Academic Freedom? How Nasty Can a University Be?

The present era of reactionary institutional responses to violations of political correctness is exposing the fact that “academic freedom”, of both professors and students, does not really mean much, except what it has always meant.

In the concluding paragraphs of her chapter on academic freedom in her 1986 book No Ivory Tower, Ellen W. Schrecker brilliantly states what modern academic freedom has always been and was always meant to be:

The academic world of Schaper and Cattell, Ely and Nearing, was to change considerably over the next few decades. Especially in the years following the Second World War, the American system of higher education was to expand in size and to become a more democratic and less genteel place. Yet its treatment of political dissidents changed little. The same pattern of pressures and responses that set the early precedents determined the later cases as well. There were some differences to be sure, especially in procedural matters. There was more faculty participation, for example. This was largely the result of the academic profession’s success in establishing the principle of tenure. Though its possession did not invariably protect controversial professors from being fired, by the 1940s and 1950s it did usually ensure that they got some kind of a faculty hearing.

Procedures apart, however, there were fewer differences than we might assume. Institutional loyalty was the overriding concern. In almost every situation, faculty members and administrators responded to outside pressures for the dismissal of dissenting faculty members in accord with what they believed would best protect or enhance their schools reputation. The rhetoric of academic freedom obscures those concerns, as, in many instances, it was designed to. After all, even the famous academic freedom statement that the University of Wisconsin released after the Regents reinstated Richard T. Ely in 1894 was planned in part as a piece of institutional promotion-as, in the words of the man who suggested it, “an excellent advertisement for the institution.” Stripped of its rhetoric, academic freedom thus turns out to be an essentially corporate protection. And, as we trace its development during the Cold War, we should not be surprised to find that it was invoked more often to defend the well-being of an institution than the political rights of an individual.1

Nonetheless, it is interesting to ask: Just how far can a Western university, in a so-called free and democratic society, go in violating the freedom of expression and the professional independence of a tenured professor?

My own case gives a graphic answer to this question.

First, here is the background of what was actually happening in the classroom. This letter from a parent on one of my students was published in Canada’s largest national newspaper on February 9, 2009:

“Free to Learn” by Julia Debono

Windsor, Ont. — In 2006, while shadowing my daughter, then a student at the University of Ottawa, I attended one of Denis Rancourt’s classes (Professor Makes His Mark, But It Costs Him His Job – Feb. 6). Prof. Rancourt, clearly a dedicated, principled teacher, moderated a spirited, engaging, intellectually provocative discussion in which about 50 students eagerly participated.

Other undergraduate classes that I attended consisted of the professor lecturing while students chatted, surfed the Net or took verbatim notes. Few asked questions and there were no discussions, even when the professor asked for some.

Prof. Rancourt’s class resembled classes I had at the University of Michigan’s Residential College in the mid-1970s, right down to the use of narrative summaries instead of grades to evaluate learning.

His class was an example of the kind of educational experience I sent my daughter to university to be a part of.2

There were hundreds of such letters to the university and to media, and a large petition. Here is my report of how my first-year (freshman) physics course had developed: “How to Not Teach Physics”.3

In addition, I was publicly critical of the university administration on my “U of O Watch” blog and I practiced reform wherever I could legally do so, given the on-paper guaranties of my academic freedom and professional independence.

Twice the university disciplined me for allegedly not following the curriculum. Both times the university was rebuffed by binding arbitration decisions and the discipline was removed. I established that in Ontario a university professor is allowed to be political in the classroom, in addition to covering the curriculum, even in a science course. This irked the reactionary administration to no end.

As a result, sometimes the political activism would spill over into students demanding their rights within the institution. There was an upsurge of student activism in the years that I taught, which I mostly attribute to reactions against oppressive policies and an influx of politically savvy international students. But, of course, the administration blamed me and scribbled network diagrams about it in their notes (I saw this in access-to-information records).

