‘Extreme exam anxiety’ – disability or excuse?

I’m thinking of getting my PhD from the University of Manitoba. Apparently, Winnipeg’s U of M will waive normal requirements for a PhD for those students claiming to suffer from extreme exam anxiety. I’m pretty sure I may have that. And a U of M whistleblower has now been suspended for protesting the doctorate in mathematics awarded to a U of M student who:

  • lacked the academic requirements for such a degree
  • had failed a required Comprehensive Candidacy exam two times
  • was then informed that the requirement to pass the exam would be waived – all because of this extreme exam anxiety.

To save time and money, to avoid those Winnipeg winters, and to minimize my own extreme exam anxiety, perhaps the University of Manitoba could just drop my PhD credentials in the mail for me. Isn’t that what other no-class diploma mills do when they decide to throw academic requirements out the window?

According toMacleans On Campus report last month, Dr. Gábor Lukács (who, by the way, successfully completed all academic requirements for his own PhD from Toronto’s York University) has been suspended without pay from his U of M mathematics teaching post after officially protesting his university’s decision about this PhD student. He has also been told by his employers that he may face further discipline for coming forward.

He claims that the U of M is demeaning the reputation of other PhD students and the professors who teach them:

“The shadow of suspicion that the present case casts on all other, hard-working students who did fulfill their requirements bothers me a lot. I have an interest in protecting the integrity of the PhD program in mathematics, because it affects my reputation whether I am a member of a respectable department or a diploma-mill.”

As in all public whistleblowing cases, there are at least three important issues at play here:

  • a perceived wrongdoing that motivates the whistleblower to break silence
  • the individual whistleblower’s actions
  • the subsequent consequences to the whistleblower of coming forward

Nobody, including Dr. Lukács, would suggest that writing university exams is not an anxiety-producing nightmare for most students. But the University of Manitoba claims on its website that such anxiety may actually qualify as a disability. For example:

“Some people become paralyzed by their exam anxiety.  If you find yourself unable to write your exams due to your anxiety, you can get help. The Disability Services office should be your first stop. Any student with a disability can access services through their office, including students with anxiety. Caring staff members will listen to your experiences and discuss your concerns. They may be able to help provide accommodations for you in order to help reduce your anxiety when writing exams. You may also talk to a University advisor if you are experiencing difficulties.  They can offer you the resources necessary to help you.”

The University of Manitoba’s Disability Services office last year registered 136 students who claim to suffer exam anxiety, and so was legally required to offer “reasonable” accommodation of this disability. The U of M, like many universities, offers a generous range of exam-writing accommodations for such students:

  • writing the test alone, with one supervisor in the room
  • taking an oral test
  • having more time to complete the test
  • writing an assignment that demonstrates knowledge of the subject

The U of M’s PhD candidate in question apparently avoided the need to attempt any of those available exam options before being granted a doctorate. The Dean of Graduate Studies also ruled that one of the student’s undergraduate classes could qualify to replace the unfulfilled required graduate school course.

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, more than four million Canadians are diagnosed with some form of anxiety disorder annually — with nearly 7% of university and college students reporting symptoms. But not all professionals interpret a diagnosis of extreme exam anxiety in the same way.  For example, a rival theory called study skills deficit instead explains that high-test-anxious students do poorly on academic tests for two main reasons:

  • 1.  they have poorer study habits and test-taking skills
  • 2.  they experience higher arousal and interference symptoms evoked by their awareness of poor encoding, organization and mastery of the test material
Sources: Benjamin, McKeachie, Lin & Holigan; Culler & Holahan; Kirland & Hollandsworth

And do special academic accommodations for anxiety end up encouraging students to choose inappropriate career paths? Do students suffering from extreme exam anxiety morph into graduates who develop extreme work anxiety when they ultimately land that first job?  Should their future employers then be legally forced to accommodate a personality trait that has become medicalized as a disability?

If you can’t bear the stress of writing your exams (or fulfilling degree requirements for your PhD), should you be later excused from having to face the inevitable stress of workplace project deadlines, staff meetings, tiny cubicles and co-worker conflicts?

Or are you simply on the wrong career path?

Let’s say, for example:

  • you want to be a dentist, but can’t stand the sight of saliva
  • you want to be a veterinarian, but are afraid of animals
  • you want to be a teacher, but have crippling stage fright that makes standing up at the front of the classroom impossible.

According to the U of M, these obstacles may not necessarily mean that you’re on the wrong career path. You’re just disabled! And you should get special accommodation so you can avoid doing what other students in those faculties are expected to do for successful completion of their studies.

Personally, I congratulate Dr. Lukács for his integrity in coming forward. It’s very simple. He is correct. His university, and specifically his Dean of Graduate Studies, are stupefyingly wrong. Reasonable accommodation of disability is good. Waiving academic degree requirements is not. Punishing a faculty member for daring to speak out against this (under the guise of a violation of the PhD student’s privacy rights) is even worse.

Degree requirements should not and must not be waived – or what’s the point in having any of them in the first place? That’s what the U of M should be focused on now, instead of their distracting argument attacking Dr. Lukács for publicly challenging their actions.

When asked why he went public with his concerns despite the personal consequences of doing so, Dr. Lukács told me:

“I have read a lot about the adverse impacts (of speaking up) but the truth is that I could no longer cope with putting up with the questionable decisions and pretending that everything was fine. It has reached a point that remaining silent was more difficult than speaking up and facing the consequences. So, in a way, I had no choice but to speak up and do something about it.”

