A step toward more inclusive education U of M introduces BFAR program to faculty of graduate studies

Photo by Lauren Siddall

The University of Manitoba has begun the process of creating Bona Fide Academic Requirements (BFARs) for graduate programs – a step preceding the implementation of BFARs across campus by 2017. The U of M is one of the first post-secondary institutions to implement such a wide-scale academic accessibility program.

BFARs are the essential minimum requirements a student must meet in a course or program. They describe the skills, knowledge, and experiences a student must demonstrate in order to successfully graduate from a course or a program.

Programs that are already subject to external accrediting bodies that lay out these conditions clearly will not need to develop BFARs – for example, many health sciences programs have Essential Skills and Abilities documents.

Once approved by the senate, the BFARs must be posted on the program’s website. The development of the requirements will be led by the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL).

According to U of M’s website, a BFAR “cannot be waived or accommodated, in the reasonable view of the unit, without consequences to the integrity of the program.” As such, the BFARs will govern the actions of university administrators and Student Accessibility Services.

The BFAR method is intended to be an open, communicative process during which students, staff, and faculty will discuss learning and teaching methods in a manner that promotes and supports inclusion across the campus.

After the program is in place campus-wide, the U of M will be required to make “reasonable efforts to accommodate a student with a disability when the disability does not impair the student’s ability to fulfill the BFARs of a course or program.”

Further, “if the only accommodation that can be found undermines a BFAR, then no accommodation should be made.”

The BFAR program was developed in accordance with the Accessibility for Manitobans Act, which became law in December of 2013. Nearly one in six people living in Manitoba face accessibility barriers in their day-to-day living – a problem that comes with a large cost to those living with disabilities, communities, and businesses.

To combat this, the act calls for the provincial government to create mandatory accessibility standards that apply to the government, the public sector, and the private and not-for-profit sectors in the province.

As such, the U of M will be required to prepare accessibility plans every other year that outline the “identification, prevention, and removal of barriers.”

Before introducing the program to the faculty of graduate studies, the CATL employed a pilot study in three programs from January to March of last year: mechanical engineering, athletic therapy, and political studies.

The study included initial meetings with department heads, distributing reference material to the departments, one-on-one meetings and workshops with departments, and assessment and refinement of the draft BFARs – all of which were successfully created within a 90-day period.

A number of key recommendations that surfaced as a result of the pilot study – which will be applied to subsequent drafting and implementation of BFARs – primarily centre on communication of the BFARs and their accessibility, including the collaboration of all faculties members within a program to draft the BFARs in order to avoid discordant requirements.

Past accessibility issues

The university, while progressive in their implementation of BFARs, has faced heated arguments on accessibility issues in the past – most notably in the case involving professor Gabor Lukács in 2009.

Lukács, a former math professor at the U of M, filed a court application after Jay Doering, the dean of graduate studies, waived the exam requirement for a PhD student who had failed a comprehensive exam in the program twice and was therefore asked to withdraw from the PhD program.

The student appealed the withdrawal to Doering on the basis of extreme exam anxiety and was reinstated to the program. Extreme exam anxiety was considered grounds for alternate exam conditions for the student according to a decision between the department’s graduate studies committee and Student Accessibility Services.

Doering rejected the proposed alternate conditions, and requested that the department of mathematics administer an oral exam to the student. When the graduate studies committee declined that option, Doering waived the exam requirement.

A member of the graduate studies committee resigned and the slot was filled by Lukács – this is when he first became involved with the case.

Lukács quickly exhausted his options for academic appeals within the university, and eventually brought the matter to court, filing an application to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s bench. Lukács accused the dean of overstepping his authority and violating the University of Manitoba Act.

The court application called for Doering’s decision to be discarded and a confirmation that Doering did not have the authority to make a decision without conferring with an “appeal committee of academics,” according to Maclean’s.

Lukács was subsequently suspended due to a reference to the student’s name and personal information in the court application, which the university considered to be a breach of privacy regulations. U of M president David Barnard called Lukács “insubordinate,” and further faulted him for “having engaged in a pattern of behaviour with regard to [the] student which the university considers to be harassment.”

The dispute was eventually settled and although the specifics remain undisclosed, Lukács’s employment relationship with the university was ended. Lukács now lives in Halifax and continues to work on research projects in his field, though he is no longer affiliated with any university.

With the implementation of BFARs at the university, there will be more clear rules in place to resolve such disputes, and situations like this should no longer occur.

For some more background on Bona Fide Academic Requirements, read the Cooper Commission report from 2012. Exhaustive coverage of the Gabor Lukács affair can be found at Maclean’s.

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