In the middle of 2023, the University of New Brunswick launched a review of the School of Graduate Studies’ policies. Two external examiners, Dr. Gayle MacDonald (Mount St. Vincent University) and Dr. Noreen Golfman (Prof. Emeritus, Memorial University), oversaw this review. Although the review was not exactly about the Douglas Mastriano affair, it was announced as part of UNB’s response to the scandal.

UNB responded to the Mastriano affair in two ways. First, it prompted an investigation to verify James Gregory’s accusations of academic fraud in Mastriano’s thesis. In March of 2023, a three-member board was convened to investigate and furnish a report with findings and recommendations to the VP-Research, David Magee, within a 60-day window. The Bruns reached out to the UNB officials to try and obtain the results, the Office of Communication responded to our request with the following: “I don’t know when or if the results will be released, but I do know that the process is not yet complete.”

James Gregory, the University of Oklahoma PhD Candidate who blew the whistle on the whole affair, had a different response. 

“On November 15th last year [2023], [the historian in charge of the external review board] told me that they submitted the report to the university a couple of months ago, so it would have been a couple of months prior to November 16th, so around September. She said [the university] acknowledged they received it, but she had no update. She couldn’t tell me anymore and so I’ve not heard anything either from UNB on that report.”

So, it appears that the University has either extended this window indefinitely or has chosen to keep the results confidential. Although we cannot name any of the confidential review board members, it is hard to imagine a prestigious history professor from the University of Toronto would hand in her assignments late. 

UNB has justified its lack of transparency with privacy concerns. Disclosing the “personal information” of an alumnus would be an infringement of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (RTIPPA).

Natasha Ashfield, from the UNB Communications Office, reaffirmed this position in a comment on January 5, 2024: 

Due to the requirements of the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, we cannot discuss the personal information of our students, including educational information, without the student’s consent. We do want to assure people, however, that complaints of research misconduct are taken very seriously and investigated accordingly. UNB has a clear policy for dealing with any allegations of research misconduct, which we follow in all cases.”

As a result, whether Mastriano was academically dishonest or not remains unknown to the public. The other way that UNB responded was, of course, through a review of SGS policies. The review was announced on October 6, 2022, through a press release posted by the UNB Newsroom: “As stated previously, UNB will review its internal processes and procedures to ensure our systems and policies around the awarding of PhDs remain of the highest standard.” 

While the investigation into Mastriano’s alleged fraud has remained private, the review of SGS policies was made public. The report is available on UNB’s website, along with another document recording the university’s response to the examiners’ recommendations. 

Exploring the Bigger Picture

The Brunswickan recently discussed UNB’s policy review with Dr. David MaGee, the current VP-Research. MaGee received the proposal for this review around April 2023. One major reason for the review was the need for consistency, as no review had been conducted for several years, likely since the mid-2010s, estimated MaGee. Both internal and external parties had raised concerns about certain processes, particularly in graduate studies.

One significant change suggested by the reviewers was in the selection of external examiners for PhD dissertation boards. The previous policy lacked safeguards against conflicts of interest, so UNB adopted the suggested change. MaGee noted that there was some confusion around what constitutes a conflict of interest in the previous policy, which has since been clarified and communicated to the Graduate Academic Units.

 “I think there was some confusion, or perhaps lack of clarity, on what might constitute a conflict of interest. These have been, I won’t say cleaned up, but they have been clarified, tightened up, and communicated to each of the Graduate Academic Units,” said MaGee.

The review also addressed issues such as dissatisfaction with committee composition and the expertise of examining board members. MaGee explained that the relatively small size of many graduate academic units at UNB posed challenges in selecting appropriate committee members, especially when there is limited overlap in expertise or when faculty are on sabbatical.

MaGee explained: “One of the challenges we face at UNB is that many of our graduate academic units are relatively small. If your Graduate Academic Unit has perhaps seven faculty members in it, those seven faculty members can be from very different areas.” 

UNB aims to resolve these issues and align its policies more closely with those of other Canadian research institutions. These changes are expected to be implemented during the current academic year.

Regarding embargo procedures, the reviewers suggested reducing the maximum embargo period to two years, with permission from the Dean of Graduate Studies. Previously, UNB allowed for a maximum of four years. MaGee confirmed that this change has already been implemented.

“UNB’s embargo policy was, at the time it was created, very similar and consistent with what was around the country,” noted MaGee.  

This does not explain the potential 17-year embargo (until 2030) that was originally communicated to James Gregory in 2021 regarding Mastriano’s dissertation. Although it was finally released to the public in 2022, he obtained his PhD in 2013, making this a 9-year embargo. This is far beyond the two-, or even, four-year maximum embargo period.

“In the particular case you referenced,” MaGee said, “it was not a failure of our policy, our policy was correct and consistent. It was more of, and I hate to use the word ‘failure,’ but it was really a failure of our internal procedures.”

Whether a failure of policy or internal procedures, a potential 17-year, and actual 9-year embargo raises serious questions of academic ethics at UNB. While a review process of the policies and procedures is welcome, we must wonder how it even came to this point where UNB is making international news over their refusal to release a dissertation.

In our next, and final, installment on the Mastriano Affair, we will delve into allegations from former students, other cases of alleged academic misconduct, and post excerpts of our interview with the director of the Gregg Centre to see what has happened on their end.

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