And in Paragraph 125 of his Manitoba Queen’s Bench court affidavit, he wrote:

“Discussions with my 80-year-old Holocaust-surviver grandmother in Budapest, and the aftermath of the landslide victory of the extreme ultra-right in Hungary in the April 2010 elections, brought me to the conclusion that I must act in accordance with my conscience, even if it may have severe personal consequences for me.”

Every bona fide U of M grad must be spitting mad about the unfortunate bad press this issue is attracting to their alma mater. This venerable university has been granting degrees since its founding in 1877, yet its international reputation has now suffered humiliating ass-kicking damage because of this incident.

The U of M might even be approaching the ranks of academic embarrassments like Trinity Southern University in Dallas, Texas. You may be familiar with this institution because it bestowed an MBA degree upon one Colby Nolan in 2004. The trouble was:  Colby is a cat. And just like the U of M, Trinity Southern (a mail-order diploma mill) has a very relaxed attitude about their students’ academic degree requirements.

So, sadly, it may well be that a PhD from the University of Manitoba will end up being worth about the same as the diplomas that are granted to cats.

© 2010 Carolyn Thomas – The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics For The Easily Swayed

NEWS UPDATE: August 25, 2011

Today, Dr. Lukács emailed me the following message about losing his court case against the University of Manitoba.

“The Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Madam McCawley struck my application for judicial review against the University of Manitoba for lack of standing. The court held that professors cannot challenge the academic decisions of their universities. The court did not consider the question of whether the decisions made by the University of Manitoba in the present case were correct.

“It saddens me that something so important as the present case was decided based on a narrow technicality (‘standing’) instead of on its merits.”

Read this full legal decision.

NEWS UPDATE: November 10, 2011

JOINT STATEMENT issued from the University of Manitoba and Professor Gabor Lukács:

“The administration of the University of Manitoba and Professor G. Lukács have entered into a fair and mutually agreed upon settlement. The University has rescinded all disciplinary actions against Professor Lukács (including reprimand, suspension and denial of increment). All outstanding legal proceedings between the parties are terminated. The parties have also agreed that it is to their mutual benefit to end the employment relationship. The specific terms of the agreement are confidential and will not be disclosed.

For more background on this issue:

→ Visit the website of Dr. Gábor Lukács

→ Learn more background on the Lukács affair from Macleans On Campus and their updated articles, U of M Defense Rings Hollow or (for a more recent example of U of M’s ham-handed response to another professor) “U of M English Prof Removed From Examining Committee After Objecting to Student’s Substandard Master’s Thesis”

→ To see what prominent PhD mathematicians think about waiving these academic requirements, read this international letter of protest.

→For local media coverage of the growing U of M controversy, see these Winnipeg Free Press stories:

→ Read the official news release response from the University of Manitoba, to which Dr. Lukács has responded in this way (via email to me, November 17, 2010):

“This statement twists the facts. For example, not only did the Mathematics Graduate Studies Committee never approve the Dean of Graduate Studies’ decision, but one of its members (Dr. Fereidoun Ghahramani) resigned in protest over this decision.  That is why I became a member of that committee, to replace Dr. Ghahramani). Worse, the statement attempts to deflect attention from the main issues, which are:

  • (i) waiver of a major academic requirement is not a form of accommodation of a disability, and has not been one until this case, even at the University of Manitoba
  • (ii) Dr. Doering (Dean of Graduate Studies) submitted the name of this student to the Senate of the University as a PhD graduand who fulfilled all requirements, and without disclosing to the Senate of the University that the student was, in fact, missing academic requirements for his PhD
  • (iii) Dr. Doering also elevated an undergraduate course that the student had taken to a graduate course, a decision that I do not believe had anything to do with the student’s  disability.”


September 29, 2011 – “U of M English Prof Removed From Examining Committee After Objecting to Student’s Substandard Master’s Thesis”, McLeans On Campus

See also:

7 thoughts on “‘Extreme exam anxiety’ – disability or excuse?

  1. This is so wrong on so many levels. You’re right – the U of M has turned itself into a national laughingstock. For generations from now on, its grads will hear: “U of M? Isn’t that the place that hands out PhDs to students who don’t have to meet academic requirements?” It’s pathetic.

  2. Pathetic indeed! What on earth is going on in their heads to think that this is an appropriate way to handle someone who seems to be out of their depth academically. It doesn’t appear to have been thought through at all. Punishing the whistleblower is just adding to their questionable decision making. Unbelievable.

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  4. If I send in my BA (Hons) results (by the way, a damned impressive Starred First) to this University Of Manitoba, will they count them as if they’re doctoral program credits? Brilliant! I’ve always wanted to get my PHD but the academic requirements seemed so daunting, until now that is. Here in the U.K., I’d barely even heard of this university – but now EVERYBODY around the world knows about this institution, thanks to this story. What a sad way to become globally recognised for all the wrong reasons.

  5. How did the student in question manage to get through his undergrad and Masters programs plus the first two required PhD courses if he actually suffered from this “disability?” The accommodation benefits are not meant to be used retroactively AFTER a student has failed. “Oh, by the way, did I mention I have extreme exam anxiety?!”

  6. Hi Carolyn – this prof is now back at work teaching after his suspension without pay punishment expired. Wonder what it’s like to be working for an employer that you have attracted such worldwide negative publicity to?!

  7. this is embarrassing the University and the court should rethink about their decision. Nobody is going to take a degree from U of M seriously any more.

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