University upholds decision to officially strip Chris Spence of PhD

67 alleged counts of plagiarism found in former TDSB Director of Education’s dissertation

University upholds decision to officially strip Chris Spence of PhD

A U of T appeals tribunal upheld the June 2017 decision to strip former Toronto District School Board (TDSB) Director of Education Chris Spence of his PhD due to 67 alleged counts of plagiarism found in his dissertation.

In 2013, it was revealed that Spence’s plagiarism spanned articles, books, blogs, and his dissertation. Since then, he has resigned from the TDSB, and in 2016, the Ontario College of Teachers revoked his teaching licence. The university attempted to hold a hearing since then, but it was only able to do so last year.

The original June hearing proceeded despite Spence’s request for adjournment, citing mental health issues. Neither Spence nor his lawyer, Darryl Singer, were present for the hearing. Singer claimed that no penalty should have been given, due to their absences. However, Spence had been previously warned that the hearing would take place whether or not he had counsel, and that it could proceed even if he was not present.

As reported chronologically by the Appeals Board report, the past five years were marked by a constant back and forth between the tribunal and Spence, with Spence repeatedly citing health concerns against the university’s continued attempts to hold the hearing.

With his frequent absences, Spence elongated his hearings with both U of T and the Ontario College of Teachers. However, Spence was unsuccessful in proving his medical claims. A doctor who reviewed Spence’s report claiming health concerns decided that there was not enough evidence to prove that he would be physically or psychologically incapable of participating in the hearings.

Ultimately, in the view of the tribunal, Spence never fully substantiated his claims that he was medically incapable of participating. At the original hearing, Spence’s counsel claimed he was unable to participate due to an anxiety attack the day before. This claim was not medically affirmed.

In his request for appeal, Spence argued that, were he able to participate in the hearing, it would have influenced the outcome. He also argued that the revocation of his degree after a successful 20-year career had an “inordinately serious and inappropriate impact,” which the tribunal found to be reason for a greater penalty rather than a lesser one.

The appeals tribunal expressed that there was nothing irregular about the decision, and that Spence’s claims that he was not given sufficient notice were unsubstantiated.

Singer told the Toronto Star that he intends to bring the case to the Ontario Divisional Court, and that he has until March 2 to file notice if he chooses to do so. Spence also plans to appeal the retraction of his teaching licence.

Where do U of T PhDs end up? Research shows preference for staying in academia

Survey of 10,886 U of T grads conducted

Where do U of T PhDs end up? Research shows preference for staying in academia


A study released by the School of Graduate Studies revealed that PhD graduates are more likely to end up employed at post-secondary institutions than in all other sectors combined.

The study analyzed the employment status of 88 per cent of the 10,886 PhDs who graduated from U of T from 2000–2015, across all academic divisions. Of those analyzed, 59 per cent attained positions in post-secondary institutions after graduation, while the rest found employment in the private and public sectors, non-profit organizations, or in independent businesses. Only four PhD graduates were unemployed.

However, this trend was not uniform across the board. While close to eight in 10 Humanities PhDs ended up in academia, just less than half of Physical Sciences PhDs chose this path; 40 per cent were employed in the private sector. Of those PhDs who were employed in post-secondary education, about half were in tenure-track positions. Fourteen per cent of graduates were postdoctoral fellows, and approximately four per cent ended up in teaching-stream positions. Many ended up doing research and teaching at U of T, York University, Ryerson University, and McMaster University.

PhDs in the private sector either established their own enterprises or found jobs at Google, Intel, or the Royal Bank of Canada, among others. In the public sector, they mostly worked in hospitals or in the government, and in the charitable sector, they tended to work at health-related non-profits, such as the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research and the Ontario Brain Institute.

The data also revealed significant changes in the composition of the PhD student body. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of U of T PhD graduates per year almost doubled, from 494 to 901, and the amount of non-citizen PhD graduates also doubled. On the other hand, gender composition of the PhD student body over that time has been stable, varying slightly from a 50-50 split. The majority of PhD students — 85 per cent on average — were Canadian citizens and permanent residents.

