All Posts Tagged With: "Denis Rancourt"
On whether an Alberta art teacher went too far
Lately there has been, it seems, a rash of incidents where professors have been accused of crossing the line of decent instruction, with ensuing finger pointing and outrage. The most recent, and perhaps most bizarre, is the firing of instructor Gord Ferguson following an incident in which a student slaughtered a chicken in the cafeteria of the Alberta College of Art and Design.
But there have been plenty of other dust-ups in the not-too-distant past, including the brouhaha over Tom Flanagan’s comments about child pornography. This kind of anger is always fuelled, in part, by the fact that the person in question is a professor. Professors, highly paid and usually well-regarded, are supposed to be beyond such outrageous word and deed.
Denis Rancourt is in trouble again
Denis Rancourt, the University of Ottawa professor who was fired in 2009 for turning his physics course into a class on social activism and for giving everyone an A+, is being sued by an Ottawa law professor for defamation. Joanne St. Lewis, Assistant Professor of law, alleges that Rancourt wrote racist and professionally-damaging statements about her on his blog, U of O Watch. She wants $1-million in compensation.
He wrote that her evaluation of a student-produced report alleging systematic racism at the school was “an academic fraud” and he accused St. Lewis, who is black, of being a traitor to her race. She asked Rancourt to take down the offending post, but he refused.
After being served with papers Thursday, he said he plans to fight the charges. In an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, he defended the use of a particular word that St. Lewis called racist in her statement of claim, which he posted on his website. “This is a term that is understood, well-defined. It has societal and historic meaning,” he said. “It’s used often by public intellectuals and critics. There are many media examples of that in the United States.”
Another controversy for the University of Ottawa
The University of Ottawa is an interesting place, or at least it is a place that generates a lot of attention. Most notably, a scheduled talk by Ann Coulter was canceled in the spring amid student protest, and after the university had warned Coulter she could be jailed if she didn’t watch her mouth. In late April, a freedom of information request revealed support for allegations that U of O administrators spied on and attempted to cancel a talk by Burmese human-rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa in 2007. Then there is the former lecturer accused of being a terrorist and Denis Rancourt, the physics professor who was fired after giving everyone in at least one of his classes an A+. Rancourt has also alleged the university spied on him.
And, just this week, student Marc Kelly was acquitted for trespassing on university property. At the time of his February arrest Kelly had been banned from the campus, but for reasons the university has yet to fully explain. In fact it was the second time in the past few years that Kelly was apprehended after U of O officials called police. The first time was after he had attempted to videotape a senate meeting back in 2008. He was charged with disturbing the peace, but the Crown ultimately dropped the case.
Despite being cleared of criminal charges, Kelly remains banned from the university and will be completing his degree at Carleton University, though he will officially remain a U of O student. It is a curious case. Judge L. Girault of Provincial Offenses Court in Ottawa ruled that even though the Student Appeals Centre, where Kelly was arrested, is located in the middle of the university, the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa is the legal occupier of the space and therefore has the right to determine who can and cannot enter. The ruling should help clarify the relationship between universities and students’ unions.
Student hired to ‘infiltrate’ campus activists, says physicist who was dismissed after giving everyone A+.
Several months after physics professor Denis Rancourt was fired, the University of Ottawa remains mired in controversy over the high profile case. In November, Rancourt filed a union grievance accusing the university of engaging in “covert surveillance” against him. He posted a report and supporting documents on his website at the beginning of January.
He was dismissed last March after supposedly assigning arbitrary grades to his students. Everyone in at least one of the courses he taught in Spring 2008 received an A+. Since 2005, he has filed at least 25 grievances, including for wrongful dismissal.
Rancourt alleges that as early as Sept 2007, the university hired then-student Maureen Robinson to investigate him. He claims she created Facebook and email accounts under the pseudonym Nathalie Page in order to “infiltrate” student activist groups, and report her findings to dean of science André Lalonde. She denies his accusations, which have not been proved in court.