In one such “spill over”, the president — experienced trial lawyer, former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations and former Liberal prospective candidate for Prime Minister of Canada, Allan Rock — was publicly exposed intimidating a student complainant, in the president’s office. The student’s audio recording was played on regional cable TV, and a link of it was sent to all the university’s students by email. The president never did that again.

Within a few weeks after the cable TV show aired, my many research graduate students and I were locked out of our laboratory without notice and, as I learned in 2017, the university destroyed my large collections of valuable scientific samples, and immediately made the laboratory inoperable.

The violations of my academic and constitutional rights that also occurred prior to and after the lock out are difficult to grasp, but they did occur, and many “respectable” high officials were knowingly involved. Now I want the new president to fix this and the university to be accountable. This recent letter is how I presented the case to the new president:

January 8, 2018

Jacques Frémont
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Ottawa
550 Cumberland, Room 212
Ottawa, ON  K1N 6N5

f: 613-562-5103
e: ac.awattOunull@tnediserp
By email and by fax

Re: Ending the University of Ottawa’s unrelenting punishment of me

Dear President Frémont,

I was a professor in the department of physics at the University of Ottawa from 1987 until 2009.  I occupied the highest academic rank of Full Professor beginning in 1997.

I am recognized as an expert in my profession and have taught thousands of students.  I am a much appreciated teacher and research supervisor and I have published over 100 articles in leading journals in several areas of science (my present h-index score is 35).

I taught the Senate-approved course “Science in Society”, which I created following campus-wide student demand, in the largest auditorium on campus.  It was informally known as the activism course.

I was a critic of the university and I defended students against what I saw as institutional discrimination and racism.  In so doing, I used Malcolm X’s political term, “house negro”.  I did this in the context of a struggle for justice and in good faith, as attested to by the attached letters to you from community activists: Hazel Gashoka, Jean-Marie Vianney, and Cynthia McKinney.

The university dismissed me in 2009 using the pretext of my having assigned high grades to all 23 students in one advanced physics course, and then spent over $1 million sponsoring a large defamation lawsuit against me.

You have emptied out my bank account by court order, you have repeatedly threatened to take my family’s home, and you have asserted that you will continue to enforce recovery of your legal costs in excess of $1 million.  Therefore, I am not able to pursue my work as a teacher and scholar, since you would take every penny.

You destroyed my career and took everything I have. You have done enough. I’m hoping that your sense of decency will cause you to grant this request for relief.

The university’s punishment of me has been relentless, including the following.

Destroyed scientific samples

Recently this year, as I sought to continue my scientific work, the university said that it destroyed my large and unique collection of scientific samples — when it locked me and my students out of our laboratory while I was still a full professor.

Many of the samples are irreplaceable and priceless, and I considered myself their custodian on behalf the scientific community.  The Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) has assumed my $1.25 million grievance concerning this destruction.

The destroyed scientific samples included:

(a) The only large non-oxidized piece of the Santa Catharina meteorite, in which the meteoritic metallic phase “antitaenite” was discovered.

(b) The only large sample of remnants of the K/T boundary meteorite that may have killed the dinosaurs, collected in the field by a leading-expert collaborator, and kept in a sealed atmosphere.

(c) Unique suites of synthetic layer silicate compounds, which led to several fundamental discoveries.

(d) Suites of loess-paleosol samples (ancient soils) from two sites, in China and Eastern Europe.

(e) Preserved samples of sediments from 100 lakes in Canada, from the largest study of its kind in the boreal forest.

(f) Several suites of samples of synthetic compounds and alloys having unique electronic, magnetic, and magneto-volume properties.

For years the university threatened to destroy my personal papers, too.  Since 2008, the university refused to give me access to my belongings from my personal office in the physics building.  The materials were research notes, original course content, unpublished book manuscripts, two decades of correspondence, specialized books, and much more.  Only recently, thanks to your direct intervention, was I able to recover the more than 200 cubic feet of paper materials.

