Published in FAUW Forum, newsletter of the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo, No. 58, October 1994. Published on the web since July 2003 by Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo, as part of the Documentary History of the UW Ethics Committee, 1982-1998.)


During 1992 and 1993, I published in Forum a series of articles that opposed authoritarianism in the administration of our university, and argued for a more open and participatory structure of governance. I observed that "life here has acquired a hard-edged quality, a brittleness, a rigidity on all sides that stills the dance of minds by which learning takes place" (January 1993). I urged the UW administration to "value criticism, facilitate debate, prefer inclusiveness to vindictiveness, and find ways to build dissenters in as opposed to freezing them out" (May/June 1993).

As anyone who reads the Gazette is aware, these concerns have become for me much less abstract since the events of November 1993 in my department. Over the past ten months, I have gained more insight into the functioning of our university than during my preceding 18 years on this campus, which included a term as department chair.

Personal preoccupations prevented me from contributing to recent issues of Forum, and from attending most meetings of the editorial board. In my absence, the board invited me to contribute something for an issue this fall on the handling of faculty grievances, since I have gained first-hand experience of the process.

In grateful response to that invitation, with my own grievance case still unheard, I offer the text of a letter I submitted for publication in the Gazette of July 6. Editor Chris Redmond refused to publish it, arguing that "its public distribution would be perceived as a repetition of the behaviour that has been ruled by the Ethics Committee to have been inappropriate in the academic community." Here is the letter I submitted.

"In her letter in the Gazette of June 29, Sandra Burt says she was dismayed that you printed a letter of mine the week before. For my part, I want to thank you for printing not only my letter, but also Professor Burt's. My reading of the facts on the current conflict in sociology differs greatly from hers, but surely the university is best served when varied points of view have a chance to be expressed.

"Professor Burt's letter does clarify what this conflict is about. She writes that although `it is quite appropriate for a supervisor to be upset when her or his student has failed, it is not acceptable to attack the competence of the examining committee....' In my view, such `attack' is both acceptable and desirable, if there is evidence that the committee's decision is unfair or wrong. So far as I can tell, the criteria of evaluation used by the examining committee that failed my supervisee last November, were devised at the end of the oral exam, the student was informed of them only afterwards, and they bore no resemblance to the criteria published in the department's study-guide. Further, the composition of the committee was itself contrary to standard academic practice, and prejudicial to the student. Still further, the student in this case is a widely acknowledged expert in the area of the exam, having published a respected textbook on the subject, as well as other articles and books. In such a situation, a supervisor has a right and a duty to question the committee's decision, to support the student's appeal in terms of Policy 70, and to protest when the student is forced out of the university before the appeal can be heard.

"Professor Burt has taken it upon herself to inform Gazette readers that the student had failed the examination once before. I am glad she has done so, since this whole conflict is traceable to that event. The first exam was given in written format, but the examiners neglected to provide the student with an article required to answer a question worth one third of the exam. The student complained. So did I. The department chair and graduate committee were unwilling even to acknowledge the violation of exam protocol. Even now, two years later, the Dean of Arts is the only administrator who has ever admitted in writing that the first exam was flawed.

"In an authoritarian academic structure, if a professor, student, or staff member questions a decision, it is as if the entire institution is threatened. Administrators and their supporters close ranks to defend one another's integrity against attack, and to vilify, punish, silence and ostracize the impudent dissenter. Their efforts to discredit the latter become steadily more vigorous, the more his or her questioning persists.

"In a university founded on mutual respect, an institution where power and responsibility are shared, the nursing of wounded egos takes second place to creative problem-solving. When somebody questions a decision, especially one with serious consequences for a person's work and livelihood, the focus is kept on the disputed decision, which is then reconsidered with all the intelligence and concern for fairness the institution can muster. The priority is on frank and open discussion of the issue at hand, with no attempt to humiliate or punish anyone.

"Never in this conflict have I asked that anybody be punished. Contrary to Professor Burt's accusation, I have never intimidated a colleague `with suggestions of career reprisals.' What I have done is question decisions taken with less care and fairness than required by the gravity of their effects on people's lives. In my view, such questioning is part of a professor's job."

Ken Westhues