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Q & A with former professor Denis Rancourt

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.

School to A+ professor: you’re fired

Letters: “He didn’t teach at all”

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.

Were you relieved that the faculty association came down on your side?

I’m relieved to see that they’re finally going beyond just their legal responsibility to give me fair representation. They’re professional sense has finally kicked in, in the sense of standing up for me in a real way. They’ve hired a fairly high-profile labour lawyer here in Ottawa, Sean McGee, who is very highly regarded. He’s going to be leading the case in coordination with the staff association lawyer whose name is John Henderson. They’re teaming together and it looks like they’re going to put together a good case.

Is it strange to you that this case is now totally out of your hands?

Yes, it is strange. My personality is such that I don’t like to not have standing. I don’t like to leave it to others, I like to be in control and to be completely informed about what’s going on. You have to understand that even legally speaking, my union has standing. They can decide to settle the case, and they can design and run the case however they see fit. They have some responsibility to consult me, and they have to keep me informed, but they have standing, I do not. That’s a feature of labour law in Ontario, and that is a little bit unnerving, but that’s the way it is.

So what are you planning on doing with your time now?

It doesn’t really give me more time, because these legal proceedings are very, very demanding, and there’s a lot of them. You have to understand that I have something like over 20 grievances in the works. At this stage it’s becoming a full-time job. In addition to that, I have almost as many Freedom of Information requests in with the university that involve hundreds and hundreds of documents. They’ll almost all go to appeal, because it appears that the university considers it its job to not follow the Freedom of Information Act. They’re resisting every step of mine to get information.

What subject are those Freedom of Information requests on?

I want all information about the offices of the administrators. It’s mainly requests of that type. I’ve been getting some really surprising evidence, unambiguous proof that they were hiring reporters, spies to come and listen to my talks about the university. I have copies of these reports and I have lots of evidence that they hired and nurtured a student spy, for years. A spy who, under a false identity, went around joining Facebook groups and things like that, collected information and regularly sent it to legal counsel at the university. So there are dozens and dozens of e-mails from this person to legal counsel at the university. I could talk about that whole spy story for an hour, because it’s really interesting. Some students, who were close to the spy, found out and actually provided me with an affidavit of their conversations with the spy, about her activities.

Are you planning on digging your heels in, or would you ever consider a teaching or researching position somewhere else?

There’s a side of me that says, “You have these nice potential offers, people are rumbling, people are contacting you, you could just leave,” but there’s a lot more people who are insisting on the fact that this isn’t just about me, and that I have a responsibility to stand and fight this one. Because if [the administration of the University of Ottawa] wins, it will be quite a blow for academic freedom in Canada. The [Canadian Association of University Teachers’] executive director [Jim Turk] has made it very clear that this isn’t just about me. They’re investing a lot in this through their independent committee of inquiry, and they want to get to the bottom of this and ensure that academic freedom is protected. My friends are telling me that they’ll back me, but that I need to take this on. 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.

If that’s what I wanted to do, I’m sure I could secure something. There’s a minority of colleges and universities that pride themselves on hiring dissidents and hiring people who innovate on the pedagogical side and who inspires students. There are a number of those in North America, and even a few in Canada.

Which of these universities have approached you?

I don’t want to name names, but there are quite a few both in North America and in Canada. If you look at the letters of support on my website, then you could probably figure it out.

Are you concerned about your professional prospects?

My firm position is that the university administration doesn’t have a case and that we will win this. I am going to fight this vigorously alongside with my union. The biggest enemy here are all the forces that don’t want us to dig, if you know what I mean. They don’t want these Freedom of Information documents to come out, they don’t want us to discuss the power influences that are at work here. From the media that has come out now, to me, it appears that it’s part of a coverage that would ensure that we don’t touch the real points, that we fabricate something superficial about what’s going on here. That’s what’s happening right now in most of the media.


 

Q & A with former professor Denis Rancourt

  1. I find it interesting that the professor seems more interested in preserving his right to “teach” however he feels fit than in producing a real curiculum. It appears he is intent on making a name for himself through controversial methods rathar than actual results.

  2. I remember Professor Rancourt’s lectures to be so interesting, that I’d actually heard about them when I went to U of O and attended one, and I’m not even in Physics. He had higher attendance than a lot of other classes I went to. The A+ thing does work, it motivates and inspires instead of punishes. It might be a bit extreme to give an A, but the idea is right, the notion that grades are a distraction are fundamentally correct.

    Plus, he’s right, the U of O administration has gone too far. There’s nothing wrong with his pedagogical methods, and while he’s not everyone’s cup of tea a lot of students did like the way he taught.

  3. Bruce, if the grades are just an irrelevant distraction, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind if Dr. Rancourt decided to hand out all Ds in his next class? I mean, he’s just assigning the grades arbitrarily, so there’s no particular reason he has to assign the highest one rather than any other.

    There’s a difference between a lecture being interesting, and it being relevant, too. If a class is called “Quantum Mechanics”, then it seems reasonable to expect that the course should cover the elements of quantum theory, and not, say, politics of the Gaza Strip, the existence of vampires, or farming practices of Northern Mongolia. If those are the things he might be interested in teaching about, then he should ask the appropriate department to make a course that covers that content. Hijacking a senior course designed to cover a specific topic as a soapbox for his personal beliefs is selfish and unfair to the students he is supposed to be educating.

  4. Um, ABarlow, you seem to have missed the point, or you don’t know what “arbitrarily” means. He did not assign grades arbitrarily. Arbitrarily would have been to randomly choose students and assign different grades to each, for instance, with no criteria. He didn’t do that; he simply worked within the system that required grades. (And lots of schools, particularly in Europe, use a Pass/Fail grading system already.)

    And if Dr. Rancourt handed out failing grades to all his students, I think that would negate his point, don’t you? The point is that you get an incentive to learn however you learn best, not be penalized for doing so. Giving out Ds is not incentive.

  5. Giving everyone same grade is very unfair to those serious students studying very hard. And giving everyone A+? It’s not a primary school!

  6. Renee, I say he assigned the grades arbitrarily in that the grades he assigned were not criterion referenced (they weren’t norm referenced either, of course). That is, he assigned grades based entire on his whims without any reference to the work that the students did or did not do. The fact that he assigned all students the same mark means that the marking scheme he used is at least fair (whereas the system you describe would be unfair and arbitrary), but is still arbitrary. If you accept that he is within his rights to give out all A+’s, then he is also within his rights to give out all Ds or Fs.

    Giving out all Ds or all A+’s does not give the students any more or less incentive to work in the class, because either way, regardless of what they do, the result is the same–the natural result of such a system is that the students put in the minimal input, since the output is fixed. This is particularly true in the case where students have other courses where the effort they put in does result in different outputs. Who could blame a student for slacking off in a course where the professor has guarenteed them an A+ (with no chance even to fail!), when in other courses they need to invest many hours of study to get a reasonable score.

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