On Campus

Fired prof. alleges UOttawa spied on him

Student hired to 'infiltrate' campus activists, says physicist who was dismissed after giving everyone A+.

Several months after physics professor Denis Rancourt was fired, the University of Ottawa remains mired in controversy over the high profile case. In November, Rancourt filed a union grievance accusing the university of engaging in “covert surveillance” against him. He posted a report and supporting documents on his website at the beginning of January.

He was dismissed last March after supposedly assigning arbitrary grades to his students. Everyone in at least one of the courses he taught in Spring 2008 received an A+. Since 2005, he has filed at least 25 grievances, including for wrongful dismissal.

Rancourt alleges that as early as Sept 2007, the university hired then-student Maureen Robinson to investigate him. He claims she created Facebook and email accounts under the pseudonym Nathalie Page in order to “infiltrate” student activist groups, and report her findings to dean of science André Lalonde. She denies his accusations, which have not been proved in court.

In particular, Rancourt argues Robinson gathered information on students who were organizing to have a cancelled course Rancourt taught reinstated. The class, Science and Society, also known as the activism course, was created by Rancourt but was only offered once in the fall of 2006.

According to Rancourt, the university is violating the collective agreement between the administration and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa. He says that if the university was investigating an employee, than it would be obligated to inform him/her, which he says they did not do in his case.

“It’s the usual covert, underhanded methods, that any powerful institution will use to undermine popular movements,” he told Maclean’s in a telephone interview. Both the university and the faculty union declined comment.

Robinson, who studied chemistry at the University of Ottawa, worked for the student newspaper, the Fulcrum, from Sept. 2004 to April 2007. In at least one article in 2006 Robinson criticized the fact that the activism class was offered by the science faculty, and pointed out that even Rancourt believed it was closer to a faculty of arts course.

Rancourt bases his accusations against Robinson partly on the suspicions of students who had corresponded with Nathalie Page, Robinson’s alleged alias, on Facebook or email, but who never met her in person. In an email to Rancourt, former student Philippe Marchand described how Nathalie Page would confirm her attendance at a particular event, but wouldn’t show up. Instead he would see Robinson at the event.

Another student, Abla Adelhadi has signed an affidavit affirming that Robinson’s roommate, Jennifer MacLatchy told Adelhadi that Robinson had confided in MacLatchy regarding her investigation of Rancourt.

Adelhadi  has also provided Rancourt with a copy of what appears to be a Facebook email exchange between MacLatchy and Adelhadi, where MacLatchy appears to discuss Robinson’s employment with the university. In the email exchange, MacLatchy expresses concern that if Robinson is discovered to be investigating Rancourt, that there will be friction between the two roommates.

Rancourt further believes that Robinson, or someone associated with her, recorded a talk he gave at Queen’s university and subsequently provided a transcription to the university administration.

“As far I could tell, they wanted everything they could [get] about me and about all the students that were involved in campus politics related to the activism course,” he says.

To verify his suspicions Rancourt filed a freedom of information request in July 2008, seeking all emails between Robinson and dean Lalonde. In a submission to the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the university argues that it would not supply the materials sought because it would be related to labour relations, and therefore exempt under freedom of information legislation.

The submission makes no mention of Maureen Robinson, and only refers to an “individual” whose “role was to assist University of Ottawa legal counsel with the management of labour-relations matters.”

Rancourt admits that this doesn’t prove definitively that Robinson was gathering information about him on the university’s behalf. He says that when the Information and Privacy Commissioner forwarded him the university’s response to his freedom of information request, other supporting documents were also forwarded. He says these other documents provide further evidence, but he has not posted them online, and would not show them to Maclean’s on the record. “I don’t want to show the university what I have,” he said.

Responding via email, Robinson called the allegations “libellous” and “self-aggrandizing” on Rancourt’s part. “There was no covert surveillance. There were no spies . . . I was not directly or indirectly involved in the recording of a public conference given by Professor Rancourt at Queen’s University or anywhere else for that matter,” she wrote. “I am extremely confident that these allegations will not amount to anything.”

Robinson will only confirm that she worked for the university in an “assistant administrative” role. When asked if she ever worked on labour relations, or if she ever worked on Rancourt’s file, she declined to answer. “Unfortunately, due to pending legal proceedings, I am unable to comment any further on the matter of my employment with the university,” she said.