Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2010 (3998 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Universities in Canada and the United States are a lot like far-flung, incestuous families. The gossip mill runs inevitably, incessantly. Everyone eventually learns what's been going on everywhere, at least in their own fields.
My father was a medievalist at the University of Manitoba. He once wrote a book titled The Witenagemot in the Reign of Edward the Confessor. Don't bother to try to rush out to buy a copy; it has been out of print for more than 50 years and was never read by anyone but a few dozen other medievalists. Yet a few years after its publication, another history professor from the U of M was at a meeting of the Learned Societies or whatever they call themselves when an American professor, upon learning he was from Manitoba said: "Oh. You've got that dangerous radical Oleson up there, don't you?"
How dangerously radical one can be about the Witenagemot -- the ancient Anglo-Saxon parliament or "moot" in England -- certainly challenges the imagination, but it demonstrates in what minute movements university minds work. And don't ask me. I know what the Witenagemot was and I know who Edward the Confessor was but that's as far as it goes.
If such a small thing can get the dons in a dudgeon, imagine what the granting of a Doctor of Philosophy degree to a student who didn't pass his exams might do. It could ruin a university's reputation for years.
Ruined reputations have happened before in Manitoba. In the infamous Crowe case in 1959, United College, then affiliated with the University of Manitoba, which was the degree-granting organization, became a disgrace to Canadian academia.
Harry Crowe, a distinguished and popular history professor, had written a letter to a colleague that contained critical comments about the administration. The letter never reached the person it was sent to. Somehow -- no one to this day seems to know exactly how -- it ended up in the administrative offices where it was read.
Crowe was fired -- even though he was a tenured professor -- setting off a scandal that shook not only Canadian universities but universities throughout North America. The issues were invasion of privacy -- reading mail that is not addressed to you -- and academic freedom -- the right of a professor to freely express his opinions to others, even if he expressed them with the full expectation of privacy.
The administration stood firm. And so did Crowe and his supporters. More than a dozen professors resigned in protest over his dismissal, including such distinguished scholars as Kenneth McNaught, Stewart Reid and Harry Fern. They found jobs elsewhere -- there was immense sympathy and support for them in the academic community across the continent and even abroad.
United College was not so lucky. For years it existed under a cloud that affected the lives of many faculty and many students seeking academic careers who were warned against going to UC. Norman Cantor, perhaps the most brilliant medievalist of the 20th century, was specifically advised (by my father) to turn down a job on the faculty at United College because it would be like entering an academic black hole. He turned the job down and ended up at Princeton although the two may be purely coincidental.
All scandals pass, fortunately for most of us, and United College's did too. Now the University of Winnipeg, it has arguably surpassed my own alma mater, the University of Manitoba, as the province's leading institution of higher learning. But it was a long haul. Academics have long memories.
All this is brought to mind by a recent controversy at the University of Manitoba, in which a student was arbitrarily granted a PhD in mathematics despite failing an examination twice -- which should have disqualified him or her; for some obscure reason, this achievement is being granted anonymously -- because the candidate has a disability. He or she apparently suffers from "exam anxiety."
A doctor of philosophy is the highest degree that a university can bestow on someone. People with PhDs are living advertisements for the universities from which they graduate. For better or worse, rightly or wrongly, such degrees from some universities are considered to be more valuable than degrees from others. It all depends on the reputation of the university.
Rightly or wrongly, the reputation of the University of Manitoba has been in tatters for years while the reputation of the University of Winnipeg is rising. It will not be long before the news that you can get a PhD from the University of Manitoba under "special circumstances," if you want to call them that, regardless of whether you have met the qualifications, spreads to universities throughout Canada and the United States. The university will then have no reputation left and every degree it has granted will be diminished, suspect in the eyes of all who see it.
Exam anxiety is apparently considered a disability. Disabilities are called disabilities for a reason. There are some things that people who have them cannot do. As a society, we need to accommodate these people to the best of our abilities, but that does not include compromising our standards in areas where compromise is clearly wrong.