International PhDs to pay tuition equivalent to domestic students

Graduate students respond to changes in academic rates

International PhDs to pay tuition equivalent to domestic students

Come September, domestic and international PhD students at U of T will pay equivalent tuition. This breaks from the status quo of international students paying much higher rates than domestic students.

At present, most international fees are $21,560 per year, in comparison to the domestic rate of $6,960 for a majority of programs.

Rose Liu, an international student and Masters of Pharmacology student, said she believes that the move was reasonable. “It doesn’t make sense for them to pay a whole lot extra.”

The announcement came on January 16. In a statement posted on U of T News, Joshua Barker, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Vice-Provost of Graduate Research and Education, said that the university “[strives] to remove any barriers, financial or otherwise, that graduate students might face as they look to attend our university.”

Barker later told The Varsity that the move was to make higher education more accessible to a larger pool of students. “We know that international students will always be looking carefully at the fees that they will be paying,” he said. “Reducing it to domestic level will improve our capacity to recruit the best of the best.”

The plan technically won’t kick in until after a student’s fourth year of study in their doctoral program. Currently, both international and domestic students are provided a funding package, comprised of grants and work opportunities, that does not require them to pay fees out of pocket for the first four years. Starting in their fifth year and any other time after that, students will have to pay fees.

“[Students will be affected] when they finish the funded portion of their degree, and we’re going to absorb the costs of that through our normal budget process,” said Barker with regard to the specific details of how the university will offset this financial change.

The announcement comes two weeks after the deadline for doctoral programs passed, and some international students are saying that the expensive fees factored into their decisions to not apply.

“We’re only able to make the announcement when the decision has been reached within the university, and we have agreement from the various faculties within the university,” said Barker.

Liu also noted how this might promote meritocracy. “If supervisors know that they don’t have to pay for international PhD students, they could probably decide to take a certain international student instead of compromising for domestic students.”

The tuition cut will not affect professional programs. The Doctor of Juridical Science, Doctor of Education, and Doctor of Music Arts will keep current international tuition rates due to their non-research orientation. According to Barker, there are no plans at present to reduce those fees. There are also no plans to equalize the tuition rates of domestic and international students at the undergraduate or master’s level.

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) expressed support for the announcement. Alexandra Sebben, Communications and Promotions Coordinator for the UTGSU, said that the “Executive Committee supports the reduction of tuition fees for all students, especially international students who are currently burdened by very high tuition costs.”

The UTGSU will also be meeting with Barker before the end of the month to discuss this issue in more detail.

The decision coincides with the university’s negotiations with CUPE Local 3902, Unit 1, a labour union that represents, in part, teaching assistants — many of whom are doctoral students.

Barker said that bargaining negotiations did not affect the tuition cut decision. “The desire to internationalize our graduate student body is something that we’ve been working on for some time now… It is a university priority that was articulated by the President a couple of years ago.”

CUPE 3902, Unit 1 responded positively to the news. Aleks Ivovic, Chief Spokesperson for the unit’s bargaining team, said that “support for international students is and always has been an important priority for us.”

“In terms of its effect on our international members,” said Ivovic, “we expect it will make a meaningful difference to PhD students who are in programs without funding.”

Editor’s note (January 22): This article has been updated to remove a quote from a student incorrectly suggesting that lowering tuition for international PhD students would allow for more research funding. 

From ThD to PhD

Students question novelty of PhD in theology program, petition university to permit degree change after graduation

From ThD to PhD

The University of Toronto has formally created a PhD in theology in conjunction with the Toronto School of Theology (TST). Students at the TST and faculty members at U of T are debating the claim that this PhD is an entirely new program, arguing that it is identical to the existing Doctor of Theology.