In particular, Rancourt argues Robinson gathered information on students who were organizing to have a cancelled course Rancourt taught reinstated. The class, Science and Society, also known as the activism course, was created by Rancourt but was only offered once in the fall of 2006.
According to Rancourt, the university is violating the collective agreement between the administration and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa. He says that if the university was investigating an employee, than it would be obligated to inform him/her, which he says they did not do in his case.
“It’s the usual covert, underhanded methods, that any powerful institution will use to undermine popular movements,” he told Maclean’s in a telephone interview. Both the university and the faculty union declined comment.
Robinson, who studied chemistry at the University of Ottawa, worked for the student newspaper, the Fulcrum, from Sept. 2004 to April 2007. In at least one article in 2006 Robinson criticized the fact that the activism class was offered by the science faculty, and pointed out that even Rancourt believed it was closer to a faculty of arts course.
Rancourt bases his accusations against Robinson partly on the suspicions of students who had corresponded with Nathalie Page, Robinson’s alleged alias, on Facebook or email, but who never met her in person. In an email to Rancourt, former student Philippe Marchand described how Nathalie Page would confirm her attendance at a particular event, but wouldn’t show up. Instead he would see Robinson at the event.
Another student, Abla Adelhadi has signed an affidavit affirming that Robinson’s roommate, Jennifer MacLatchy told Adelhadi that Robinson had confided in MacLatchy regarding her investigation of Rancourt.
Adelhadi has also provided Rancourt with a copy of what appears to be a Facebook email exchange between MacLatchy and Adelhadi, where MacLatchy appears to discuss Robinson’s employment with the university. In the email exchange, MacLatchy expresses concern that if Robinson is discovered to be investigating Rancourt, that there will be friction between the two roommates.
Rancourt further believes that Robinson, or someone associated with her, recorded a talk he gave at Queen’s university and subsequently provided a transcription to the university administration.
“As far I could tell, they wanted everything they could [get] about me and about all the students that were involved in campus politics related to the activism course,” he says.
To verify his suspicions Rancourt filed a freedom of information request in July 2008, seeking all emails between Robinson and dean Lalonde. In a submission to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the university argues that it would not supply the materials sought because it would be related to labour relations, and therefore exempt under freedom of information legislation.
The submission makes no mention of Maureen Robinson, and only refers to an “individual” whose “role was to assist University of Ottawa legal counsel with the management of labour-relations matters.”
Rancourt admits that this doesn’t prove definitively that Robinson was gathering information about him on the university’s behalf. He says that when the Information and Privacy Commissioner forwarded him the university’s response to his freedom of information request, other supporting documents were also forwarded. He says these other documents provide further evidence, but he has not posted them online, and would not show them to Maclean’s on the record. “I don’t want to show the university what I have,” he said.
Responding via email, Robinson called the allegations “libellous” and “self-aggrandizing” on Rancourt’s part. “There was no covert surveillance. There were no spies . . . I was not directly or indirectly involved in the recording of a public conference given by Professor Rancourt at Queen’s University or anywhere else for that matter,” she wrote. “I am extremely confident that these allegations will not amount to anything.”
Robinson will only confirm that she worked for the university in an “assistant administrative” role. When asked if she ever worked on labour relations, or if she ever worked on Rancourt’s file, she declined to answer. “Unfortunately, due to pending legal proceedings, I am unable to comment any further on the matter of my employment with the university,” she said.
Rancourt says the university gave police false information
Trespassing charges against former University of Ottawa physics professor Denis Rancourt have been dropped.
Last December, the university suspended the controversial professor, locked him out of his laboratory and told his graduate students to find new supervisors. He was banned from campus and, in an extremely rare move against a tenured professor, the school’s administration recommended his dismissal.
Two weeks later, while hosting his three-year-old radical documentary film series at the school, Rancourt was arrested by police and charged with trespassing.
Rancourt was officially dismissed March 31 at a meeting of the executive committee of the university’s board of governors.
