A stumble by UWI?

By Winford James

When the Express broke the news about the questionable award of the Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) to Speaker Wade Mark, publishing an exchange of incriminating e-mails between officials of UWI’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) on the matter, a retired policeman called me in great anger, crying foul.
He protested for some 30 minutes about the university watering down its standards and tarnishing its long-standing image as the most reputable tertiary institution of learning in the English-speaking Caribbean, and he had a strong suspicion it had bent some of its principles of academic probity in awarding Mark the degree.
He found the resignation of the programme director, Brian Ghent, to be telling, and he was particularly disturbed that, from the emails, the GSB seemed to have gone the route of an oral exam after repeated failures by Mark of a course, and that Mark could use the letterhead of his office to seek special examination concessions.
“How it looking for UWI?” he cried. “This isn’t another example of this government abandoning standards for self-convenience?”
I observed it didn’t look too good but that the newspaper reports of some UWI authorities saying the degree had been properly granted did not provide sufficient clarifying information. I told him that, in the circumstances, we should wait for a full formal statement from UWI.
That statement has since come – and from no less a person than the Vice Chancellor himself, Prof E Nigel Harris.
Prof Harris informs us that The UWI reviewed media statements “surrounding the recent award of a graduate degree to a student” [unnamed] of the EMBA programme and found the student had “fully satisfied all the requirements to graduate from the programme”.
Before continuing with his explanation of how the student had satisfied the requirements, I wish to suggest that, while it is conceivable that the vice chancellor was economical with the truth, it is unreasonable to think he is hoodwinking us.
People in his position usually don’t go down that road and don’t need to. After all, their statements can be easily checked by reference to the regulations as well as to conventions established along the way and, if found to be untrue, could be needlessly quite embarrassing and destructive.
I make the assumption therefore that Prof Harris is telling the truth.
If he is, why then did Brian Ghent resign over the award? And why the e-mails that show highly placed officials of the GSB were involved in a cover up?
Prof Harris explains that, to meet the requirements of the degree, the student had one outstanding course, examined by both coursework and a written exam, and had successfully completed the coursework component on two previous occasions. He continues as follows:
“Based on this, the requirement to repeat the coursework component for a third time could have been waived by The UWI, but the student would still have been required to take and pass the final written exam. Despite the fact that the student had already passed the coursework on two previous occasions, ALJGSB took the decision to assess the student’s knowledge of the material further, by subjecting the student to an oral examination of coursework material, which he passed.”

This is perhaps the most critical text in Prof Harris’s statement, but it is also the most difficult to process. The difficulty lies in the meaning we get from the two counterfactual phrases: “could have been waived by the UWI” and “would still have been required to take and pass the final written exam”.
Counterfactual statements are statements with hypothetical, anti-reality meanings, which should mean that the UWI did not exercise the option of waiving the requirement that the student do the coursework a third time and passing the final written exam. But why not? Is this what Ghent wanted? And is it that convention permitted recourse to another option – the student doing and passing an oral examination of ‘coursework material’, and doing so without doing and passing a final written exam? Did the student in fact ever pass the written exam?
Was Ghent protesting the replacement of the third redo of the coursework plus the written exam by a purely oral exam? And was he unaware of the convention of a written exam?
In a previous paragraph, Prof Harris explains that, “based on professional and personal circumstances, students can request considerations which will usually be granted once they are consistent with UWI regulations”.
So I am assuming that the student requested an oral exam in lieu of both a third attempt at coursework and a passing of the written exam. And it would appear that this oral examination is consistent with UWI regulations.
But the vice chancellor would have done us all a service if he had cited the relevant regulations. I have gone to the booklet containing these regulations, looking in particular for the ones on oral examinations. It seems that Regulation #66 applies:
“The Examiners appointed to examine a written paper may put oral questions to a candidate in any case in which they believe that this will help towards a more accurate assessment, if the chairman of the Campus Committee so approves. In cases of students failing a course, being allowed an oral examination, and performing satisfactorily in the oral examination, the Examiners shall recommend a passing mark of no more than 50% for the course.”

If I am right that this is a relevant regulation, then I can conjecture that the student failed a course one time too many and was allowed to do a replacement oral exam, which, as the vice chancellor said, he passed.
I personally know of other students who, having repeatedly failed a course in one of its components, were allowed to do an oral exam, which, mercifully, they passed.
He may have used his office to influence the outcome of his programme of students, and there might be query about how many times a student must fail a course before being asked to withdraw, but it seems that Prof Harris’s struggling student “fully satisfied all the requirements to graduate from the programme”.
One more thing: note the phrase in the regulation that says ‘if the chairman of the Campus Committee so approves”. It appears the approval of this chairman was obtained. We don’t know that it was but this is a clear implication from the vice chancellor’s statement.
• Winford James is a UWI
lecturer and political analyst
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