September 12, 2009

Ottawa's Dismissal of Denis Rancourt

Commentary by Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo, August 2009

A good five years of conflict between administrators at the University of Ottawa and senior tenured physics professor Denis Rancourt came to a head on December 10, 2008. Dean of Science André Lalonde formally recommended to the Board of Governors that Rancourt be dismissed from the faculty. That same day, Provost Robert Major suspended Rancourt, closed his lab, and forbade him to set foot on campus.

The Ottawa administration's decision to fire Rancourt, imposing on him the "capital punishment" of labor relations, was even more vigorously opposed than were the lesser punishments dealt to him in preceding years. In a factual, reasoned letter to the Board of Governors dated 5 January 2009, Rancourt defended himself. Well over a hundred professors and students from Ottawa and elsewhere sent individual letters protesting Rancourt's elimination. Even before the axe fell, the Canadian Association of University Teachers had appointed a three-person Committee of Inquiry to investigate the long series of run-ins, dating back at least to the fall of 2005, between the Ottawa administration and Rancourt.

Is this a case of workplace mobbing in academe? Yes — and more precisely, administrative mobbing. (Click here for the standard checklist of indicators, here for the mainpage of the relevant website, and here for a short, basic article.)

What allows so unqualified a diagnosis is that Rancourt has made comprehensive documentation on the conflict (letters, emails, press reports, videos) publicly available on his blog and at For want of adequate information pro and con about a professor's dismissal or humiliation, it is often impossible to make more than a tentative assessment of whether it is a case of mobbing or merely a hard but measured and warranted response to some betrayal of academic purpose. In this case, Rancourt has laid bare to the public the actions that got him into trouble, the sanctions imposed, and what is most important, documentary evidence of both his own and his adversaries' views. Thereby he has bolstered his own credibility. Let other aggrieved academics take a lesson: only in so far as full information is publicly available, the cards all on the table, can outside observers make confident judgments and say things worth listening to.

It is plain from the material online that over time, administrators at Ottawa coalesced in the view that Rancourt, despite his stellar research record and the respect given him by very many students, is an utterly unworthy and abhorrent man, fit only for expulsion from respectable academic company. While administrators appear front and centre in this mobbing case, they are joined by dozens, even hundreds of students and faculty who are after Rancourt's neck. According to Karen Pinchin's trenchant article in Maclean's, "nearly one-third of Rancourt’s colleagues at the school have signed a petition of complaint against him." (Click here to read the petition, unambiguous evidence of ganging up.) Even distant pundits like Stanley Fish and Margaret Soltan piled on.

An email from Chemistry Chair Alain St-Amant is telling. Shortly after Rancourt's suspension, with his dismissal pending, St-Amant apparently agreed to debate him on a TV talk show, but then cancelled out. Rancourt sent him an email asking why, and suggesting that administrative or peer pressure was the reason. St-Amant emailed back, "I refuse to enter a battle of wits with an unarmed man. ... This will be the last you will hear from me on this matter. Enjoy the paycheques while they last." The contempt in these sentences is total. With a clever turn of phrase, St-Amant gives Rancourt the ultimate academic insult, that he has no wits, that is to say no intelligence. Then he cuts off communication and gloats that Rancourt will soon be off the payroll. St-Amant would not likely have felt free to send such a message had he not felt himself part of a campus crowd united by scorn for Rancourt.

From the available documents, Rancourt appears to exemplify a type of professor I described in my first book on academic mobbing, a professor I called "Dr. PITA" — acronym for pain-in-the-ass, or in politer terms, a thorn in administrators' sides, the one who makes them see red. Being a team player is not Dr. PITA's priority. Administrative demands that most professors comply with uncomplainingly are occasions for Dr. PITA to raise questions — and more questions.

Real-life professors can become Dr. PITA for any number of reasons. Administrators usually chalk it up to a personality defect. The documentary record suggests that the reason in Rancourt's case, as in many mobbing cases I have studied, is that he has thought deeply enough about education and the search for truth, to realize how much these noble purposes are subverted by the academic structures established to serve them. During his first dozen years of university teaching, he seems to have not only lengthened his vita but actually developed his mind, gaining awareness that institutionalizing the process of learning (that means creating a formal organization with a policy manual, chain of command, course credits, degree programs, human resources office, and so on), even though it facilitates learning in some ways (not least by providing teachers with a stable livelihood), cheapens and diminishes learning in many other ways. A student's working life easily becomes a matter of memorizing things and jumping the hoops of standardized tests, without personal engagement or independent thought. Indeed, one of the things students learn is not to learn about power, nor to question the structure of power in place, since the organization depends on this structure for funding and public legitimacy. Awareness of this downside of institutionalization is a common theme of the varied authors Rancourt cites in support of his own brand of anarchism — Paolo Freire, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, Ward Churchill, among others.

It was apparently Rancourt's deepening understanding of and commitment to what learning actually involves, that led him to refuse to rank and grade his students in the established, expected way. Since grading is central to the institutionalization of learning, he felt obliged to renounce it. This was the sticking point, the offense that became the main official reason for his termination. As Rancourt plaintively wrote in his letter to the Board, "Socrates did not give grades to his students."

