Last fall, a matter arose involving a University of Manitoba doctoral student which garnered a great deal of public attention. At the time, I committed to providing you with an update on this case when it was prudent to do so. A court ruling was issued on the matter yesterday which brings some closure to the case and allows me to comment further. A full version of the ruling can be found attached to my statement at www.umanitoba.ca.
The matter revolved around a doctoral student, who cannot be named to protect their privacy, who was provided with an accommodation by the University of Manitoba to complete a degree based on consideration of a documented disability. Under the Manitoba Human Rights Code and according to the university’s own policies, the University of Manitoba was obligated to accommodate this proven, professionally-diagnosed disability and did so.
A University of Manitoba professor, Dr. Gábor Lukács, who did not teach or advise this student and was not involved in the decision to accommodate their disability, disagreed with the accommodation and chose to take the matter to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench where it was adjudicated over the last year. A ruling in the matter was released late yesterday.
The question before the court was whether Dr. Lukács, given his lack of direct involvement with the student, had the legal standing to challenge the university’s decision to accommodate the student’s disability. In her ruling, Justice Deborah McCawley determined that Professor Lukács does not have such standing and does not have the legal right to challenge the university’s decision.
“I fail to see any direct, legitimate personal or private interest as defined by the authorities which would grant Dr. Lukács private interest standing,’’ wrote Justice McCawley in her ruling. “He did not teach the student in question, he was only laterally a member of the Committee, he himself does not hold a degree from the University of Manitoba nor does he represent in any official capacity anyone but himself. Neither has he demonstrated any damages other than unsubstantiated statements as to what he thinks will occur if he does not succeed in his mission.”
Justice McCawley also made it clear that the decision of how and when to confer academic degrees lies with universities, not courts of law.
While I am pleased with the ruling, I want to reemphasize that the University of Manitoba encourages informed debate on issues related to academic policy, such as those in the case just heard. Where it is possible for us to improve our policies and improve transparency of our processes, we will do so. To this end, a committee has been established to review:
- How to balance the University’s legal obligation to offer reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities while protecting academic standards;
- What types of accommodations may be offered, without compromising academic standards;
- Who should decide on whether accommodations should be offered, and if so, what type;
- What types of evidence of disability should the decision-maker require;
- With whom is the decision-maker required to consult;
- How to ensure timely decisions on accommodations are made, so that a student’s academic progress is not compromised; and,
- How to protect the privacy of students whileassessing a case and implementing accommodations.
Discussion of these matters is ongoing and involves students, faculty, staff and experts in these fields. A final report is expected from this committee later this year. The University of Manitoba will use their recommendations to reinforce our commitment to being a responsive and responsible academic institution.
The University of Manitoba remains fiercely committed to the principles of academic integrity and excellence. Our dedication to the highest academic standards ensures that our graduates are well-regarded and highly sought-after in their chosen careers. We are confident that a degree from the University of Manitoba is widely respected and valued.
David T. Barnard
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Manitoba.