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.