Friday, January 21, 2011


If the judge rules in favour of Lukacs, does this mean that any old prof can challenge a PhD they aren't associated with?

A judge in Winnipeg has reserved decision in the case of a math professor who is challenging the granting of a PhD to a student who suffers from exam anxiety. The case pits the University of Manitoba against Gabor Lukacs, who is upset that the university granted the PhD to a student who failed a key exam twice, and later claimed to suffer from exam anxiety.
Lukacs is asking the Court of Queen's Bench to revoke the degree.
Lukacs's lawyer warned in court on Thursday that the university is risking its academic reputation and could be seen as a diploma mill.
The university, however, is asking the court to dismiss Lukacs's complaint. The school's lawyer, Jamie Kagan, said Lukacs is a "busybody" with no legal right to challenge the degree, because he wasn't the student's professor. The student has an otherwise brilliant academic record, and Kagan insisted that exam anxiety is a recognized disability.

I really have trouble with Lukacs' rationale. The latent question that isn't addressed in the case as far as I've read is the pedagogical merit of the [failed] comprehensive exam. 
Did the failure exam actually detract from the ability of the student, subsequently meeting and exceeding the practical standards expected of PhDs, to perform as math scholar? It would seem to me at least that if the student subsequently performed exceptionally well, then the failed exam is meaningless, thus calling into question the usefulness of comprehensive exams, at least as far as they are deployed in the U of M math department.
Does a ruling in favour of Lukacs and revoking of the doctorate open him up to a lawsuit (or a physical ass-kicking)?
Does a ruling against Lukacs open the door to former students challenging their dismissal after failed exams?


Rev.Paperboy said...

Heard Lukacs interviewed on the CBC a few weeks back and while I understand his point - that the university must maintain its standards etc etc - he really did come across as extremely self-important and egotistical, as if he were the only one fit to decide what those standards should be and whether they had been met. Certainly, I would not want my academic fate in his hands. This like a manager suing the company for promoting someone in another department that he doesn't think went to the right school.

Boris said...

The whole episode reeks of something more out of place with Lukacs than the PhD he's challenging. I don't imagine a genius like Lukacs, (began his doctorate at 16) has had an easy time of it. I might speculate that he entered an adult world before he had the emotional, regardless of any intellectual, maturity to integrate into it properly.

There's a lot of talk about "standards" and "rigour" in the situation but as I've stated it isn't clear at all whether the pedagical usefulness of the failed comp has been established. If a student can perform exceptionally well despite the comp, the comp begins to look at little like hazing ritual more than a real exam.

harebell said...

There are many ways of achieving excellence, one is to discover something from first principles, the other is to study with those who did so. Some of my Engineering Profs at University were the former, nary a batchelor's degree amongst them, but they wrote most of the text books on the topics at hand.

By definition, those who find something from first principles can't have passed an exam in it to get into grad school.

According to Lukacs they have nothing to say and would bring an institution's reputation down.

Pompous Ass

Luna said...

This guy sounds like a complete asshole. I knew a few of them in academia, but the sheer balls of this is shocking. He's certainly doing his career no favours. He's not a full professor, and after this, I doubt he ever will be.

There has GOT to be a personal grudge in here somewhere.

topofred said...

Well guys, you all seem to completely miss the point. It is not about the merit of the exam, or about the student. It is about whether an administrator can decide on his own, against the advice of faculty bodies who are supposed to have juridiction over this type of decision, to waive academic requirements.
Nobody here seems to have any idea of the kind of overreach from administrators that faculty all over north america have to deal with.

The point is that the Dean has not the authority to decide to give a degree or not, just because he wants a problem to go away.
Now Lukacs fights this because this is the kind of precedent that leads an institution to becoming a laughing stoke, with nothing but trouble for himself in it...You can call him pompous ass all you want, but I wish there were more people willing to stick their head out to defend the right thing.

Boris said...

Fine, then Lukacs should challenge the administration and regulation that allowed that to happen instead of trying to screw over a third party over something he was not involved with to make his point. If Lukacs wins it gives licence to any prof with a bug up their arse to retroactively challenge awarded degrees.

That would allow room for malicious assaults on completed PhDs by external academics and reduce that power of carefully selected supervisory committees, the dissertation defence, and the external examiner to determine the merit of the degree.

There was no need for Lukacs to go after the degree holder. Nor was the PhD awarded without the final and most important piece work being completed and defended successfully - the dissertation. Does the failed comp hold equal weight to the dissertation?

strangers in the night said...

Ah, its an interesting situation isn't it! Topofred you summed up a lot of what I wanted to say.

Although I don't completely agree with the manner in which academic institutions necessarily function, the fact that the department is determined to give this candidate his PhD despite the fact that he failed an exam that thousands of students before him stressed over, is wrong. I get the impression that the U of M wants their stamp on this student and is determined to do so no matter what the cost.

Trying to change degree requirements is a shameful move that undermines the work that all other PhD students have put forward up until then. .

Yes, I think Lukas's is probably a bit of an obnoxious pain in the ass, but in principle I think he is right.

Boris said...

strangers in the night,

Trying to change degree requirements is a shameful move that undermines the work that all other PhD students have put forward up until then. .

Different disciplines have corresponding differences in the epistemological needs of their students. Biochemistry is not human geography is physical geography is not economics is not sociology etc etc.

Degree requirements do periodically change if it can be shown that the existing requirements are lacking in some way when outcomes are considered. Programs are often audited internally and externally, and changes recommended and approved. If seen entire degrees radically restructured: my undergrad was one of them.

I'm currently in a multidisciplinary department with several distinct and very different disciplines each represented by their own degrees. Currently, the number of courses required for each discipline's masters and PhDs are identitical. The expressed rationale for this is "fairness", so all the gradstudents regardless of discipline must complete the same number of courses for their degree. The problem is that this rationale is not rooted in any assessment of the necessity of these courses for learning needs, only the superficial notion that every student in the department must do the same number of courses, regardless of discipline. What happens is that some students end up taking redundant courses from which they gain nothing, and this uses up more time and money, simply because it wouldn't be "fair" to their department colleagues doing completely different work if they didn't. This policy is now being challenged but it will take sometime to go through the processes of making changes.

The UofM example might as you say undermine the work the other students have done, but it also might undermine the existing degree req's because it suggests that the dept can produce an above avg PhD despite those requirements.

If I were the judge I might order dept have their Phd program audited externally to see if they are actually asking their students to do more than is necessary. More does not always equal better or more rigorous.

strangers in the night said...

What I mean, is that the degree requirements for the program of question were being tweaked solely because of this one particular student, and that I don't believe to be just.

Boris said...

I agree that it isn't just, but what isn't just might not be what it seems at first glance :)

topofred said...

Boris--you are right, there is no need to go after the student. In fact, Lukacs did not go after the student. As far as I know, he went a long way to try to solve the situation within the university, simply to make sure that a full waiver of an academic requirement cannot be given by the Dean with no academic body (at U of M, the senate is suppose to examine this kind of cases, from what I hear) involved. If the administration didn't insist on ignoring its own rules, the waiver would simply have been reconsidered, another solution found, and the student would probably have eventually gotten his degree (as far as I can see, Lukacs would have left that alone if the waiver had been given by the senate)...But when an administrator makes a mistake, they will cover each other rather than admit it was a mistake. The assumption was that whoever challenges the dumb decision is going to let go before them. Well, Lukacs is not the kind. Now, it's quite a messy situation as you point out (a ruling either way could be interpreted in a disturbing fashion)