U of M defence rings hollow

Important questions still unanswered in the Lukacs affair.

Officials at the University of Manitoba have issued an official response in the controversial Gabor Lukacs case. Happily, the President’s section of the response includes a promise to review the university’s practices regarding how it will better handle similar cases in the future. This is welcome news and must be accounted a victory for Lukacs and his supporters.

But the defence provided by the Deans Jay Doering and Mark Whitmore does little to answer the serious concerns that have been raised about academic integrity in this case. Though the statement bristles with affront over media coverage of the matter, the Deans’ defence, read carefully, does little to refute the numerous concerns that have come up.

Related: A failing grade on transparency

For instance, the Deans admit that the mathematics department considers an A a passing grade on the comprehensive exam and that the student earned “slightly below” that grade. So what are we to conclude? That almost passing is the same as passing? Surely the examiners knew that they were giving a failing grade. If they thought it was close enough, they would have raised the grade in the first place. And what about the allegations that the student in question did not complete all the necessary graduate courses and that undergraduate courses were elevated in their place?

Next, the Deans confirm that the student’s documentation regarding severe exam anxiety was provided only after the two failures occurred. This point has raised many eyebrows among commentators who have suggested that surely a student with a disability should declare that disability beforehand. Moreover, if the exam anxiety was so debilitating, how did the student pass other exams, including the other comprehensives? Is there really no threat to academic integrity when students can claim they have a disability but only when they fail?

Then comes the strangest passage in their brief:

The graduate studies committee of the department of mathematics recommended a written alternative. Disability Services recommended the student be accommodated with an oral format.  The graduate studies committee indicated its preference for a waiver of the exam as opposed to an oral exam in this unique situation.

This math story does not add up. The department proposes an alternative written format (this is consistent with media reports that the student was offered more time). This accommodation is rejected and the disability office recommends an oral exam. Then the department counters with no exam at all? That strains credibility. I can see why the department would reject an oral exam, but why would they suddenly give up on the exam altogether? If they didn’t think the exam was necessary, why didn’t they propose the waiver in the first place?  Did they become so frustrated with the administration that they just gave up? Did someone jokingly say “An oral exam? We might as well give no exam at all! No, wait, I was just kidding . . . ” At the very least, this requires fuller explanation.

But even if for some reason the department did propose waiving the exam, it seems to me that it was incumbent upon the Dean to reject that proposal, because it was his job to defend the academic standards of the university. Not so, say the Deans because

Under the Manitoba Human Rights Code, the University was obligated to accommodate this proven, professionally-diagnosed disability.

The U of M has used this rhetorical trick before, claiming they are legally required to make accommodations when, in fact, they are only obligated to make reasonable accomodations. Dean Doering could have insisted that more time was a reasonable accommodation. Further, he could have pointed out that section 13 (1) of the Human Rights Code allows for some kinds of discrimination if the causes are “bona fide and reasonable.” Surely, a university has some right to discriminate against students who can’t show a mastery of the required subject matter.

The Deans then give a list of other achievements of the student, none of which, of course, are relevant, before turning on Gabor Lukacs. On one hand, they cite only one motive for Lukacs’ position, a desire to “have the student’s degree revoked,” making no mention of the idea that perhaps Lukacs is taking a stand on principle. They then point out that Lukacs was not directly involved in the student’s education at U of M, a point that only strengthens Lukacs’s position. Why would he protest the conferral of a degree upon a student he did not know or teach unless it was not about this student at all, but about upholding academic integrity?

And while we are on the subject of Lukacs, why was he given such harsh punishment? A three month suspension without pay? The maximum fine for a first offence of animal cruelty in Manitoba is $5000. Lukacs is being made to forgo something like three times that amount. How is that reasonable?

The Deans say it is now time to move forward. If they really mean it, they can start by reinstating professor Lukacs and paying him his back salary.