However, now that the charges against him have been dropped, the professor, who subscribes to a philosophy of critical pedagogy, says he has been vindicated.
“The University of Ottawa knowingly gave the Ottawa Police incorrect information that I had no right on campus. The police then lied to apply a false charge of trespassing,” he said in a release earlier this week.
Former student comes to fired prof’s defense; says he encouraged thinking, hard work
As a former student of Denis’ and as a former science student, I really appreciated the teaching methods that Denis brought to his class and to the university. Challenging students on their beliefs, making general science relevant to realities of today instead of purely theoretical. Those are things that I value in a classroom.
Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Contrary to what a lot of people have been saying, Denis has never been about giving anyone a free pass. Denis has constantly encouraged students to follow through on their own interests, to explore things, to work hard and to make it relevant in their daily lives. By constantly challenging a students beliefs he helps them develop their ideas, argumentation and research skills. In this context, given that examination isn’t a stress factor in Denis’ classes, students aren’t expected to think like him to answer correctly on an exam in order to get good grades. This changes enormously the interactions between teacher and student and liberates many constraints to genuine and wholesome learning.
In today’s classroom too much is based on memorizing and learning theory, not enough on ethics, on how it applies in our daily lives, the impact research or scientific knowledge can have on society, politics, war, etc.
Grade based evaluation is mostly based on if you remember what a teacher thought you in the classroom, on reading what the teacher told you to read and on what the teachers perception of a student understanding concepts and remembering facts. From personal experience and common say, students will forget most of the facts they remembered for a given examination the hour after the exam. Techniques and formulas will remain imprinted, but the practical aspects of a given topic often won’t be remembered because of the external pressures that are exams and grades. Students are pressed with time and pressed to obtain high grades. Therefore they aim to perform well on exams as efficiently as possible. This kind of behaviour is definitely not conducive to learning.
To those that say that you need grades to maintain a standard, I say not so. In my opinion and experience you retain and learn much more, technical and practical knowledge, than you do in most other types of classes. And if someone doesn’t want to learn? They won’t retain much in the current system either.
Denis’ methods aren’t all that revolutionary. Major universities around the world have many classes where no grades are given. Many classes, even at the University of Ottawa, turn away from conventional evaluation and teaching methods to either more project based, to taking away grades, to group discussions. Many classes at the University of Ottawa have up to 30% or more of a mark attributed to class participation to try and increase the participation and interest because it is something that is lacking in a lot of classrooms. University of Ottawa Medical school moves away from standard evaluation and teaching methods, yet it still manages to achieve very high standards, by more practical and problem-based approaches. Hampshire college in the U.S. is completely gradeless.
Fired professor tells OnCampus what he plans to do next
Notice: This interview was recently updated to include parts of our interview with Denis Rancourt that were previously omitted.
Professor Denis Rancourt was recently fired by the University of Ottawa for giving every student in his fourth-year physics class an A+. Maclean’s OnCampus spoke with him Monday morning to find out what he’ll do next.
When did you find out that you had been fired?
I found out the day after they made the decision. The Executive Committee of the Board of Governors made the decision on March 31, and a couriered letter was sent to my house April 1.
Were you surprised when you got that letter?
“They [the school’s administration] had to violate the rules to have the meeting on that day. And they did explicitly say that they did not consider key documents, which they were obliged to consider. Even they admit that they violated the rules. That in and of itself was surprising, because normally they would have seven months to study this very complicated case, with hundreds of pages of documents and everything. Instead the administration sent the committee members some of the documents only days before the meeting, or made them aware that they existed and could come and see them, or something like that, literally just a few days before their meeting. Some of those documents they saw only at the meeting. And the documents I was entitled to submit by that day’s deadline? They explicitly said they didn’t look at them.
Do you think they intentionally ignored the initial legal brief that you sent them?
