13 December 2010

A Letter Sent to OISE Dean Julia O'Sullivan Regarding the Peto Thesis Controversy

Dear Dean O’Sullivan

I am writing to express my concern over the recent controversy surrounding the master’s thesis of a recently graduated student from the Sociology and Equity Studies in Education department, Jennifer Peto. Aside from Ms. Peto’s particular political views – with which I will admit I do not agree – my concern centres specifically on the questionability of the scholarship represented by the thesis, and hence on the reflected questionability of the scholarship produced at OISE in general. As a recent graduate of OISE myself, having earned both master’s and doctoral degrees in Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, I am dismayed by the prospect of the value of my degree being diminished, and my own scholarly contributions being called into question. After all, the worth of one’s academic credentials are only as valuable as the reputation of the institution from which they were obtained.

The common discourse in the popular press – The National Post and Macleans Magazine, to name but two examples – and on the floor of the Ontario Legislature directly calls into question OISE’s academic standards, including the rigour with which its graduate students are supervised, and the quality of work that is accepted as a graduate thesis. Indeed, an academic examination of eighteen thesis abstracts (including two for which the theses were reviewed in toto), prepared for University of Toronto’s President, David Naylor, and reported on in today’s press can be summarized with a sad indictment: having accepted what appears to be a sub-standard polemical essay as scholarship worthy of a master’s degree has “hurt the scholarly reputation of one of the world’s great universities … [and] are related to a larger systemic problem at OISE.”

Knowing the politics-in-use among the various graduate departments, I can appreciate the differences between the critical discourse and focus on transformative praxis in Adult Education, for example, and the discourse of radical activism-at-all-costs that pervades Sociology and Equity Studies. Others, who are not as familiar with the specific political agendas of various faculty members, like Prof. Sheryl Nestel, cannot so easily contextualize and distinguish the supposedly scholarly production of one department from another. To outsiders, all masters and doctoral graduates from OISE can potentially be tarred with the same brush of questionable scholarship, dubious supervision, and laissez-faire awarding of graduate degrees. It is not only the reputation of the Institute that is being called into question; it is the individual reputations and qualifications of each and every graduate that are equally being doubted.

I, for one, am proud of the “contributions to knowledge” represented by both my doctoral and (empirically based) master’s theses. I am thankful for the outstanding mentorship and guidance I received from my professors in the Adult Education program. I cannot passively stand on the sidelines while the reputations of so many hard-working scholars are being summarily cast onto an academic midden heap because of what appears to be the politics of relatively few individuals.

The Provost’s initial response to this controversy, that the thesis is merely “a student paper,” is alarming. There is a substantial difference between a thesis entered into the university’s compendium of knowledge production on Tspace and a course paper that, in many cases, often reflects the professor’s espoused worldview, replayed through lenses of the professor’s preferred political hue. As a first response in an attempt to diffuse the controversy, it was an unfortunate statement. On reflection, it seems to cast aspersions on, and uniformly diminish, the value of all scholarship produced throughout the university—clearly not the intent of the Provost.

As has been done in other post-hoc cases of questionable academic standards, I am calling for an independent academic review of the master’s thesis in question to determine whether it truly meets the standards for an acceptable thesis at the University of Toronto. To be clear: it is not the specific subject matter of the thesis that I am questioning, but rather the degree to which the subject matter has been adequately examined and vetted in accordance with the standards of academic rigour worthy of a master’s thesis at a top-tier university in Canada. In my opinion, at this point only an independent review will be able to establish the scholarly merit of Ms. Peto’s thesis, and therefore, the validity of the degree to which she was recently admitted at convocation. Only such a review will help to clear the air and to begin to rehabilitate the seemingly tarnished reputation of OISE, a reputation that deserves to be held in high esteem.

Sincerely yours,

Mark L. Federman, Ph.D.


Ryan said...

The academic examination that you linked to found 18 thesis abstracts from OISE that the author believed shouldn't have been accepted. Why is your concern limited to Peto's paper if the Peto thesis 'was no abberration'? Are you reviewing the rest of the papers as well and planning to demand an independent review of all those that don't meet what you believe are the University's standards?

It is disingenuous for you to elevate McLeans and the National Post as authorities whose responses should influence the University's actions. You claim that the thesis in question isn't objective or academically grounded and bring in biased, agenda driven mass media as your witness.

Your letter is completely void of any details on why the paper should be reviewed.

