SPECIAL REPORT

CONCORDIA’S TRIALS

Savage killings rocked a proud institution already troubled by controversy about the ethics in Engineering

PAUL KAIHLA November 9 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

CONCORDIA’S TRIALS

Savage killings rocked a proud institution already troubled by controversy about the ethics in Engineering

PAUL KAIHLA November 9 1992

CONCORDIA’S TRIALS

SPECIAL REPORT

Savage killings rocked a proud institution already troubled by controversy about the ethics in Engineering

It was only September, but it felt like winter. The sky was grey and dark on the morning of the 29th, and a cold Arctic wind whipped through the streets of Montreal. Among the mourners at a local Greek church, Patrick Kenniff, rector and head of Concordia University, cut an authoritative figure, standing six feet tall in his dark suit. It was Kenniff’s fourth funeral in a month. As with the others, he was there to bury a colleague—this time, Phoivos Ziogas, chairman of Concordia’s electrical and computer engineering department. Ziogas, 48, was shot in a shocking multiple murder at his campus office on Aug. 24 that claimed the lives of three other professors. A few feet from Kenniff, the slain chairman’s wife stood with her two young sons, aged eight and 12. “I’m not very good at these things,” Kenniff said later that evening. “Looking at that poor woman and the two young boys, I thought what a demented thing it was that happened. I can’t think about it without choking up.”

Indeed, the institution to which he has brought credibility and lustre has been tarnished by the savage killings that rocked Concordia—and the community it serves. The acts of unspeakable brutality have been accompanied by charges of corruption in the engineering faculty from the man accused of the massacre,

Valery Fabrikant. A subsequent Maclean ’s investigation, spurred by the murders, has uncovered evidence pointing strongly to major academic irregularities in the faculty.

At 49, Kenniff himself can look back on a remarkable string of achievements. With degrees from Loyola College (now part of Concordia), Laval University and the London School of Economics, his impressive résumé also includes a law school professorship at Laval and five years as a powerful deputy minister in the Quebec government. When Kenniff accepted the top post at Concordia in 1984, he brought the school prestige as well as gaining a new honor for himself. But now he and the university are preparing for an investigation into the accused murderer’s allegations.

While Kenniff and many of his Concordia colleagues worry about the damage that the shooting has done to the university’s image, it seems to have also shaken the rector’s personal faith in human decency. “I’ve tried and tried to understand how the mind works of someone who would do this,” Kenniff confided in a conversation with Maclean ’s. “I can’t come up with anything. I’ve tried, but I just don’t understand it. I can’t relate to it.”

The tragedy unfolded on a hot and humid Monday afternoon in downtown Montreal. On Aug. 24, a man walked into the Henry F. Hall Building at the centre of Concordia’s Sir George Williams campus. Inside, the man, wearing a blue suit, white shirt and clip-on sunglasses, brushed past students as he ascended a series of steel escalators to the ninth floor. They could not have known that he was

carrying a concealed semi-automatic 7.65-mm Argentinian Bersa pistol with an eight-round clip, a five-shot snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38-calibre revolver and a German-made 6.35-mm semiautomatic Meb pistol.

On the ninth floor, the heavily armed man had an encounter with associate professor Michael Hogben, 52, in room 929-24. Aiming for Hogben’s head at point blank range, the gunman pumped three .38 calibre slugs from the Smith & Wesson into the biochemist. Down the short corridor, Aaron Jann Saber, a 46-year-old mechanical engineering professor, was in his office chatting on the phone with his wife. The assassin entered, now holding a semi-automatic in each hand, and fired two shots. The stricken teacher let out a shrill cry and collapsed on the floor.

As the assailant wheeled out of the room, he shot at secretary Elizabeth Horwood, 66, wounding her in the right thigh. He then headed toward the office of chairman Ziogas, calmly telling students to get out of his way. When he arrived at his destination, the gunman shot Ziogas in the stomach. The assassin now moved toward the office of Srikanta Swamy, dean of engineering. All around him students and staff were screaming and scurrying for shelter. Hearing shots, the dean locked himself in his office. But the gunman cornered an unfortunate victim in a nearby boardroom, civil engineering professor Matthew Douglass, 65, shooting him twice in the head.

With blood pouring from the five victims, the gunman shut himself in a room with two hostages. But after a tense hour-long standoff with police, he was overpowered and arrested. The man police took into custody was intimately familiar with the ninth floor of the Hall Building: Valery Fabrikant, 52, a mechanical engineering professor at Concordia, occupied the office where Hogben was shot and had been a colleague of the victims for 12 years.