Rancourt's revulsion at assigning marks is not common among professors, but neither is it rare. Over the past four decades, I have known dozens of professors who, in the course of their intellectual maturation, became exceedingly uncomfortable with assigning grades. A few of them met the same fate as Rancourt. One of the offenses that led to the dismissal of theologian Herbert Richardson from the University of Toronto in 1994 (a case of administrative mobbing to which I have devoted a substantial book), was that he and his students in a graduate seminar agreed that all of them should receive the same final grade.

More often, however, administrators and colleagues find ways to accommodate, sometimes even to honor and reward, the brilliant, unusually effective researcher and teacher whose process of growth has led to reluctance to give grades. Three professors of this kind have written letters of support for Rancourt: John McMurtry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, John Southin, retired Professor of Biology at McGill University, and David Noble, Professor of Social and Political Thought at York University. These respected academics report that their universities managed to put up with them for decades, albeit sometimes grudgingly, despite their own dissent from conventional systems of student grading. McMurtry wrote that he "almost got fired for challenging the grading system at my university 35 years ago. The V-P Academic, the Dean and the Chair all went on the record as deciding to dismiss me, but many faculty and students successfully defended me." Noble told Maclean's that "he hasn’t given grades for more than 35 years."

It is worth remembering, moreover, that Ivan Illich, dean of educational iconoclasts and author of the 1971 classic, Deschooling Society, was recruited to the faculties of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Bremen in the last decades of his life. Those universities were apparently pleased to have Illich around for students and colleagues to learn from, despite his congenital lack of docility and institutional loyalty.

Why do some university administrations mobilize collective resources to eliminate professors of the Dr. PITA type, professors like Rancourt or McMurtry or Illich, while others somehow make room for them? One key difference is whether the administrators, despite all the bureaucratic pressures upon them, continue to have a feel for what searching for truth actually means. If they still hear that search as a personal call, they cannot bring themselves to demonize, harass, and try to get rid of one who embodies truth-seeking in a pristine way, despite the administrative challenges such a professor poses. They are able to recognize in Dr. PITA not just bothersomeness and impracticality but successful engagement with inquiry and learning, the fundamental goals of a university. Their own commitment to education obliges them to show respect for the dissenter, in much the same way as commitment to the basics of Christianity obliged Joseph Ratzinger, an organization man if ever there was one, to invite the dissident theologian Hans Küng to dine with him at the Vatican, a few months after Ratzinger was elected pope.

The complete commentary:


Michael said...

Rancourt was dismissed after many students in his senior year classes complained that he wasn't doing any teaching. Are all the students in his class now part of this administrative mob?

Rancourt recruited a group of anarchists to disrupt senate meetings in the months leading up to his dismissal. These anarchists now describe Rancourt as a fascist egomaniac. Is that on the mobbing checklist?

I find it interesting that the fact that one third of his colleagues signed a petition stating their opposition to Rancourt's views is taken as proof that Rancourt was mobbed, not proof that he was behaving improperly. Literally any professor who is dismissed by a university would satisfy some or all of the points on the checklist. This blog publishes reports of real academics who are terribly victimized by personal vendettas. The university system clearly does not provide enough protections for them, but surely, there are some circumstances where an academic should be dismissed. Professor Westhues standard does not make this distinction and essentially says all professors who are are dismissed are victims. In doing so, he makes it impossible for real victims of academic bullying to protected.

Anonymous said...

Recently, I have felt the same about assigning grades. When I attended a seminar back in January, the faculty was felt that the burden of learning should be on the students, not on the faculty. I was in the minority who felt the complete opposite, that most of the burden of learning course material fell more on the teacher rather than the students. I also am in favor of a simple pass/fail, satisfactory/unsatisfactory mark, accompanied by a student portfolio, where the instructor can briefly remark on the student's behavior in class. The comments would explain how the student behaved during class... like did he cause disruptions yet still was competent with the material, his attitude towards learning, the instructor, the material, and just a paragraph or two assessing summing up the person in general.

The reason: attitudes towards learning are almost more important that how competent the person is in that particular course subject matter. For example, is the person capable in the subject? How diligent was the person in completing assignments? Does the person possess any aptitudes that would allow him or her to take it to the next course level?

Sean said...

This is in response to Michael's comment.

Seems to me that if Rancourt wasn't doing any teaching then it would have been rather easy to fire him for that, as opposed to how he graded? Your statement is also in contradiction to video evidence:

Maybe the student who complained did not like being treated as shown in the video? Looks like one student was a little frustrated...

You also confuse socialists with anarchists. That does not make you very believable on this blog.

And, well, your writing has a frustrated mobbing tone to it? Give yourself an A+ for effort and relax.

Anonymous said...

The "Michael" who posted could also be the same person who posted this on another blog:

Michael said
02/09/2009 at 11:52 PM

We warned the activist community months ago that ‘Denis Rancourt’ is nothing but a opportunistic egomaniac. He has done enormous damage to activism in Ottawa and the community is well rid of him. Glad to see we’re on the same side again, Comrade Rosso.

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