Yes, and I’ve got in writing. Of course they’re not allowed to do that. The lawyer of the faculty association has called it a “fatal procedural error.” No, no, no. It’s unheard of to have committee meeting on the day of my deadline to submit the brief. Depending on what lawyer you talk to, the deadline is either the end of the workday or midnight. You don’t schedule the decision day on the same day as the deadline. Normally they take weeks, months, so they never rush it like this. This was steamroller-style pushing it through as fast as they could.
How did you react? The last time we spoke, you seemed pretty convinced that you wouldn’t be fired.
My association lawyers are the most conservative legal people I know, and they are saying that this is a violation of natural justice principals, that this was a fatal procedural flaw, and that you cannot go there. I’ve never seen them say anything like that before. They normally pick up the pieces after it’s done, but this was preemptively their position. It was clear. If anyone reads the collective agreement, you really need to wonder what [the administration] is doing. It really gives the impression of a gang of thugs pushing someone out. I was surprised that they would be that bold.
Have you responded at all?
To the university? There’s nothing to respond to. The letter basically says, “We’re going to put your stuff in boxes and ship it to you” and “give us all your keys and identity cards immediately.”
What are your next steps, then?
The first thing I did was ask my faculty association to give their recommendations for the wording of the grievance where I would grieve wrongful dismissal. They just responded today, and I was just reading that. It is very, very clear that the professor’s union is going to fight this vigorously. They want to win this, and they want to do it in such a way that the least possible amount of harm comes to me. It’s very clear from their communication with me that that’s where they stand. I’m pleased about that.
Why students were so mad about Denis Rancourt
This letter was sent to Maclean’s OnCampus by Phillip Vinten, a Master’s student at the University of Ottawa and a former student of Denis Rancourt. He says the university did the right thing by firing the dissident professor.
I was a student in one of Denis Rancourt’s physics classes at the University of Ottawa. In particular this was the fourth year physics course that caused all of the commotion in the first place, and as far as I know, I was one of the first ones to complain to the university administration about this class. Dr. Rancourt actually had two classes that semester, and one the semester before in which he gave out all A+. In at least two of those classes, not only did he do that, he didn’t teach at all.
Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Most media stories so far have almost portrayed him as a martyr who is fighting for the students, when in reality he is fighting for his own personal agenda and does not care at all about students, except those that have the same political ideals as he does. He considers that he “indoctrinates” them into the light… or something like that, where as everyone else is simply “brainwashed” by the university’s “corporation machine”. There hardly seems to be a difference.
He seems to forget that we are paying to be there and paying to have someone teach us physics. I acknowledge that we still have to put in the effort to learn, but if we wanted to do it all ourselves, why not just do it at home for fun? We are paying to have someone guide us and point out the important points and show us the tricks to solving problems the easy way. We are paying to have someone teach us what cannot be learned quickly from a textbook. We are paying to have someone share their years of expertise in the field with us.
Dr. Rancourt certainly has the experience and knowledge, and I don’t deny that he is a smart man. He is however a lazy hypocrite. He would stand in front of the class and we’d just discuss anything. Not even physics. When one of us tried to get the conversation back on track, he wouldn’t do anything, except smirk at us… probably because we has getting paid $50 an hour or more to sit there and do nothing and feeling confident that he would not get fired for it. It makes me mad to know that my tuition was paying this man.
More on why students were so mad about Denis Rancourt
This letter was sent to the Chairman of the Department of Physics and the Dean of Science at the University of Ottawa by Phillip Vinten, a Master’s student at the school and a former student of Denis Rancourt. In this letter, he outlines some of his problems with Rancourt’s teaching style and various conflicts that students had with the professor.
[Dr. Joos and Dr. Lalonde]
In the first class Dr. Rancourt told us directly that everyone in the class would be receiving an A+. He went on to describe his teaching method and that his theory, or rather the teaching method he uses, that by removing the grades there will be less stress on us to learn. He said he does not believe in grades. He said that in no way can we be harmed by this system of giving everyone an A+ as this was a contract between the students and the teacher, and that he was guaranteeing us this mark, and there was nothing that the university could do to take it away.
