gratzer has filed his own affidavit in court in support of Lukacs.
On two separate occasions Lukacs requested the senate’s own appeal committee hear the case, and both times was told that the case was outside the senate committee’s jurisdiction.
It was after his second appeal to the senate was denied that Lukacs filed his court application. In addition to arguing that Doering acted outside of his authority, the application also alleges that the student “abused” the appeal process by waiting until twice failing an exam before claiming exam anxiety.
Additionally in August of this year, it was discovered that the student was short one course to complete the doctoral program. Doering decided to allow the student, who was scheduled to graduate this month, to elevate a fourth-year course to the level of a graduate course. Lukacs is also applying for that decision to be reversed.
A court hearing is scheduled for Nov 30, and counsel for the University of Manitoba will file notice that it will contest the case by Nov 5.
Lukacs is grieving his suspension through the faculty union and his students have circulated a petition advocating his reinstatement.
Photo: U of M administration building, by Sarah Petz