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Professor Loses Bid To Rescind Student's PhD

September 2011

The University of Manitoba is reviewing its policy on how to accommodate students with disabilities despite winning a victory in court this week over a controversial decision to grant a PhD to a student who failed his courses due to "extreme exam anxiety."

Gábor Lukács, a former child math prodigy who started university at age 12 and was a professor by age 24, sued the university over its decision to grant the student, identified only in court documents as A.Z., a PhD in math although he had twice failed his comprehensive exams and was missing a graduate course.

Thursday, Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench Justice Deborah McCawley rejected Mr. Lukács request that the court intervene and rescind the degree, saying he didn't have standing to take the case to court.

The university had defended its decision, saying it was legally required to accommodate a student's disability, in this case, exam anxiety.

Mr. Lukács had argued that the university had damaged its credibility and was at risk of turning into a "diploma mill," a claim the judge said was "unsubstantiated."

The case, which dates back to 2009, has bitterly divided the school. Administrators suspended Mr. Lukács, now 29, for three months without pay last year after alleging that he had gone public with the student's name and revealed private information about his disability.

Supporters of the professor launched an online edition, collectingnearly 200 names of studentsand academics from as far away as Israel. Another 86 mathematicians from around the world signed a letter of support. The university's faculty association sided with Mr. Lukács, while the graduate students association applauded his suspension.

Mr. Lukács grieved his suspension to the Manitoba Labour Board. A hearing began in June and is set to resume in September.

In an interview, Mr. Lukács said he was "profoundly surprised" by the court decision. "It's very bad news for Canadian academics," he said. "What it says is the university administration can do whatever it wants without following the proper procedure."

He said he is mulling over a possible appeal.

Mr. Lukács said his complaint isn't that the university decided to accommodate a student's disability, but that the student never mentioned his severe exam anxiety until after he failed two exams and that the school never offered him alternatives, such as therapy, or more time to complete his PhD.

"In general, one should err in favour of accommodation for sure," he said. "I think the higher you go in the system, the more careful you have to be with how far you go in accommodating it."

This is not the first time the university, or other Canadian schools, waived course requirements for students who have extreme exam anxiety, university president David Barnard said in an interview.

Since Mr. Lukács' complaint made headlines, the university has struck a committee with students, professors and disability experts to examine how it accommodates students with disabilities. It is expected to issue a report this year.

"It's a legitimate question and the university encourages continuous improvement in the ways that we operate," Mr. Barnard said. "We encourage debate on issues such as these and where we can improve our processes and increase transparency, we'll most certainly do so."

He said there are "legal constraints" that might prevent the committee from recommending that the university drop the exam anxiety waiver, but that it could made suggestions on "how those decisions are made and who is consulted in making decisions."