On Campus

Privacy, anxiety, and the academy

At the end of the day, students have to be able to do the work.

The case of Gabor Lukacs, the University of Manitoba professor who has been suspended after complaining that a PhD student was permitted to skip a comprehensive exam, raises a whole host of questions about the state of the Canadian academy. For one thing, where is the CAUT and its academic freedom fund? For another thing, given that, by all accounts, Lukacs had only the best interests of the U of M and the academy in general in mind, isn’t a three month suspension awfully harsh? An assistant professor at U of M makes something in the neighbourhood of $70 000 a year based on the salary tables in the faculty collective agreement.  A three-month suspension amounts to a fine that may be in excess of $17 000. Even acknowledging that my estimate is gross pay, not net pay, the sum is staggering. And should a university really be punishing a professor for filing a lawsuit? Isn’t the right to seek redress before a court of law a basic right of every citizen in a free country?

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Still more troubling is the rationale provided by the university. U of M claims Lukacs violated privacy rules when he disclosed details about a student in his suit, but given that his complaint was that a student was unjustly allowed to circumvent a requirement, how could he avoid discussing the student? In any case, the name of the student has not been reported in the media, so where is the harm?

Of course, individuals have a right to a reasonable amount of privacy, but it’s possible things have gone too far. Several years ago, I tried to get my university to include a photo of each student in the instructor’s electronic class list. Such a system makes it easier for profs to learn their students’ names, and it exists at some other schools. But, I was told, even though the computer system could produce such a list, the feature was disabled out of concerns for the students’ privacy. But surely what a student looks like need not be kept private from the students’ own professors! I fought with the registrar for a while over it, and was told at one point it was in the works, but it never happened, and eventually I gave up.

When it comes to disabilities, the lid is kept on even more tightly. Every once in a while I am contacted by our university’s disability office and, from the quality of  the communication, one would imagine it was a matter of national security. I am told that the student has a documented disability — typically a learning disability — and I am invited to indicate the accommodations I am willing to make. Can I see the document? No. What is the exact condition? I am not allowed to know. Who documented it? Based on what? What expertise does the professional in question have in the area of learning disabilities? None of your business, I am told. In short, for all I know, Mr and Mrs Anxious took Johnny to see their family doctor and said, “Johnny gets nervous when he takes a test.” Dr Busy says, “Oh, well, let me write you a note,” scribbles something about “test anxiety,” and, voila, Johnny has ” a documented learning disability.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is always the case, and of course, there are many legitimate disabilities, physical and psychological that should be accommodated. And when it comes right down to it, I accommodate Johnny anyway, because the requests are few, and having a few extra hours in a private room to write a test really doesn’t have that much impact anyway. In my experience, what Johnny can’t figure out in three hours, he can’t figure out in five, either. But I do think that professors have the right to know exactly what they are accomodating for the sake of academic integrity.

Academic integrity brings us back to the case at hand. Like Lukacs, I suspect, I maintain that accommodation should only be allowed when, ultimately, the student is still required to demonstrate the same skills as everyone else.  I fully understand the anxiety around taking PhD comprehensive exams — I took them myself — and they are no picnic. They’re not like writing an undergraduate midterm: each one is a whole year’s worth of reading, packed into three long (or, rather, short) hours of non-stop, hand-destroying, writing. They are intense. On the other hand, your examiners give you a quiet place to write, and no one is looking over your shoulder with a stopwatch and a stick. Moreover,  they test something real. They test a would-be academic’s ability to get a question, and to answer it, on the spot, by using her skills and knowledge.

Now, can you think of a job that requires a PhD, and where people ask you questions and you are expected to respond right away based on your expertise? Oh, wait! I know! University professor! Thinking on the spot is a vital part of the job, and anyone who finds that too stressful needs to find another line of work. Sure, sometimes a prof has to say “I don’t know” or “I’ll find out for you,” but she can’t keep saying “Your question makes me too nervous to respond to you.”  I know many people who are afraid to fly and I would not advise any of them to become pilots. I have a moderate fear of heights, so, no, I can’t help you shingle your roof. I could have been a surgeon, but the sight of blood makes me woozy.

And if learning things and answering hard questions about what I learned made me freak out, I would have learned to handle it (and I know people who have done that, too), or I wouldn’t have become a professor. It’s just part of the job. I know nothing about the individual student in this case: perhaps he is a fine person and I wish him all the success and happiness life can afford. But I still think a degree has to mean something significant. And if you can’t sit down in a quiet place, and answer questions about mathematics, you shouldn’t have a PhD in mathematics.

Barring any surprising revelations in this case, I hope professor Lukacs wins his fight, and I hope the U of M pays him back the money they owe him, and I really hope they apologize to him. In public. I’m sure he won’t consider that a violation of his privacy.

-photo courtesy of ccarlstead

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