Who’s to say where the truth lies?
November 12th, 2010

Who’s to say where the truth lies? There’s a lot of muttering around the graduate school water coolers these days about a case on the go at the University of Manitoba. A faculty member in the math department has been suspended—a very big deal in this country—for having “violated” a student’s privacy. The professor filed a complaint in judicial court that included the details of the student’s identity. The issue does not seem all that complicated, but all one can do is read the headlines and try to figure it out. One can only imagine the tension in the halls at the U of Manitoba these days.

The prof, Gábor Lukács, has been protesting a decision made by Jay Doering, the dean of graduate studies at Manitoba, to award a PhD to a student who had not completed, or successfully completed, his comprehensive examinations. To an outsider trying to understand the situation, it doesn’t look that great that a dean would waive his own regulations about doctoral degree requirements, but, then, as a dean I also well know there are always at least two sides to every story, every complaint, and every issue.

Lukács observed about the student who has been awarded the degree: “This causes incredible damage to the reputation of the university and to its academic integrity.” Overstatement? Hyperbole? Truth? Has he got a point? There is no easy answer to this question. Perhaps all of the above. Without knowing the facts of the case, one cannot help but feel defensive for the student who now has a piece of parchment sealed and signed by Manitoba on his/her wall.

Meanwhile, if media reports are true, more than 80 students have signed a petition in support of Lukács while a fellow professor resigned from the math graduate studies committee over the dispute. The university is apparently divided, or at least in hot debate about whose side owns the moral compass.

Lukács has a reputation as a maverick, and, not to put too fine a point on it, a hero. In 2009, he actually managed to get Air Canada—whose motto is ‘we’re not happy until you’re unhappy’—to take responsibility for lost or damaged luggage. Decades had passed with the flying client having any recourse when a bag had been ripped apart by the airline’s rough handlers. Imagine the satisfaction millions of us felt when Lukács actually won his case. Indeed, I am personally grateful to him for the brand new Samsonite ‘Spinner’ I was sent upon filing a claim last year, when my beloved mid-sized Italian luggage had been utterly destroyed in one short hop to Toronto.

And so, in one corner you have this guy who is obviously so determined and headstrong that he can beat Air Canada in a court of law, while in the other you have the student/dean of graduate studies with whom, by my own job description and experience, I am inclined to sympathize, or at least give the benefit of the doubt. But I am not arbitrating the case and do not own the facts. Experience does tell me that deans do not waive regulations easily or cavalierly, and when they do it is most often to benefit the student. Some faculty members sometimes grumble about ‘lowering standards,’ but in all the cases I have seen the student has a strong claim for special dispensation. In this case, there are apparently disability issues which raise a whole set of other questions about fair and equal treatment, questions I am neatly avoiding in this blog.

Still, waiving a comp reg is a big deal. Meanwhile, Lukács has been suspended for three months without pay—for revealing the student’s identity, as mentioned.  The Manitoba faculty union is grieving the suspension, as expected, and the whole thing has gone Canada-viral, the story ending up on the 2nd page of the National Post. I image an arbitrator will eventually step in to assess the situation to determine the appropriate resolution. I’d be really surprised if Lukács ended up being suspended, if the student did not get to keep his/her degree, if the university did not feel pretty bruised about the whole episode, and the dean of graduate studies did not lose any sleep over it all.

I will certainly be watching to see where this one goes. For now it is a cautionary tale—the moral of which remains to be determined.


Thanks to psd for sharing their photo via flickr and creative commons.

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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