That day, Kenniff was in a small ocean-side resort in Maine, staying at a summer house with his common-law wife, 46-year-old Liette Lacroix. It was the fifth day of his first holiday in recent memory. He recalled the events a few weeks later in an Italian restaurant on Montreal’s Stanley Street. “They called me and told me that there was a hostage-taking,” said Kenniff. “At the time, I thought of Fabrikant. I hoped that it wasn’t him. Then they phoned me back and told me people had been killed. Nothing in life prepares you for something like this. It was the end of the day, and I was a six-hour drive from Montreal. All I could do was watch the tragedy on TV.”

Douglass and Hogben were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Saber died the following day. After battling for more than four weeks in the intensive care unit, Ziogas died on Sept. 23 from massive internal injuries. Horwood was released the day after the shooting with a minor wound, and on Oct. 17 appeared in court as a witness in a preliminary hearing for Fabrikant. Fired by Concordia in September, the former professor now faces four counts of first-degree murder, one charge of attempted murder and two counts of forcible confinement. Kenniff told Maclean’s that he had asked the vice-rector of Concordia to investigate Fabrikant’s allegations of fraud and related matters well before the shootings and “she found them to be completely untrue.” But within days of the shootings, he ordered a second, independent inquiry into Fabrikant’s allegations—suspended for legal reasons on Sept. 28.

Graduates say that engineering professors received unjustified credit for academic papers

Kenniff added that, unrelated to Fabrikant’s charges or the killings, a formal ethics code will take effect before the end of the academic year. Pointing out that an institution the size of Concordia needs formal rules of behavior because it is impossible to monitor every activity, the rector said: “Before the events of Aug. 24, I asked the university’s legal counsel to draft a comprehensive code of ethics to deal with all academic and research matters; for example, plagiarism, conflicts of interest with companies that professors have relationships with—the whole range of ethical issues that arise in the entire academic enterprise.” A draft code is now complete.

Fabrikant, a Russian Jew bom in Minsk a year before the German army swept through the city in 1941, earned his engineering PhD in Moscow in 1966. In a telephone interview with Maclean ’s from Montreal’s Parthenais prison last month, Fabrikant said that he came to Canada as a refugee in 1979. “I was practically kicked out of my country,” Fabrikant said in his heavy Russian accent. “I thought Montreal would be great to leam French. It sounds naïve, doesn’t it?”

By most accounts, Fabrikant was a brilliant researcher and one of the leading authorities in the world in fracture mechanics, the study of how materials fragment under stress. After grinding out scientific papers for 10 years as a researcher, he was promoted to an associate professor in 1990. During the past three years, Edgar Karapetian, a 30-year-old PhD student in engineering, had Fabrikant as a thesis supervisor and got to know him well. “We shouldn’t judge him,” said Karapetian. “He has long years of hard work. He always treated me with a lot of respect, like a colleague. I never even heard him raise his voice.”

But the longer Fabrikant stayed at Concordia, the more bitter he grew. He became entangled in a series of disputes with senior engineering professors and administrators. The feuding heated up last fall when Fabrikant’s department recommended against renewing his two-year contract. But a faculty

committee overturned that ruling and offered the professor a one-year extension. In the spring, Fabrikant sent out a series of electronic mail dispatches, often dozens of pages long, to several thousand computer users at universities across North America. The messages contained allegations of financial fraud surrounding government contracts won by Concordia engineering professors in the 1980s. He also claimed that members of the top ranks of the faculty were guilty of widespread academic fraud, and wanted to get rid of him because he had threatened to expose them.

In April, Fabrikant filed a civil suit against Prof. T. S. Sankar, chairman of the mechanical engineering department from 1976 to 1987, and Swamy, dean of Concordia’s faculty of engineering since 1977. In it, Fabrikant claimed that he had listed Sankar as a co-author in 35 journal papers, and Swamy as a co-author in four, although neither of them had made any contribution to the works. Fabrikant claimed in his suit that he had to do that in order to get ahead in the department, and he insisted that senior Concordia engineering professors routinely claimed the work of other junior professors and researchers as their own. Swamy and Sankar denied the allegations.

Fabrikant, acting as his own counsel, has repeatedly vowed to use his murder trial as a platform to publicize his allegations.

Talking to Maclean’s, he said: “I told the prosecutor,

‘I’m prepared to admit that I killed four people—period. You don’t need to present any witnesses.’ I just want an opportunity to tell the whole truth. I believe that the children of the victims that you so emotionally mention deserve to know the truth—it was Fabrikant who was made a victim also.”

Kenniff saw Fabrikant’s grievances in a different light. He says that Fabrikant would begin agitating only when his contract was up for renewal. “I called him an emmerdeur, kind of like a shit disturber,” said the rector, visibly angry.

