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Gabor Lukacs is taking the University of Manitoba to court over its decision to award a PhD to a student the school says legitimately suffers from extreme exam anxiety. ((University of Manitoba))

A University of Manitoba assistant math professor who is suing the school over a degree granted to a student who failed an exam is adamant the fight is in the best interest of the institution.

And although Gabor Lukacs, 28, could be staring down unemployment because of the court battle, he says someone has to challenge potential abuses of authority.

"If somebody says … 'I can do anything I want,' that turns on a switch," the crusading academic said in a recent interview.

"I believe we are all equal."

While many may share that feeling when they perceive injustice, not many go to the lengths Lukacs has to make their point.

In recent months, he has taken on Canada's two largest airlines over their lost or damaged baggage policies and won.

His latest, highly publicized fight pits him in a battle against his university in Winnipeg over a PhD awarded to a student Lukacs didn't even teach.

Exam anxiety

The university's dean of graduate studies waived a failed comprehensive exam for the doctoral candidate, who said after the fact that he had acute exam anxiety.

The university argues it was accommodating the legitimate disability of an otherwise exceptional student, but Lukacs argues it reflects poorly on the school's reputation.

He wasn't the only faculty member to object, but he was the one who went to court to fight the decision.

The university suspended Lukacs for three months — even cancelled his email account — for going public with a student's health information.

On Jan. 20, the school will try to have the lawsuit thrown out, saying Lukacs has no standing.

The assistant professor, however, remains steadfast and says if the University of Manitoba wants to ensure its degrees are respected, "this must be fixed."

'If they get rid of me, then they are going to be stuck forever with this thing.'— Gabor Lukacs

"It reflects on my institution … it reflects on my credibility and my ability to carry out my duties as a faculty member," he says.

"I'm teaching 110 students, 120 students, in my first-year course. I need to be able to look into their eyes."

Prof no stranger to civil courts

The path to academia has been anything but conventional for Lukacs.

He started working on his own PhD at 16, having fled his native Hungary with his father for Israel and emigrating a few years later to Canada to study at York University in Toronto.

He went to court for the first time when he was 15 in Israel. His father's employer was balking at giving him a week off to spend with his son. Lukacs won.

A frequent flyer, he fought Air Canada and West Jet because he thought their luggage policies were unfair.

"My goal is not to humiliate the airline," he says. "My goal is just to ensure that when you travel you are an equal part of the contract."

Yet he insists he doesn't want to fight. He says he has worked "collegially" with other airlines that agreed quietly to apply a remedy when he told them they were not serving their customers well.

He comes from an academic family and sees this need to question authority as a natural byproduct of his childhood in Hungary and what he saw there. But he knows his latest battle with the institution that signs his paycheque could end up costing him his tenure-track position.

Lukacs says he tried to work behind closed doors to avoid giving the university a black eye, but he and other professors were told to mind their own business.

Fight draws international support

He strongly disagrees with any suggestion the awarding of the degree should make no difference to him. And he has support in his fight. An international group of 86 mathematicians sent a letter to university president David Barnard expressing their concern at the way the degree was granted and the way Lukacs was treated.

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The University of Manitoba is the province's largest post-secondary school. ((CBC))

The university has responded with a letter to staff justifying the decision. The school says the unnamed student aced two other comprehensive exams and the exception was made because he was a scholar with an above-normal number of publications in refereed journals and was lauded by the internal and external examiners on his thesis committee.

The university's graduate students' association also objects to Lukacs's interference, although other students and faculty members signed a petition supporting him.

Despite the fight, Lukacs says he still likes working at the University of Manitoba.

"Whatever kept my sanity through all this is my student support … (but) I don't want to spend my career fixing an institution that doesn't want to improve."

He says it would be in the university's best interests to remedy the situation.

"If they get rid of me, then they are going to be stuck forever with this thing."

Corrections

  • A prior version of this Canadian Press story stated it was the dean of the University of Manitoba's mathematics department who waived the student in question's exam requirement. In fact, it was the dean of the graduate studies department.
    Jan 03, 2010 12:45 PM CT