Why don't you spell out explicitly the academic shortcomings that you see in Peto's thesis? If Peto's paper is so far below the standards of anything else being accepted as to warrant an independent review, then the exercise will be fairly easy and the need to isolate Peto's paper will be obvious to anyone who uses your critique to judge other masters theses at UofT.

Until then it is difficult to believe that the content of Peto's thesis is not driving your concerns.

Mark said...

I explicitly state the reason Peto's thesis should be reviewed: it is Peto's thesis that has cast the credibility of OISE's reputation into question. If the thesis is independently reviewed, and it is found to qualify as "scholarly" - not according to my criteria, but according to the criteria set by the Institute's Academic Appeals Committee - then a public statement of those findings would enable OISE to refute accusations of unscholarly master's theses.

On the other hand, if Peto's thesis is found not to measure up to acceptable standards of scholarship in the context of the Institute (specifically: what constitutes "knowledge" in one discipline is not necessarily what constitutes "knowledge" in another), then she should be required to resubmit a thesis within a year (which is the current standard if a thesis is "failed" by committee).

You are welcome to believe anything you like. It is quite easy to dismiss my concerns about how questionable is the scholarship in the thesis by crying hegemonic, pro-Zionist politics, or any other damn fool thing. If a committee of tenured professors from, say, TPS, CTL, and AECP read the thesis and declare it acceptable, then it stands. If not, then it goes to rewrite if she wants to keep her degree. The current issue is that of credibility.

On the other hand, you *do* raise a worthwhile issue. Perhaps ALL theses produced by SESE (and especially those supervised by Sheryl Nestel) should be subject to post-hoc review, if one were to be completely rigorous about it. However, this would be a considerably onerous burden, not only on professors asked to do such a review, but also on those graduates who have been away from the academy for some years (and especially those whose livelihoods are based on their degrees that are being called into question through no fault of their own).

And, a further disclaimer: I *DID* (quickly) read Peto's thesis, and it is polemical, and not, in my opinion, a scholarly work. It ignores the actual literature on Holocaust education and relies on websites instead of primary sources, with only the flimsiest of justifications for doing so. It also completely ignores the literature on hegemony, which, arguably, provides a better explanation for the phenomenon she wishes to explain. In a scholarly work, she would have to account for this alternate explanation and demonstrate why her theory provides a more useful or complete accounting.

In any event, to reiterate: My issue is the impugned credibility of OISE and its graduates, of which I am one, based on the controversy created by Jennifer Peto. That controversy must be addressed head on, and that means reviewing the acceptability of her thesis.

Ryan said...

How did Jennifer Peto 'create the controversy' that worries you? If the content of her thesis is of no concern, she simply submitted what is arguably a poor paper.

Has the quality of scholarship in a masters level thesis ever warranted the attention of a national newspaper or the Ontario legislature?

The attention that the media and government have given to Peto's thesis is clearly (and for the most part explicitly) being driven by the the content of her paper.

And it is the media and government's response that has created the controversy that you now feel threatens your degree. Could the acceptance of Peto's thesis seriously be described as a 'scandal' without any discussion of the content of her paper?

If there is a widespread problem with the level of scholarship being accepted at OISE , then the blow to OISE's reputation is well founded, and targeting the author of any single paper is clearly unjust.

If this is not a widespread problem but an isolated incident, and the quality of scholarship of a single masters thesis is under question, then you should be directing your anger at the media and politicians who have never given a damn about the academic merit of a masters thesis, yet decided to turn this particular case into a national 'scandal'.

Mark said...

The content of Peto's thesis is clearly problematic, and was intended to be so. That, in and of itself, is not the problem in my view. Had she appropriately used the literature and theoretical foundations of anti-racist, anti-colonialist, and any other critical theoretical foundations, plus the extant literature to demonstrate her theory, her problematic topic would be well-founded academically. She did not, and hence, she has triggered the issue that raises the larger questions of standards in OISE, more particularly, SESE, and even more specifically, those theses supervised by Sheryl Nestel.

We must begin with where we are, and that, to me, suggests beginning with Peto's thesis. In answer to your question, "Could the acceptance of Peto's thesis seriously be described as a 'scandal' without any discussion of the content of her paper?" my answer is yes. The acceptance of what might pass as a "B+" paper in a course as a master's thesis in a tier-one graduate school indeed qualifies as an academic scandal that requires focused, and then wider, review.

Mark said...

As of mid-February, 2011, Dean O'Sullivan has yet to respond to this letter (which was sent to the Dean's Office via email on the date it was posted here).

Although I had hoped for at least an acknowledgement and a perfunctory response, I've pretty much given up hope that the Dean actually cares.