“He was always complaining about something.” Kenniff also says that Fabrikant often tried to intimidate university staff. Recalled the rector: “He would be carrying a gym bag and say to you, ‘Don’t you want to search my bag to see if I have a gun in it? I might have a gun.’ But he never made any direct threats.” At a reception at Concordia in September, Swamy also expressed anger over Fabrikant. “What really bothers me,” said Swamy, “is that all that we’ve built over these years could be smeared by this madman.”

Almost all his associates say that Fabrikant’s mental stability is precarious. None say that they can even imagine that conditions in an academic institution could drive a person to commit the cold-blooded murders of Aug. 24. But by sheer coincidence, other academics have criticized Swamy’s and Sankar’s practices.

Some detractors have expressed concerns about the unusually high number of academic publications the two men list on their résumés. A search of several library indexes revealed that Swamy has written more than 385 journal and conference papers since 1958. For his part, Sankar lists 334 conference and journal papers over the past 26 years. That record of publication clearly places Swamy and Sankar in a league of their own—above even that of Albert Einstein, the most celebrated scientist of the century. Einstein’s bibliography includes 238 conference and journal papers, and those were produced over a much longer period—a career spanning 53 years. Swamy’s rate of publication actually increased after he took on an added workload as dean of engineering 15 years ago. Previous to that appointment, Swamy averaged about seven papers annually. Afterwards, his rate of publica-

tion more than doubled, reaching a high of 26 papers in 1982 alone.

Several experts contacted by Maclean ’s said that even a prolific research professor who is completely free of administrative responsibilities is doing well if he produces five papers a year. But when an engineering professor becomes a department chairman or a dean, his rate of publication usually decreases because of management duties. Gary Heinke, dean of the University of Toronto’s faculty of applied sciences and engineering, has about 100 publications over a career spanning 25 years. He says that he produces about one or two new papers each year, down from an average of three or four a year before he became dean in 1986. Pierre Bélanger, dean of McGill’s faculty of engineering, has about 70 conference and journal publications over the past 25 years. Before he became dean in 1984 he would put out two or three new journal papers annually, but now it is down to one or two.

That is a pattern shared by Paul Martin, dean of Harvard University’s division of applied science, which includes engineering. “I have much

less time to do papers because I spend a lot more time doing things like answering this phone call,” said Martin. “It is fair to say that when professors become deans or get involved with chairmanships, the amount of papers they write should go down, and the amount of honest collaboration they do must go down.”

When asked why his publication record differed so markedly from those deans, Swamy said: “Maybe I have not been a very good dean as an administrator.” He added that he is able to concentrate on his research because he has four assistants to help him with his faculty duties. “I am here on Satur| day mornings,” he said. u “Maybe I have neglected

my family, but I am a very hardworking person.” Swamy also said that many of his papers were collaborations where he was listed as a co-author because he suggested an idea to a junior researcher to work on. “The one who says that this is something to be pursued—that idea is the most important thing,” said Swamy.

Much of the debate over co-authorship revolves around how to define a contribution. But some practices at Concordia’s engineering faculty stand in stark contrast to the principles which guide co-authorship at other Canadian engineering schools. The University of Toronto’s Heinke, for one, says that a professor should not be listed as an author on a paper for simply giving an idea to a student or researcher to work on. “It does not happen that way in this faculty,” said Heinke. To have a contribution, Heinke says, the professor must also carry forward the solution of the problem by holding weekly or biweekly consultations with the student throughout the project. For his part, McGill’s Bélanger says that even providing financial support to a research project does not constitute a contribution. “I wouldn’t think it is ethical,” said Bélanger. “Your name on a paper means that you’re a contributor, that here’s a piece of scientific work and you have a piece of your brain in it. Suppose Joe Blow comes off the street and says, ‘Here, I’m going to give you $20,000 to solve the problem.’ You wouldn’t put his name on the paper.” But that seems to have been an area of some vagueness for Swamy’s colleague, Sankar. Ahmad Hemami, a senior researcher at Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique, was an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Concordia from 1985 to 1991. He shares co-authorship of six journal and conference papers with Sankar and a post-doctoral researcher from China named Chang-Jin Li. Hemami says that he and Sankar were listed as collaborators on Li’s papers because they were his co-supervisors. But Hemami said that while he contributed to Li’s papers by helping the researcher with his work during regular consultations, Sankar’s only involvement was financial.

Sankar provided about $6,000 in funding to Li out of a government grant he held in 1989. Hemami says that the practice reflected Sankar’s method of accumulating publishing credits: he would assume the title of second supervisor to as many students and researchers as possible by sharing his grant money, and the authors would list his name on their papers out of a sense of obligation. “This is just bean-counting papers, trying to add more and more,” said Hemami.

