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U of M defends decision to award PhD

Student at centre of dispute published mathematics scholar

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2010 (3382 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

David Barnard made case on university’s website for awarding PhD to student who failed exam.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES

David Barnard made case on university’s website for awarding PhD to student who failed exam.

A doctoral math student at the centre of an academic storm aced two of his three crucial comprehensive exams and came within a hair of the A grade required to pass the third exam, the University of Manitoba has revealed.

According to the U of M, he wrote an exemplary thesis, of the highest possible quality.

He was a scholar with an above-normal number of publications in refereed journals, lauded by the internal and external examiners on his thesis committee.

Every mark throughout his doctoral studies program was an A or higher — except for the one test he failed by barely missing an A, then rewrote and failed again because of extreme examination anxiety. In a PhD program, two strikes are out.

Nevertheless, the university waived some requirements and awarded the student his doctorate at last month's fall convocation.

U of M has taken the extraordinary step of getting the student's permission to relinquish some of his privacy rights to tell the university's side of the story. The university would only release limited details, and in fact calls the student "they" and does not acknowledge the student is male.

The controversy has led to a pending court case in which math Prof. Gábor Lukács is trying to have the doctorate withdrawn. And the university has suspended Lukács without pay for three months for allegedly divulging the student's personal health information. That suspension goes before an arbitrator next June.

U of M published its side of the story Wednesday on its website.

"I first want to state my unequivocal support for the student involved in this matter. It is my understanding that this student is an exceptional student who has achieved outstanding success and is fully deserving of the PhD conferred by the University of Manitoba," declared president David Barnard.Dean of graduate studies Jay Doering and science dean Mark Whitmore also posted a lengthy joint statement in which they detailed decisions that culminated in the awarding of the doctorate.

Doering and Whitmore said a math doctorate requires a student earn an A in comprehensive exams in three subject areas — A is a pass, anything less a failure.

After passing the first two exams, the deans said: "The student attempted the third comprehensive exam and scored slightly below an A grade. The student attempted the exam a second time and performed much worse than they did on the first time attempt (an outcome commonly associated with exam anxiety)."

U of M told the student he would have to withdraw from the program, but he appealed. "The student provided detailed documentation from a qualified psychologist maintaining that the student suffered from severe, disabling exam anxiety that appears to have significantly impeded (the student's) ability to perform to (the student's) potential," the deans wrote.

"Under the Manitoba Human Rights Code, the university was obligated to accommodate this proven, professionally-diagnosed disability," Doering and Whitmore said.

Doering consulted different groups about accommodation — a grad committee of the math department recommended a written alternative, disability services favoured an oral exam and the graduate studies committee preferred a waiver, the deans said.

"Following broad consultation in which a variety of options were considered, (Doering) concurred that the student need not retake the third comprehensive exam in order to obtain the unanimous A grade," the deans said. "Any previous suggestions made that (Doering) made a unilateral decision, without consultation, are simply false and irresponsible."

The U of M also fires back at Lukács on the website, saying he "has never taught this student, he was not the student's adviser, he was not on the student's advisory committee and he was not a member of the mathematics graduate studies committee at the time the relevant decisions were made."

But Lukács said the university's statement is a complete distortion of what took place, adding there is plenty of evidence to show Doering alone made the decision to waive the academic requirements and the university has always maintained the position he had the power to do so.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

What Barnard wrote

 

THE full statement from the University of Manitoba can be read at myuminfo.umanitoba.ca/index.asp?sec=2&too=100&eve=8&dat=11/17/2010&npa=24001

President David Barnard said "the administration and senate have already commenced discussions relating to the accommodation of students with disabilities."

He also said, "Discussion of these matters will involve students, faculty, staff and experts in these fields and will take place through the university Senate, our academic governing body, in the spirit of our institutional commitment to continuous improvement. The University of Manitoba will learn from this experience, and it is our intention to do so as a responsible, responsive academic community.

"I will provide you with an update when it is possible to do so. However, for now, I plan not to comment further and allow the legal processes to unfold.''

"Your comments and perspectives are welcome. I have created the following email address and invite you to comment: umfeedback@umanitoba.ca."

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