Lessons from Lukács - Macleans.ca

Lessons from Lukács

How the traditional university is under attack from all sides

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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.