School to A+ professor: you’re fired

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.”

New! Letter from a student: “Denis’ methods are quite relevant”

Letter from a student: “He 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.”

In response to the firing, Rancourt says that the faculty association has hired Sean McGee, a highly regarded Ottawa labour lawyer, to take on his case, along with in-house association lawyer John Henderson. Contacted today, McGee confirmed he had represented the faculty association on Rancourt’s behalf on a number of other occasions. Although he will help Rancourt with the wording of his grievance and other procedural matters, McGee says he won’t necessarily take over Rancourt’s case until the faculty association officially decides to side with the professor. And they won’t do that until his grievance is filed and they have all the facts in front of them, says McGee.

The U of O faculty association did not return a call from Maclean’s OnCampus.

Despite the controversy surrounding his teaching methods and behaviour, Rancourt claims he has been approached with job offers from other “progressive institutions” that he says would “welcome” him. He declined to name any universities or colleges. He says that his preference is to stay in Ottawa and fight what he describes as a battle for “academic freedom.”

“If [the administration of the University of Ottawa] wins, it will be quite a blow for academic freedom in Canada,” he says. “It’s in my nature to take it on, to want to obtain justice, and in addition to that, there are a lot of people telling me that I don’t really have a choice.”

Rancourt’s invocation of academic freedom was dismissed in The New York Times on Feb. 8 by American education expert and law professor Stanley Fish. Rancourt, wrote Fish, is trying “to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom.” Nevertheless, the Canadian Association of University Teachers two months ago struck a committee of inquiry to investigate the case. At the time, Jim Turk, executive director of the association said the situation was extraordinary.

“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,” said Jim Turk, executive director of the association. “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.

After the dismissal was made official, Atef Fahim, president of the Association of Professors at the University of Ottawa, told the Calgary Herald that Rancourt is the first tenured professor fired by the university in at least 25 years.

“To my recollection, it generally doesn’t happen at the university,” Fahim said, not indicating whether or not the union will choose to get involved. However, he did tell the paper that, generally speaking, because the case was a career termination that they are likely to take it on.

The university says it will not be making any further public comment as the case could eventually go to arbitration. As of Monday, Rancourt is no longer listed as a faculty member on the university’s web site, and a link to his biography and web page has been disabled.

School to A+ professor: you’re fired

  1. This is simultaneously a political and a legal issue. As a legal issue I don’t have the capacity to evaluate the facts. I simply don’t have the details. It may well be that Dr. Rancourt’s dismissal is very problematic from a legal standpoint. It may well be that it is outright wrong. I don’t know.

    From a political standpoint, however, I see this case as a huge problem just waiting to explode. If Dr. Rancourt’s dismissal was actually carried out improperly (I won’t even debate if it was deserved – I take that as assumed – I simply question if it was done properly) then we’ve got a huge problem. Because that means in a legal sense he’s right, but in a political sense he makes an awful test case.

    If Dr. Rancourt is reinstated, despite his repeated refusal to observe even the basic assumptions that pervade the university environment, he will turn into the poster child for every government official who wants to curtail academic freedom, the autonomy of our universities, and the independence of faculty.

    Let me be perfectly clear. Dr. Rancourt may or may not be right in his legal arguments. But if he wins, it will be a huge loss to academic freedom. Because the kind of autonomy he wants and expects as a professor is simply not supportable. Whether he’s right in an abstract, philosophical sense is beside the point. On a societal level his expectations are untenable.

    So if he loses, people will quiet down and forget about this. If he wins, however, it’s only the beginning. Because then everyone with an agenda will weigh in to try to correct what will be perceived, widely, as a huge problem. The freedoms associated with tenure were never intended to extend so far that a professor could refuse to perform his basic duties as an instructor. Freedom to conduct unfettered research (which Dr. Rancourt is very qualified to do) does not equate with freedom to modify pedagogy according to his whims (which he is not remotely qualified to do).

    The University of Ottawa is right, here. I sincerely hope that in addition to being right in principle they’ve made sure that they did this right in practice. Because if they didn’t, the backlash is going to be stunning.

  2. Only the superficial aspects of the case are mentioned in this article. You can find out a lot more by going to Denis Rancourt’s own website or by just googling ‘rockourt’.

  3. Yes, I’m sure Dr. Rancourt’s personal website will give a fair accounting of the situation.

  4. Jeff,

    I would be careful to say that “the University of Ottawa is right, here” even if you think they are right in principle. Even if it was the case (and we could argue at lengths about that), I do not believe it justifies all that was done “in practice”, i.e. I’m not a proponent of “the ends justify the means”. I was meaning to write further about that in other comments – which hopefully I’ll find the time to post soon, but I believe some of the university administration’s behavior in that case – which goes far beyond the personal case of Pr. Rancourt – was wrong by any standard.


  5. For example, I was personally threatened by another science professor behind closed doors, but the university refused to act on it simply because I was on Rancourt’s side of the debate, i.e. I was one of the “bad guys”.

    Or consider that after suspending Rancourt on short notice in the Fall, the University also fired, without notice, a researcher who worked in Rancourt’s group for over 10 years, and who had nothing to do with the A+ controversy. I would argue that how the university treats people who don’t have tenure is simply horrifying.

    Or consider the fact that even before Rancourt was fired, the Dean of Graduate Studies claimed that a prospective student of Rancourt would lose his NSERC scholarship if he did not choose a new supervisor immediately. I recommended to that student that he communicate with NSERC directly, and of course the Dean’s claim turned out to be a lie.

    So I would make exactly the opposite of your evaluation of the situation. I would consider that because a tenured professor has more security than everyone else on campus, if the university gets away with how they handled the Rancourt case, that would confirm that they can continue to exploit non-tenured research staff and grad students as they are doing right now. I had to move to another university, to see that what I had to go through as a grad student at U of Ottawa was not normal, and was very wrong.

  6. On a slightly different note (but pertaining to Jeff’s post about the possible precedent of this case), I think we should be able to ask how much of the tenure system as it stands now is worth preserving.

    More than a freedom, tenure is essentially a priviledge conferred to a certain class in academia, while at the same time – as Jeff clearly pointed out in his analysis of the York strike – a majority of the academic work (research and teaching) in large universities is increasingly done by those unprotected by tenure: graduate students and contract faculty.

    In fact, I would question how much “independence” tenure really grants, considering that university research depends so much of funding provided by either governmental or private sources. Maybe tenure now is less about “freedom from” than about “power over”: power over graduate students, junior faculty, as tenured profs act as the “gatekeepers” of a specific field of inquiry.

    I doubt that this was the original intention for which tenure, peer review, etc. were invented. However, today academia is so hierarchized and politicized that it seems as if its traditional structures were co-opted from their original purpose of stimulating free inquiry.

  7. Pingback: Letter: Rancourt’s teaching was “relevant,” “reasonable” : Macleans OnCampus

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