In some cases, students say, Sankar did not know much about the details of papers where he was listed as a co-author. Hong Su, 37, an analyst at Montreal-based Spar Aerospace Industies, graduated from Concordia with a PhD in mechanical engineering in 1990. During his five years at Concordia, he wrote and researched 12 journal and conference papers under the supervision of Prof.

Subhash Rakheja. Sankar was also assigned to Su as a supervisor, and listed as a co-author on all of the papers. But Su says that he rarely even saw Sankar, only providing him with copies of his completed papers at the time he submitted them to academic journals. “We met just a few times a year to discuss how many papers I would publish or what type of topic I’m doing—very general,” says Su. “Rakheja was eager to discuss details with me about my research. But T. S. Sankar, actually, I

don’t know if he really understood what I was doing.”

Su says that he first heard of Sankar when he was a student in China. After noticing that Sankar, who was chairman of Concordia’s mechanical engineering department at the time, was publishing articles in his area of study, Su wrote to the professor. Sankar invited Su to Concordia as a research associate, and after a few months, he entered Concordia’s PhD program. Su said that he was soon disappointed by Sankar’s lack of knowledge in his field, and that he concluded that other people had written the papers he had noticed in China. He now thinks that the main reason that Sankar invited him to Concordia was so that he would produce papers and list Sankar as a co-author.

At one point during his PhD program, Su said that he protested about the practice of listing Sankar as a co-author to Rakheja. “I said, ‘I’m not going to put his name on the paper,’ ” Su recalls. “But he advised me, ‘Don’t make trouble.’ ” Su said that he had the impression that his funding could be cut, or that he might not graduate. “You have to think about it,” says Su. “You spend four or five years to pursue your degrees. You don’t want to destroy your career.”

Another visiting scholar from China said that Sankar resorted to bullying tactics. Qian Huang, 49, now a professor and vice-president of China’s Shanghai University of Technology, was a PhD student at Concordia between 1985 and 1989. He wrote two conference papers during that time, and listed his supervisor, Prof. Van Suong Hoa, as a coauthor. “T. S. Sankar was listed as the third author,” Huang said in a telephone interview from China, “but he did nothing.” When Huang was nearing the end of his program, he said that Sankar told him that he

would not permit his thesis defence to go forward unless Huang wrote four or five papers for Sankar to send to journals for publication under both their names. Sankar dropped the demand after Huang received an urgent summons to return to his university in Shanghai, but the Concordia professor continued to press him for papers even after he left.

As a result, Huang said that he wrote two papers and sent them to Sankar in March, 1991, listing the professor as first author in each work—in spite of the fact that he had no scientific contribution to either paper. In July, Sankar visited Huang’s university in Shanghai and told the scholar that one of the papers had been accepted for publication. The other paper was returned by Hoa for revisions—among them, reversing the order of authors. “Dr. Hoa told me to put my name as the first author, instead of last,” said Huang. “So I did.”

For his part, Sankar contradicted Hemami’s, Su’s and Huang’s version of events. He said that he made a scientific contribution to the 22 papers where he is listed as a co-author with the scholars by providing the

students with consultations to guide their research. Sankar added that Hemami’s only contribution to Li’s six papers was to edit some of them, and that he had to usher Su’s thesis through five drafts to make it logical and coherent. As for the two recent papers by Huang, Sankar said that only one of them merited publication—and that he reversed the order of authors to place Huang’s name first.

The former chairman also insisted that he at no time demanded papers from the scholar. Explaining his approach to supervision, Sankar said: “Our purpose is to guide the I students so that they become independent re* searchers later on. If you

say that a scientific contribution is where you sit with the student all the time and write the equations and check the equations and tell them ‘See, here you made an additional mistake,’ that is not guidance—that is spoon-feeding.” Late on Saturday, Kenniff denied any knowledge of the Maclean ’s findings.

A longtime critic of academic malpractices in general has heard stories such as Hemami’s, Su’s and Huang’s all too often. “Professors have become entrepreneurs of a sort,” says Carl Goldman, a civil engineering professor at Concordia since 1961. “They go to the government to get money for research, hire juniors to do the work and then put their names down on the papers. It is a practice that has corrupted the entire educational system across Canada, but Concordia engineering is probably the worst example you can find.”

The culture of Concordia’s engineering faculty, critics say, was tense and competitive, and it was the last place for a man like Fabrikant to be. But in a one in a million chance, almost an accident of history, the two came together—with fatal results. “A lot of us have felt these frustrations and pressures,” says Prof. Jeremiah Hayes, a former Concordia engineering chairman. “But Fabrikant is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. You could see that a very unstable personality placed in this environment would go off the rails.” Now the names of Concordia and Fabrikant are intertwined. It will take a great deal of effort, reform and dedication to unlock them.

PAUL KAIHLA in Montreal