There was no ‘muzzle order’ against Lukacs

Court reserves decision on whether lawsuit can be heard

On Thursday a judge appeared to have dismissed the notion that math professor Gabor Lukacs was suspended from work as punishment for suing his employer, the University of Manitoba, as has been suggested by both Lukacs and his supporters.

Lukacs filed a lawsuit against the U of M in the fall to reverse a decision, by Dean of Graduate Studies John Doering, to waive a comprehensive exam for a PhD student. The student, who had failed the exam twice and was asked to withdraw from the PhD program, is said to suffer from exam anxiety. Lukacs claims that Doering, as an administrator, has no authority to make academic decisions. Shortly after filing his court application, Lukacs received notice that he was being suspended for three months, a sanction that ended at the beginning of January.

The university has maintained that Lukacs was suspended for violating the student’s privacy, but suspicions immediately arose, mostly through dozens of online comments, but also in a petition from his students for him to be reinstated, and in official protests sent to university brass. A grievance filed by the faculty association argued that Lukacs was treated “unreasonably, unfairly and in a manner contrary to the collective agreement.” Surely, many observers argued, Lukacs was suspended for daring to challenge the administration.

But yesterday, Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Deborah McCawley seems to have quashed that argument. Addressing Lukacs’ lawyer Robert Tapper, the judge said, “Your client was not ordered to desist discussion of academic integrity. It’s not right to say it’s effectively a muzzle order.” On that particular point, the judge was siding with U of M counsel, Jamie Kagan, who had argued “When you disobey your employer, there is going to be a consequence, and Dr. Lukacs felt that consequence.”

When Lukacs first filed his court application, the student was identified by name. The name was later redacted, and replaced with the initials AZ, after a publication ban was ordered.

Despite arguments surrounding whether or not Lukacs was legitimately suspended, Thursday’s hearing, the Winnipeg Free Press reports, was dedicated to the question of standing. Kagan argued that Lukacs, who didn’t teach the student, and was not on the math department’s Graduate Studies Committee until after the exam was waived, was not individually harmed. “His rights are not affected. He has no skin in the game,” Kagan said.

Tapper countered that Lukacs, as a member of the math department, has a direct interest in the case because if the university comes to be seen as a “diploma mill” his own reputation will be at stake. “The University of Manitoba has nothing to be proud of in this case,” Tapper said.

For now, McCawley is reserving her decision on whether Lukacs’ lawsuit will even be heard. But even if the court rules that Lukacs has no standing, the university will still likely find it difficult to claim anything but a narrow legal victory. In November U of M faculty rejected a senate motion that would have recognized “that the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies has jurisdiction to waive academic requirements.”

Even when the story is no longer of interest to media types, grudges within universities can be held for years, and often decades.

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