Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Compassionate degrees alleged

Some granted despite shortfalls, U of M grad student says

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A graduate student on the University of Manitoba senate says the institution awarded a degree to an international student who had twice failed a course.

The reason: The Canadian Embassy said the student's life was in danger if the student returned to the totalitarian home country having flunked out.

Another international student financially supported by a village overseas was awarded a professional degree, though short a non-essential course, after the village was devastated by a natural disaster.

And a local student who had suffered a brain injury was awarded a degree and now works for the province.

"In the years I've sat on senate, the university has allowed numerous students to graduate without fulfilling their course requirements," Peter Nawrot, vice-president academic of the Graduate Students Association, said Tuesday.

It's all above board and done only after a long process of faculty and senate committee reviews, hearings and appeals, culminating in a senate decision, Nawrot said.

Nawrot said the Canadian Embassy's intervention persuaded the U of M to allow the international student to retake failed courses and eventually graduate. The student whose village was devastated had passed all the courses in the major subject and was needed to help back home.

The student with a brain injury appealed adverse faculty decisions every step of the way and was a Millenium Scholar who had the support of the federal and provincial governments, he said.

But Nawrot said students are concerned about the possible outside perception of their degrees' value because of the ongoing controversy over a PhD in mathematics, awarded to a student at last month's fall convocation who allegedly did not complete all the course requirements because he suffers from the recognized disability of extreme examination anxiety.

"We have students who say, 'We want our degrees to be valued.' They want those degrees to be respected," Nawrot said. "That's where the devaluing of the degree comes, that the student may not have the skill set" that holding a PhD is assumed to indicate.

U of M public affairs director John Danakas said Tuesday the university cannot immediately confirm any of the cases Nawrot cited.

However, Danakas cautioned repeatedly that privacy concerns prevent the U of M from making public the details of the doctoral student's case and from telling the U of M's side of the story.

"People are taking as fact what one side in a court case is putting forward as allegations," Danakas said.

Nawrot said the senate approves any degree granted a student who falls short of the requirements. Exemptions usually involve students a course or two short of an undergraduate degree in areas not essential to their major, who may have health or family crises and who would otherwise have to wait a year or more to take the outstanding course.

Nawrot said he served several years on the senate appeals committee, along with an undergraduate student and five professors from across the campus. They would see students' transcripts and medical records, hear from the student and an advocate or lawyer and hear from the dean and other staff of the faculty involved.

"Everything is confidential and doesn't leave that room," Nawrot said.

Waiving requirements for undergraduate degrees is relatively rare, said U of M Faculty Association president Prof. Cameron Morrill, but waiving a doctoral comprehensive exam "is not the same thing at all -- the comprehensive course measures your overall grasp of the field. It's a completely essential thing. I've certainly never heard of one like this."

But Morrill acknowdged UMFA has no idea what other alternate requirements the PhD math student may have met.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

In their opinion...

The blogosphere has jumped all over the controversy at the University of Manitoba, where a doctoral student suffering from extreme exam anxiety was allegedly awarded his PhD without performing all the required course work.

Math Prof. Gábor Lukács has taken legal action to try to overturn the awarding of the PhD. Meanwhile, Lukács is appealing a three-month suspension the U of M imposed after Lukács allegedly released confidential health information about the student.

And last week, the U of M senate refused to give dean of graduate students Jay Doering sweeping authority to waive degree requirements.

In the blogosphere:

 

"Making an exception for a PhD student like this is not acceptable"

-- eqdw on the Manitoban website

 

"Students with disabilities should be given additional time and support but should not be exempt of having to be tested altogether"

-- Isabel West on slaw.ca

 

"The attempt to deal with a disability is good. But the process of 'climbing the ladder' in academia is so inhumane and ruthless that I can't help but see the attempt to deal with exam anxiety as misplaced tinkering. Obviously not so if you are the individual facing that obstacle, but still... "

-- Ken S on rabble.ca

 

"If you can't take the stress of exams 'at all,' why pursue this? If you can't complete the requirements, even with adaptation, how far should the institution bend?"

-- Timebandit on rabble.ca

 

"How did this guy get through his undergraduate and masters programs if he has exam anxiety? Everyone gets nervous at the thought of writing exams. Perhaps he's just not PhD material"

-- dillon 1 on winnipegfreepress.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2010 A3

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