On May 18, Jeffrey Pisklak was walking home from a lecture when he passed a dumpster full of bound dissertations dating back to 2000.
Then, Pisklak posted a picture of the dumpster to Twitter. Now deleted, the tweet received high levels of engagement from University of Alberta alumni and others who once paid to get their dissertations and theses bound.
On May 21, the faculty of education tweeted a photo of the dissertations recovered from the dumpster: “Team work! With the help of #UAlberta Education Faculty, 600 dissertations that were improperly disposed of have been retrieved for storage. Thanks to the alumni who brought this to our attention.”
The university provided a statement to The Gateway on May 24. The statement confirmed that the bound dissertations “were improperly disposed of outside of the Education Centre on the U of A’s North Campus,” then subsequently retrieved and moved into storage by the faculty of education.
“The situation has exposed gaps in the faculty’s policies and processes around internal communications, document management, and space allocation,” the message said. Additionally, it stated that the faculty will address these gaps going forward.
“It was a completely regrettable situation,” Tupper says
The Gateway contacted U of A media relations on May 19 and requested an interview about the situation. Media relations initially provided a statement on May 24 instead of an interview.
For further information, The Gateway filed a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) request with the U of A’s Information and Privacy Office on June 6. On June 13 the office put the request on hold, as media relations was prioritizing a response for June 15. On June 15, media relations offered The Gateway an interview with Tupper, which took place on June 21.
Tupper said that the situation revealed gaps in internal processes and “there are always learnings to take from these situations going forward.”
“It was a completely regrettable situation. Do you ever wish that you could have a total do-over and see those red flags along the way where you could have corrected course?” Tupper said.
According to Tupper, it’s likely someone threw the dissertations out when the faculty of education was making space for English Language School.
English Language School, a program offered by the faculty of education, is located in downtown Edmonton at Enterprise Square. The faculty decided that the program should move back to the Education Building on North Campus.
They began the process of moving things out of a room so that it could become a student support space for the program. According to Tupper, the room held bookshelves of old dissertations from Educational Psychology.
“I think it was in moving them out of that space that it went sideways,” Tupper said.
“We’ve undergone a fairly transformative restructure in the faculty. We’ve eliminated departments. In doing that, we have an opportunity to really make sure that faculty-wide, we are compliant with all of the UAPPOL policies.”
Seeing thrown out dissertations “feels like a kick in the stomach” to graduates, U of A PhD graduate says
“Since 2014, all U of A theses and dissertations have been digitally deposited into the Education and Research Archive, the institutional repository maintained by the U of A library. Additionally, the library retains pre-2014 print theses and is digitizing them,” the university’s statement said.
A document provided to The Gateway by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research (FGSR) program services team outlined the binding process before digitization. Prior to 2014, it cost $14.18 including goods and services tax (GST) to bind a physical dissertation or thesis. The fee was subject to change.
“Every graduate student that successfully defended either their master’s or their PhD was required by the university to have multiple copies of their dissertation bound. [Copies] would go to the library, the supervisor, members of the supervisory committee, and then also a copy [would go to] the department,” Tupper said.
“On average, I would estimate that every student was having about seven or eight copies of their thesis or dissertation bound. We have maintained the department copies.”
Roberta Lexier did her PhD at the U of A from 2003-09 in the department of history and classics. She was one of the alumni who replied to Pisklak’s tweet.
In an interview with The Gateway, Lexier elaborated on her reply to Pisklak’s tweet.
“The reason I commented on the whole thing that happened is because grad school and doing a PhD was a lot. The grad school process is really brutal in a lot of different ways. By the time it comes to binding your dissertation, it’s this weird mixture of pride and relief,” Lexier said.
Lexier added that for her, formatting her dissertation for the binding process was very time-consuming. Additionally, the unique paper used for binding and the requirement to bind multiple copies made the process expensive.
“I think people were triggered to see a dumpster full of dissertations because the graduate studies process is very dehumanizing in lots of ways. They basically try and tear you down to build you back up again. There’s very few jobs available [and] it’s very expensive,” Lexier said.
“I think this feels like a kick in the stomach to people who had to go through all of this and had to pay for certain things just to have them thrown away. I think it represents something bigger about the graduate studies process that’s really broken in our country.”
Tupper said that the faculty communicated with alumni through a newsletter about the situation. Staff also answered individual messages from alumni.
“I take full responsibility. It will never happen again,” Tupper says
The situation has provided the faculty of education the opportunity to move all of the hardcopy dissertations, Tupper said. All bound dissertations in the building will move to the Research Innovation Space in Education (RISE), a graduate student space.
“We think that having all of the dissertations — that wouldn’t have been accessible to students otherwise — there will inspire them. They can pull them off the shelf and look at them if they want,” Tupper said.
Tupper emphasized that the situation is “truly unfortunate” and “completely regrettable.”
“I take full responsibility. It will never happen again.”