In 2013, The Varsity reported that the proposed changes were up for review by the U of T Quality Assurance Process. The review examined joint programs offered through TST and U of T, resulting in recommendations that addressed the “below standard quality” of the Doctor of Theology. Students who are pursuing or currently hold a ThD from the university are currently unable to transfer their title to a PhD. 

The changes

Donald Wiebe, a member of Trinity College’s Faculty of Divinity and a supervisor of both ThD and PhD students, has been an outspoken opponent of the process since its inception in 2013. Wiebe argues that the PhD is the “gold standard for employment in universities” and that this regulation is unfairly preventing past graduates from holding a title that is earned through the same process that new PhD students will go through.    

Wiebe argues that the change from the ThD to a PhD in theological studies is simply a change in title, and therefore does not fit the university’s criteria for a new program. According to the university’s degree program approval protocol, unique programs must have “substantially different program requirements and substantially different learning outcomes” from existing ones. 

Wiebe says that he has not yet received adequate response from the university explaining why these changes — which he describes as minor — qualify as substantial enough to change the program entirely.   

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, maintains that U of T considers the PhD to be a new program. She added that students must apply, be granted admission, register, and complete the new program to be awarded the PhD.   

Currently, the ThD and PhD programs share a student handbook, which outlines nearly identical processes for the two programs. The hanbdbook refers to the two programs in tandem, calling them the “ThD/PhD.” 

The new program proposal published by the Governing Council states that, “TST also offers an approved doctoral degree, the Th.D.: the plan is to close that conjoint program once the Ph.D. is operational.”

Student reactions

Students who entered the program in 2014 may complete a bridging course to graduate with a PhD in Theology rather than a ThD. Students who entered prior to that date are not eligible to do the same.   

Andrew Woodward, who entered the program in 2013 and is expecting to complete his ThD this year, is appealing the university’s ruling on his endeavour to participate in the bridging program. Woodward’s appeal is set for consideration at Governing Council this term.   

Woodward claims that he has to work harder than PhD holders to explain to potential employers that his degree is critical and non-secretarial. A PhD is beneficial, says Woodward, because it is already widely known as a critical degree. He adds, “One wonders why the university even bothers having its ThD accredited by the agency if it’s not going to follow the agency’s imperative that students be allowed to choose which name they would like.”   

Other students have objected to the structure of the program, including Stephen Hewko, a doctoral student. Hewko submitted a petition signed by several other students to U of T president Meric Gertler, which argues that unless the university can provide evidence of substantial differences in program requirements and outcomes, it is morally, ethically, and legally obligated to permit ThD students to change their degree to PhD upon graduation.   

Following review from the Quality Council, the PhD was approved for government funding. Wiebe regards the Quality Council’s review with suspicion, stating that they have “in no way made a case for this being an entirely new program.”

Wiebe submitted documentation to the university which demonstrates the “identical program requirements.” He claims that it has been ignored.

Weibe argues that the similarity of the two programs is akin to plagiarism. “[The process] is kind of wicked… it’s definitely unfair,” he says. Wiebe went on to state that “it’s quite problematic when the university expects students to follow. The ThD is still being funded as it was before but the university has sought new funding for the PhD program. The ThD and PhD are both joint degrees, conferred by both U of T and the TST.


On October 3, 2013, U of T provost Cheryl Regehr argued that “the changes are so significant we will have to take it through as a new program.” The emerging result: the development of a PhD in theological studies was determined to be more research-focused than the current ThD.

Ontario’s Quality Council and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities approved the new program in December 2013. It was then approved by U of T in October 2014.   

The legitimacy of the decision-making process is also under scrutiny. Wiebe states that the ThD program was reviewed in 2012 as part of a cyclical review that takes place every five to six years, and that the TST agreed to not follow program regulations and consider the possibility of a PhD in Theology.   

Wiebe says that a report sent back to reviewees contained allegedly problematic comments. Wiebe claims that these comments were eventually quietly removed. This report was resubmitted in April 26, 2012 and went on to the Committee of Academic Program and Policy. According to Wiebe, the university breached the protocol of their review processes on both occasions.