Related: School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Dr. Rancourt went on the say that there would be a final exam and midterm test that would be used for us to communicate to him what we have learned in the course. The midterm, when it came around consisted of three questions, the first two were valid physics questions, but due to the slow pace of the class we had not discussed some aspects of them in the classroom. The third question was an open question where we could tell him about what we learned in his class, by ourselves as part of the class or what we had learned about ourselves or others from the pedagogical method that he uses. We were allowed to answer as much of the midterm as we wanted, but at least one question and it was required that we write the midterm. It was also required that we attend class and he took attendance every class by passing around a sheet for us to sign. Until the point that I dropped the course, I attended every class.
There was no assigned textbook, but there was a recommended textbook, and a textbook used in the prerequisite course (PHY 4382) that we mostly all had. He said “everything in this course is negotiable”. If we didn’t want to come to class we could discuss it with him. If we did not want to learn a specific part of the material we were free to read something else by ourselves. He encouraged us to learn what we were interested in, and to present what we had learned to the class.
In the first class Dr. Rancourt asked us what we had learned in our previous solid state course and what we wanted to learn. A basic course outline was generated from this, but was not to be strictly adhered to. He has assigned several reasonable homework questions for us to work on (but not submit) that were to be discussed in class. The classroom discussions were generally supposed to be about these questions, but in reality the discussion became off-topic very quickly. Frequently there were long discussions about trivial matters that one or two students didn’t understand and this held back everyone else because their concerns were addressed in class instead of afterwards or during offices hours (which Dr. Rancourt does indeed have) so that the rest of the class can move on to the next point.
On another occasion, a student in the class, decided to stand up in front of the class and tell us what he/she (I say this to protect this person’s identity) had learned about magnetism. This is something that had Dr. Rancourt’s full support and he grabbed a seat in the class and watched. The student was presenting to the class when someone asked a question about stainless steel. This question was not totally off-topic as we were talking about what are examples of various kinds of magnetic materials. Dr. Rancourt started to answer the question, when a student asked “exactly what is stainless steel?”. Dr. Rancourt began to explain, but did not give a direct answer and instead asked the class if anyone knew. Then someone asked why it does not rust. From here Dr. Rancourt began talking about rust, and then about the world trade centers and a conspiracy involving the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that the only reason they collapsed was because of faulty construction. At This point 40 minutes had elapsed since the original question, and I put my hand up and said something like “This is way off topic, can we please get back to magnetism?”. Someone else said that what we had done to the student who was originally in front of the class was wrong by effectively stealing the spotlight from him/her. The discussion got back on topic and the student got back in front of the class for the remaining ~15 minutes of class time.
University says he refused to do his job, student calls him “lazy hypocrite”
The University of Ottawa has fired controversial physics professor Denis Rancourt, who made national headlines late last year for refusing to grade his students and promising an A+ to everyone in his upper level physics course. The unanimous decision to terminate his employment was made March 31 at a meeting of the executive committee of the university’s board of governors. Rancourt was sent a couriered letter the next day.
In an interview with Maclean’s OnCampus, Rancourt says he plans to fight what he describes as a “steamroller-style” dismissal. “My firm position is that the university administration doesn’t have a case and that we will win,” he says. “It is very, very clear that the professor’s union is going to fight this vigorously… I am pleased about that.”
However, in the wake of the dismissal, at least one former student has come forward with a scathing take on a professor he calls a “lazy hypocrite.” Phillip Vinten, who was in the infamous fourth-year physics class in which Rancourt gave everyone an A+, says in a letter to Maclean’s that he was one of the first to complain to the university’s administration about the professor. Vinten says that the real problem with Rancourt class was not so much the refusal to grade, but the fact that the professor “didn’t teach at all.”
“Most media stories so far have almost portrayed him as a martyr who is fighting for the students,” wrote Vinten, “when in reality he is fighting for his own personal agenda and does not care at all about students, except those that have the same political ideals as he does.”
