On Campus

Prof. removed from U of M thesis committee

Student passed despite “fundamental errors” says prof.

Photo by Rhett Sutphin on Flickr

One month ago, professor Gábor Lukács failed to gain standing in his lawsuit that accused the University of Manitoba of violating its own standards by awarding a PhD to a student who hadn’t passed a required exam because of disability related to exam anxiety.

Now, another professor at the University of Manitoba says a student who didn’t adequately meet a requirement was awarded a graduate degree.

Education professor Rodney Clifton tells Maclean’s On Campus that he was pulled from a thesis committee by an Associate Dean two days before a student’s oral defence of what he calls a substandard Master’s thesis that required serious revisions.

Clifton had served since 2006 as a member of a four-person Master’s of Education examining committee. When a draft of the thesis in question came to him in the summer of 2010, Clifton found what he considered “fundamental errors in the analysis of the data” on which the thesis was based. He pointed these problems out to the committee, including the supervisor Robert Renaud.

Clifton says Renaud assured him that the errors could be corrected after the oral defence, itself a fairly common practice when the errors are minor. But Clifton insisted that the data problems were too big for a conditional approval, that an entirely different method of analysis was called for, and that if the thesis did proceed to the oral defence, there was a good chance that he would vote against passing it. Because the university’s policies require unanimous decisions, his objections meant the student would likely have failed.

Clifton was rebuffed when he asked via e-mail to meet with the entire committee to discuss delaying the defence in order to give the student a chance to fix the mistakes. Telephone calls and e-mails Maclean’s On Campus left for Robert Renaud were not returned. But one of the e-mails Clifton received from Renaud indicates that the men disagreed over whether the whole committee should meet to discuss the errors. As the thesis defence date approached, Renaud wrote that he was not about to “waste the time of the committee” just to hear Clifton “rant” about problems Clifton had already pointed out.

A few days before the defence was scheduled, Renaud restated his case for letting the defence go ahead, insisting that he did not want the committee members to lower their academic standards, but that if the concerns about the thesis would eventually be fixed, and given that the student was approaching the deadline, why would Clifton want to “make things unnecessarily difficult?”

When Clifton still objected, Renaud wrote to express his disappointment with his refusal to compromise and cooperate. A day later, he wrote again, indicating that Clifton’s “reactions will negatively affect [the student’s] progress,” and telling him that since he was “unwilling to change [his] perspective,” Renaud was removing Clifton from the committee. Clifton fired back that Renaud had no business removing him from the committee, but that he was willing to have the student proceed to the defence to see if he could be convinced that his objections were not insurmountable. “It still remains to be seen,” Clifton warned, “if the student passes the oral examination or not.”

Less than an hour later—and only two days before the student defended the thesis—Clifton received the e-mail from Associate Dean Zana Lutfiyya saying that since “the majority of committee members are prepared to allow the student to move to the oral defence… I am comfortable with the defense proceeding, and in the change of committee membership.” The thesis was approved.

When Clifton asked Lutfiyya if he could see the final version of the thesis, the copy she forwarded showed, according to Clifton, that the changes to the statistical analysis were never made.

Taking him off the committee, Clifton says, violated principles of academic accountability. Faculty members must be allowed to debate the merits of a thesis. If administrators can simply replace a faculty member who objects, then that accountability disappears, he argues. The whole point of the committee, he says, is that the decision is not left up to individual administrators or even individual faculty members. “We don’t have external agencies coming in to adjudicate us,” Clifton points out. Professors are bound to ensure the integrity of the degrees their university grants, he says.

In his more than 30 years as an academic, Clifton has never seen a case like this, he says.

Maclean’s On Campus tried to contact Dr. Lutfiyya for comment, but received notifications that she would be away until mid-October. U of M Dean of Education Robert Macmillan, the academic head of the faculty, did respond by e-mail on the school’s behalf to say that while he could not comment on the specifics of this case since he was not Dean at the time the events occurred, he had “seen instances elsewhere when committee members, and even supervisors, have been changed as a result of conflicting views over a student’s work.” In cases that he was familiar with, he said, “the decisions have not been made lightly.”

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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