Dr. Dawg

Academic freedom at Ottawa U.

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A reader or two may remember that I disapproved—somewhat—of former Professor Denis Rancourt’s approach to academe back in 2009, after he had been turfed from his position and led away from the University of Ottawa campus in handcuffs.

He’s a character, and has more than earned his own Wikipedia page. He saw himself as a gadfly in, not on, a lazy horse, and the horse in question eventually coughed him out.

Rancourt rankled a lot of his colleagues, one third of whom actually signed a petition against him, and he seriously annoyed the university administration. What brought matters to a head was when he refused to teach a first-year physics course he was assigned, transforming it into a sociology course instead. This he called “squatting,” and he compounded the felony by offering every course participant an A+. [NB: see Update below.]

Essentially—and this must be said—he broke the terms of a contract he had signed, and the university terminated him, if with remarkable heavy-handedness.

Rancourt is presently before an arbitration tribunal, trying to get his old job back. And the university is now arguing—with a straight face—that he is an inciter of violence.

With all of the legitimate grounds for dismissal that it had at its disposal, the university has chosen instead to launch an assault on academic freedom grosso modo. Here is its argument, in a nutshell.

Rancourt is an anarchist. A suspect in the bombing of the Royal Bank of Canada in 2010, Claude Haridge, was possibly an anarchist. (Haridge was never actually charged with any offences connected to that crime.)

Haridge audited some of Rancourt’s classes.

According to the university, Rancourt’s “community,” therefore, includes “individuals capable of violent activity.”

That’s pretty well it. But some embellishment was offered by the lawyer for U of O. Email exchanges were introduced, and the worst conceivable construction placed upon them. Then the lawyer went a step further, claiming that the administration became concerned about the possible misuse of radioactive materials in Rancourt’s physics lab.

As it happens, however, that lab had been shuttered long before the firebombing, putting into question the suggestion that it had been closed for security reasons.

But setting that blunder aside, consider what the university is arguing overall. If you, as a professor, have radical political views, and someone audits your classes who has a tangential relation to a violent crime committed by others, that should be enough to get you fired.

Rancourt calls the university’s claims “far-fetched” and “scandalous.” I would have to agree. But of greater importance, the effects of an arbitration ruling that might give weight to this line of argument would have chilling effects far beyond the current case. If academic freedom can be squelched by deploying such a tenuous web of association against a professor who has annoyed the university administration, then, for all intents and purposes, it has been abolished. I hope that CAUT is all over this one—and that the arbitrator will step away from the brink.

UPDATE: Dr. Rancourt responds in the comments. He draws our attention to this 2008 ruling by an arbitrator with respect to the content of the first-year course I referred to above.

The arbitrator, while harsh on other matters, ruled that the university had essentially acquiesced in the content of the course, and that Rancourt’s own description of the course content on his website, which stressed the activism component, did not go beyond the limits of what had been officially approved. If that was indeed the case, Rancourt’s notion of “academic squatting” escapes me entirely. It’s hardly “squatting” if the university was generally aware of the course content and implicitly gave permission to proceed.

I was in plain error with respect to the marking scheme for the first-year course, however, which in fact was “satisfactory/unsatisfactory.” I had conflated that course with a fourth-year one in which all participants were guaranteed an A+. My apologies.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on June 12, 2013 1:37 PM.

Please Send All Your Money To A Most Deserving Artist. Yes, All Of It. Now, Please. was the previous entry in this blog.

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