“He seems to forget that we are paying to be there and paying to have someone teach us physics,” said Vinten. “It makes me mad to know that my tuition was paying this man.” He writes that Rancourt would stand at the front of the class and let his students talk about anything they wanted. “When one of us tried to get the conversation back on track, he wouldn’t do anything except smirk at us. Probably because he was getting paid $50 an hour or more to sit there and do nothing.”
Vinten says at first he tried to keep an open mind about Rancourt’s pedagogical methods, but once he realized the futility of taking the course, he dropped it. “Had he actually made the effort to teach and we had actually learned what we were supposed to, I would not mind so much if he had just handed out an A+.” He says the media has been far too gentle in its treatment of Rancourt. “In reality, the students are the victims and the university is looking out for us and the value of our degrees by taking action against a professor who refuses to do his job.”
Last December, Rancourt was suspended and locked out of his laboratory and his graduate students were told to find new supervisors. (Three of those students are now suing the university for taking away a professor whom they say is the only person qualified to oversee their work.) The university administration also banned him from campus and, in an extremely rare move against a tenured professor, recommended his dismissal. Two weeks later, while hosting his monthly radical documentary film series at the school, Rancourt was arrested by police and charged with trespassing.
In a statement released Monday, the University of Ottawa said the professor had been invited to participate in the pivotal board of governors meeting and had been given the opportunity to set out his position, but that he chose not to attend. “Rancourt did purport to comply with a longstanding request to produce examination results and other grading materials,” reads the statement. “However, the materials supplied appear to be incomplete.”
Rancourt’s story is very different. He says that committee members were not given adequate access to the legal documents he submitted, and says that they were only told about the hundred-page documents a few days before the group’s meeting. “The documents I was entitled to submit by that day’s deadline? They explicitly said they didn’t look at them,” he says. “You don’t schedule the decision day on the same day as the deadline. Normally they take weeks, months.”
A controversial scheme that’s more common than universities admit
At first glance, Denis Rancourt is a self-proclaimed anarchist with a history of causing trouble. Over the past five years, the University of Ottawa professor has unsuccessfully sued his employer for millions of dollars over a cancelled course, claimed that the school’s president is part of a continental Zionist conspiracy, taught a controversial activism course, and denied the existence of climate change. But that’s not why the university says it’s firing him.
In a move that’s becoming increasingly popular in post-secondary education, Rancourt decided last year not to grade his students—something that has fuelled a wide-ranging debate not only about his methods but also over academic freedom. And the outcome of his dismissal, which is pending, could change the balance of power between professors and university administrations across the country.
A native of North Bay, Ont., Rancourt has taught at the University of Ottawa for more than 20 years. Colleagues consider him a highly regarded physicist; Rancourt has published more than 100 scientific journal articles. But like a growing number of Canadian university professors, he also believes students learn better when they’re not being graded. In 2008, he was denied permission to make his two fourth-year physics classes “pass-fail,” in which students either get through or they don’t. So he announced that everyone in the classroom was going to get an A+.
According to Rancourt, grades are only a means of exercising power in the classroom. “It’s not about optimizing education,” he says, “it’s about obedience.”
The school promptly suspended him, locked him out of his laboratory, and told his graduate students to find new supervisors. (Three of those students are now suing the university for taking away the professor who they say is the only person qualified to oversee their studies.) The university administration also banned him from campus and, in a rare move toward a tenured professor, recommended his dismissal. Two weeks later, while hosting his monthly radical documentary series at the school, Rancourt was arrested by police and charged with trespassing.
The university’s treatment of Rancourt shocked David Noble, a York University professor who says he hasn’t given grades for more than 35 years. For most of his teaching career he gave out straight As—until, in 2006, the university prevailed on him to switch to pass-fail. For decades, he got letters from the university remarking on his “anomalous” grades. “I would usually just throw the letters away,” Noble says. “Nothing ever happened.” Based on decades of educational research, including some of his own as a graduate student, he says there’s no doubt that grades are counterproductive.