Student spy

The university hired a student spy (Maureen Robinson) to covertly surveil me for more than one year while I was a professor.  Her actions were condoned by her immediate supervisors (the dean and the legal counsel of the university) and included using a false cyber identity (“Nathalie Page”) and falsely representing herself personally to third parties.  The student spy provided weekly reports about me to the university.  Her role was described by an Ontario appellate-court judge in his motion ruling in the following terms:

Maureen Robinson

[15] The circumstances of Maureen Robinson’s involvement in this entire matter is troubling at best.  Throughout the relevant portion of the Award by Arbitrator Foisy, Ms.  Robinson’s written notes were referred to [as] “the report on Professor Rancourt’s address prepared by a University of Ottawa student”.

[16] Pursuant to the Udell Affidavit, and based on evidence from the hearing, the student being Maureen Robinson was the editor of the student newspaper who had been hired by the University in what the University described as in a clerical capacity to assist Professor Rancourt in his office, without his input on her hiring.

[17] Either in consultation with her employer, the University, or on her own, she monitored the activities of Professor Rancourt both on and off campus and reported her finding back to the University.  In an email to Dean Lalonde, she admitted to having a “personal grudge” against Professor Rancourt and went so far as to liken her monitoring of Professor Rancourt as “posing as a young girl to catch a pedophile”.  Ms. Robinson was not called as a witness at the hearing and, the parties agreed that her “report” would be considered as an “aide memoire” only.

[18] The University referred to the “report” thereafter as a transcript which such description was objected to by the APUO.  Similarly, Arbitrator Foisy made certain findings which appear to be based solely on the report which was not evidence.  [Underlined sub-title in original]

Covert psychiatric report

In 2008, the university’s VP-Governance coordinated a capture of my intimate childhood information for use by a hired psychiatrist to make a written “psychiatric opinion” of me without my consent or knowledge.

The university thereby violated my constitutional privacy rights, my personal dignity and integrity, and numerous ethical codes regarding expert medical diagnoses.

The university followed this by not informing me of its actions, and by vigorously opposing my access to the psychiatric report until the final hour of an appeal in litigation for access in 2017.

You have a reputation as an advocate of human rights, and you recently took charge of the university’s case with me.

I write to you now to ask for a fair resolution that will allow me to resume my work as an educator and scientist, and to earn my living in this way. As it stands, the university would seize all of my income, just as it recently seized my bank account. The interest alone that you seek is more than $30,000.00 per year.

Please assure me that you will instruct the university lawyers that a settlement is needed that will allow me to resume my career.

Yours truly,

[original signed]

Professor Denis Rancourt
[address]

Encl.:  Letters from Hazel Gashoka, Jean-Marie Vianney, and Cynthia McKinney [three attachments in the original].4

That is how nasty a university in a free and democratic society can be. I know other public institutions behave the same way but we rarely find out. I have been dedicated to uncovering as much as I can.

I have been guided by this quote:

One knows … that the university and in a general way, all teaching systems, which appear simply to disseminate knowledge, are made to maintain a certain social class in power; and to exclude the instruments of power of another social class. … It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

— Foucault, debating Chomsky, 1971.5

  1. The two last paragraphs of Chapter I: “An Excellent Advertizement for the Institution”: The Development of Academic Freedom, 1886-1918; in Ellen W. Schrecker’s No Ivory Tower – McCarthyism and the Universities, Oxford University Press, 1986. []
  2. Letter to the Editor, Globe & Mail (National Edition), February 9, 2009. []
  3. Rancourt, Denis. How to Not Teach Physics. Dissident Voice, January 2, 2013. []
  4. “2018 01 08 Letter to end the University of Ottawa’s unrelenting punishment of Denis Rancourt”, and direct link to the document as PDF file. []
  5. Human Nature: Justice versus Power”, Noam Chomsky debates with Michel Foucault, 1971. []
Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, Canada. He is a researcher for the Ontario Civil Liberties Association. He has published more than 100 articles in leading scientific journals, on physics and environmental science. He is the author of the book Hierarchy and Free Expression in the Fight Against Racism. Read other articles by Denis.