Clinton enters degree dispute

February 23, 2007

US postgraduate takes lengthy grievance against LBS to the highest levels. Faisal al Yafai reports

It started as a routine, if not typical, student complaint: postgraduate Lawrence McCann was unhappy with the London Business School's decision to fail his masters degree after his studies were interrupted when he was left disabled after a serious car accident.

But after five years of dogged persistence by Mr McCann, the dispute has escalated into a full-scale international row that has attracted the attention of US Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

One local politician in New York, where Mr McCann lives, had already attacked LBS over "sloppy, unprofessional and unethical behaviours" and had urged New York's Columbia University to review its links with the prestigious London school over its handling of the case.

And now Ms Clinton, who recently confirmed her bid to be elected the US's first female president next year, has stepped into the fray by demanding a review of the situation.

As The Times Higher reported in September 2004, Mr McCann, a former Wall Street trader, was nine months into his ten-month masters course and due to complete his final project in 1996 when he was so seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver that a priest administered last rites. He was unable to return to his studies for six years because of a long recovery period and a criminal case against the driver in the accident.

When he tried to return to LBS in 2002, he was informed that his masters in finance, which now costs nearly £30,000, had been failed back in 1999, as he had not submitted his final project.

Subsequently, the school offered him an extension and Mr McCann submitted a project, which was failed. But he argued that the school breached its procedures and treated him unfairly by failing to provide a preliminary grade and feedback and denying him a chance to resubmit. After another appeal, LBS allowed him to submit again, in 2005, but he decided instead to lodge a complaint with the Office for the Independent Adjudicator in Higher Education.

"With all the history that had gone on, I thought they were merely going through the formalities of offering what they had to and then they would just fail me again," he said.

Mr McCann stated that there was "bad faith" between him and the school and that he was not confident of receiving fair treatment.

In December last year, the OIA delivered its formal report on the case, finding against Mr McCann.

While the OIA was reaching its decision, Mr McCann went to Barbara Lifton, a member of the New York State Assembly, in whose constituency he lives.

Ms Lifton wrote to the head of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, urging him to look into the case and "perhaps... reconsider (your) relationship with the London Business School in light of the sloppy, unprofessional and unethical behaviours evidenced". The LBS and Columbia run a joint MBA programme, alternating each month between campuses in New York and London.

Ms Lifton has also written to the State Education Department in New York.

Senator Clinton also replied to Mr McCann two weeks ago, writing: "I have brought the information you presented to the attention of the appropriate officials. I have requested a review of this matter and a written response."

LBS considers the matter closed. In a letter, dated February 5 this year, the school's acting dean, Professor Sir Andrew Likierman, says that the Board of Examiners "confirmed... that you had failed to complete a satisfactory project and therefore that you have failed the masters in finance degree".

Following the OIA decision, "there are... no further opportunities for you to redeem the failure of your degree, and the statutory mechanisms for appeal have been exhausted". The school has, however, allowed Mr McCann access to its alumni services.

Despite the OIA decision, Mr McCann is looking at pursuing legal action against LBS and is expecting the support of Ms Clinton. "I can't let it go. It may not make sense but it's too unfair and unreasonable," he said.

WHAT THE OIA RULED

In its report, the Office for the Independent Adjudicator is clear that it cannot pass judgment on the academic aspects of the case. "We can only lookat whether an institution has breached its procedures or acted fairly," it states.

The OIA is critical of LBS for its confusion over a "four-year rule", originally cited as the reason for failing Mr McCann because he had not completed his degree within four years of starting it. The OIA finds that this rule applies only to part-time students, not full-timers such as Mr McCann, but it further notes that, under the requirements of the degree, Mr McCann should have been failed even earlier, in 1995.

Mr McCann also complained about the grading of his 2003 submission. While the OIA maintains it will not involve itself in academic matters, it notes that the project, which received a fail grade, was double-marked internally and then confirmed by an external examiner.

The report also considers the school's responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act and concludes that it "acted reasonably... in respect of (Mr McCann's) disability".

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