In fact, the practice of not marking students is becoming increasingly popular, says Carl Leggo, an education professor at the University of British Columbia. In recent years there has been some “compelling research” proving that students are more creative and more productive when grades are removed. Leggo says courses for UBC’s bachelor of education degree, in addition to many other courses at the university, are pass-fail for the simple reason that students learn better. “Evaluation keeps people feeling quite conservative, and they want to do things in formulaic, traditional ways,” he says. “When the competition for grades and the tension around grades is removed, students actually start studying, researching and writing in more creative ways.” (According to a 2006 study of medical students at the Mayo Medical School, pass-fail systems reduce stress levels and increase group cohesion when compared with students who were given grades on a five-point scale.)
Not only are undergraduate pass-fail courses becoming more common in the face of extensive educational research, but the Stanford, Yale and Berkeley law schools have all recently moved to pass-fail grading systems. Alverno College, a Catholic women’s school in Milwaukee, Wis., hasn’t used grades since 1973. Kathleen O’Brien, the school’s senior vice-president for academic affairs, says the system has been infinitely better for students’ education, self-esteem and long-term prospects. The school will produce grades for graduate school or scholarship applications, but they are then promptly destroyed.
It’s a trend that others, though, find appalling. The idea that a student in a science faculty could earn an A+ without demonstrating knowledge is shocking to John Jones, associate dean of Simon Fraser University’s faculty of applied science. “Our graduates are going to be going out and doing things that human lives depend on. It’s very important that our grading reflects their abilities,” says Jones. Plus, he adds, it wouldn’t just be unconventional, it would be a danger to the public. Marks are not necessarily the best way to judge the skills and talents of each student, he says, “but we can’t build a system on wishful grading.”
Professor Gary Schajer agrees. He’s been an undergraduate adviser for aspiring mechanical engineers at the University of British Columbia for six years, and says the controversy around marks is an old one. In many cases, grades do impede learning, says Schajer. However, they are also the fastest and most effective way to evaluate students’ skills and knowledge, he says. “This is a tightrope all professors have to walk, but that is the unfortunate reality of the world.”
Rancourt and his supporters have opened up another front in the debate, saying that the University of Ottawa’s actions are as much an attack on academic freedom as teaching methods. That argument was dismissed in the New York Times on Feb. 8 by American education expert and law professor Stanley Fish. Rancourt, Fish wrote, was trying “to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom.” But the Canadian Association of University Teachers has nevertheless struck a committee of inquiry to investigate the case. “Here’s a tenured, full professor, one of the most respected physicists and active researchers at his university, who’s being told he’s not allowed to teach,” says Jim Turk, executive director of the association. “This is an extraordinary situation. The complexity of the issues are so great that we felt we had to set up an independent committee of inquiry to untangle this mess.”
Results from the group, which includes Jeffrey Halpern, one of the leading authorities on academic freedom in North America, are not expected before the end of 2009. But Noble says the real issues behind Rancourt’s dismissal are clear: not just academic freedom but tenure, which is earned after decades of teaching and assessment and provides relatively ironclad job security, are under direct threat. “This has nothing to do with grades,” says Noble. “That’s not why the university is firing Denis Rancourt. They want to see if they can get away with firing tenured professors without cause. For them to send security to escort Rancourt off the campus, as if he were a menace who was running around giving everyone A’s, it’s surreal.”
The University of Ottawa has kept relatively quiet about the case, issuing a press release only after it made headlines. The school’s administration expressed concern that the credibility of marks at the entire institution was being thrown into doubt, which would affect scholarships, admission to graduate programs and ultimately the reputations of both students and the school. The university also said a “significant number of faculty colleagues had voiced concerns” regarding Rancourt’s conduct.
