University of Ottawa’s A+ prof dismissed

Denis Rancourt’s is the first tenured professor to be kicked out in 25 years


Denis Rancourt, a physics professor, was dismissed by the University of Ottawa last week for his unorthodox teaching style, including a statement that he wanted to give an A+ to every student in his upper-year physics class. According to the Association of Professors at the University of Ottawa, the prof’s dismissal is the first at the school in 25 years, and Rancourt reportedly is planning to grieve it. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has set up an inquiry committee to look into Rancourt’s relationship with the University in order to determine whether the prof’s academic freedom has been breached.

Calgary Herald

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University of Ottawa’s A+ prof dismissed

  1. I can understand how the current grading system can train obedience rather than true learning. For anyone who doubts this, I encourage you to disagree with an ideology or opinion held by a Professor marking your work and explore the consequences for yourself. However, with no standards in the grading scheme, I can’t see how an educational institution can even feign objectivity and equality in its evaluation of performance.

    • Well said : Dana – I have wandered the vaunted halls of academia 3 times now – one of the times when I was filling out my BA after my BSC I just for fun and I was doing a bunch of credits just for fun I started becoming a pain in the posterior disagreer! – if I told you how many gaskets a few Prof’s blew you would not believe me. At the time I was older than most of the prof’s what was truly brilliant though was that though most of the prof’s were very well intentioned professionals but on occasion the bad ones ruined it for the rest of them – this tenure idea has to go and don’t give me that ol academic freedom tripe I am talking competence to actually teach something. I also challeneged quite a few courses and got them really upset – they lose a lot of money when you do that!

      • How do you figure eliminating tenure would improve things?

        • At least it would eliminate the vast gap in performance standards between the tenured and the untenured. As I understand it, tenure is meant to protect intellectual freedom of research; but there are two problems with that. First, the tenured generally do very little research and it’s of poor quality: there are of course exceptions who publish a great deal of high quality work, but generally that’s the case. Second, because tenure (= lifetime employment, as long as you don’t rock the boat) is such a huge carrot, the untenured are very unlikely indeed to pursue the kind of research that won’t get them tenure: so in effect tenure functions as a way of insulating established patterns of scholarship from competition by the young. And after five years of grad school and five years of assistant professorship, all striving the Der Tag of Tenure, it is even more difficult for young scholars to retain the independence of mind that tenure is supposed to protect. We suffer from intellectual stagflation in the academy and tenure is to blame.

          • So what’s the solution? Get rid of tenure altogether?

          • Interesting. I certainly share many of your views about the institutional structure of scholarship (our universities have changed less than the Catholic church over the last one hundred years, one could argue), though I wouldn’t go quite as far as you.

            In terms of teaching, though, I’m not sure you’d see a remarkably better educational experience for students (as Wayne argues) if tenure were eliminated. First off, a large proportion of undergrad courses are taught by untenured profs these days (in many departments, anyway), not to mention contract staff.

            But I think a lot of the discontent in the classroom – from both sides of the desk – has to do with a society that has lost its sense of what role universities should play, and what form the education of students should take. We’ve saddled a relatively specialized and archaic insitution with the task of providing essentially the same service high schools did 40 years ago – provide a general, broad-based education for as many kids as possible. And for tenured and tenure-track profs alike, classroom performance is a minor part of their professional advancement – publishing is what takes you places, not teaching.

            Without debating the specific merits of Rancourt’s case – it would serve us well to start thinking more about what we want our universities to be. From tenure to grading.

          • I just remembered something I read once about Max Weber, the sociologist, who struggled with a university system where lecturers were paid on the basis of class sizes (thus rewarding the more popular profs) – maybe universities have changed more than I suggested. I need to research this more…

          • Jack, out of curiosity, was that one of the reasons you chose not to stay in academia? I’m sure you were an amazing assistant prof, and you would make an excellent professor, tenured or otherwise.

          • CR — I guess I don’t know what the solution is re: tenure / grading / research / excellence. I suppose my complaint is that, as Sean says, universities seem to be in the same business as high schools were 40 years ago, giving students a taste of everything and basically equipping them to enter the middle class. But theoretically there is no bottom. I mean, they would still serve as gateways to the middle class even if the students only played ping-pong all day: such is the power of the B.A. in employers’ eyes — it’s not so much a qualifiation as the lack of it is a disqualification (at least on entering the job market). I guess you could say it trains people to think and write clearly, but only relatively more clearly than not (and certainly there are lots of B.Sc’s who write and think clearly too). What an arts education eminently is not is a life commitment to studying for the sake of studying, i.e. to make oneself a better person.

            (I guess none of the above necessarily applies to the sciences and thus to Rancourt; am way O/T; but what the heck.)

            I suppose this is related to why I decided to leave academe myself. If students don’t care about Enlightenment (for lack of a better word), academics care even less. The nature of Enlightenment (for lack of a better word) is to leave behind existing institutions; so careerists are ipso facto disqualified from its pursuit. I was a careerist myself, and doing rather well, but I was hating myself for it; so I left. Really, it shouldn’t concern me anymore whether academe lives or dies, but it just strikes me as crazy that we invest so much money and effort in university education (esp. in the arts) and get so little out of it in terms of human development. I guess I am self-interested, at that: a society in which the humanities are treated nihilistically is one in which the arts can’t flourish.

            I think Sean has hit the nail on the head: we need to think about what a university is for, and why society should pay for it. But perhaps, before we decide on that, we’d need to think about what a society is for. I guess I’m pessimistic that we will replace nihilism with anything positive any time soon, but I think we should strive to do so. Maybe then the university will take care of itself.

          • Seriously, you should consider writing a short piece on the subject (academic nihilism and arts education) and submitting it for publication.

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