Citing confidentiality and legal obligations, the university has declined further comment. But nearly one-third of Rancourt’s colleagues at the school have signed a petition of complaint against him. For many other professors, including Patrick Deneen, associate professor of government at Washington’s Georgetown University, Rancourt’s actions are nothing more than a blatant abuse of academic freedom. After reading Fish’s article, he was outraged a professor would try to corral students into a movement to undermine the institution and then claim it as an academic right. “It seems to me that what he is doing is actually, ultimately, undermining academic freedom,” says Deneen, adding that he can’t think of any other professions where Rancourt’s actions would be tolerated. “It seems fine to me if you want to denounce the institution, but doing that while taking advantage of all of its rewards seems to me to be a bit of a callous and ungrateful thing.”
The final decision on Rancourt is expected from an executive committee of the university’s board of governors later this month, after one final off-the-record mediation session with the administration on March 17. If he is fired, Leggo says the decision will definitely have a chilling effect on professors who want to try cutting-edge approaches in the classroom. “We have a sense of fear that we can’t actually do what many of us feel we have been called and employed to do, which is to be contemporary professors.” If Rancourt manages to keep his post, radical anarchist professors can breathe a sigh of relief.
Self-described “anarchist” taught popular Ottawa U activism course
There’s a profile piece on University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt in today’s Globe and Mail. As noted in an earlier Macleans OnCampus post, Dr. Rancourt, a noted physicist, academic blogger, and senior tenured professor at UofO, was suspended and banned from campus in December as a result of a disagreement with the university administration about his grading practices. From the Globe story:
Building on his science and society lectures, the self-described “anarchist” developed a popular course on activism at Ottawa U, which was cancelled by the university the following year, and started an alternative film society focused on social justice. He made headlines after 10-year-old twins registered for his course with their mother – and he supported the filing of a human-rights complaint claiming ageism when the university said they couldn’t stay. His research can be equally alternative: He has called global warming, for instance, a myth. He has also been an outspoken critic of “Israeli military aggression” and is not shy about expressing those views with students.
Controversial prof gave all students an A+ after his request for pass/fail class denied
The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that a series of clashes between the University of Ottawa and a senior tenured professor who was suspended last month and barred from the campus are now under investigation by the country’s main faculty association.
The suspension apparently stems from a spring 2008 grading dispute in which veteran professor Denis Rancourt gave all students in a class an A+ after he was denied permission to make the course pass/fail.
Rancourt is a noted physicist who has worked at the university for 22 years. According to the Chronicle, he is also an activist blogger, particularly on issues of pedagogical reform and university governance. He says his advocacy of “greater democracy in the institution,” could be the real reason why the university is trying to push him out.
More details from the Chronicle:
Mr. Rancourt says he met with administration officials on December 10 and was given two letters, one placing him on administrative suspension and the other notifying him that his dean was recommending that the Board of Governors dismiss him. After he met with his union representative, the university police escorted him off campus.
“How can a disagreement about grading possibly justify ordering the university police to remove a tenured professor from campus, banning him from campus, assigning his graduate students to other faculty, firing his postdoctoral research fellow, and asking the Board of Governors to approve his firing?” he wrote in a letter to the board this week.
Andrée Dumulon, director of the university’s communications office, said the university could not comment on the move to fire Mr. Rancourt because Canadian privacy laws prohibit it from giving any details of its relationship with professors and also because of the collective agreement with the faculty.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers, the country’s main faculty association, formed its investigative committee shortly before the university placed Mr. Rancourt on suspension. The panel will also look at whether Mr. Rancourt’s academic freedom was breached or threatened. Over the years, according to the association, Mr. Rancourt has been involved in 18 grievances.
“We created the independent panel because this situation is so complex with claims and counterclaims, there’s no other way to sort through the forest of detail and make some recommendations,” said James Turk, the association’s executive director. Firing a tenured professor in Canada is very rare, he added, because 90 percent of Canadian universities are unionized, with collective agreements that strongly entrench academic freedom.