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Friday, August 16, 2013

Fascinating Canadian Story on "Academic Freedom"

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a fascinating story (subscription required) on Dennis Rancourt, a quondam physics professor at the University of Ottawa who has, for some time, been disputing his dismissal from the university before an arbitrator. Rancourt argues that he was dismissed for his political views. The university suggests that he was dismissed for numerous departures from his proper academic duties--among them, hollowing out an offered course from the inside, transforming it from a course in physics to a course on how science relates to "power structures," a move he called "academic squatting"; inviting ten-year-old twins to sign up for a course, and then assisting them in grieving the university's refusal to register them before a human rights commission as age discrimination; promising all his students in one class an A before the class started, more or less as a protest against the usual pedagogical norms of grading; and so on. While he was at it, he called a black law professor who wrote a report for the university its "House Negro." As it often does around Rancourt, protracted litigation ensued. His Wikipedia page is here; although it is one of the more self-serving entries I have seen there, it does contain useful links. Stanley Fish wrote about Rancourt here, and has an amusing discussion of him in a forthcoming book on academic freedom.

I was inclined to think Fish made too much of the Rancourt case, since Rancourt is so clearly an extreme case. On the other hand, I never would have dreamed that it would take as long as it has to resolve his dispute with the university, or that as many silly rulings would result along the way. Rancourt's case seems to me to do two things. It shows just how badly academic freedom can be distorted and misdefined, especially when its meaning is extended and politicized beyond all recognition. And it shows how damaging the involvement of both labor law and human rights commissions has been in Canada for a proper understanding and treatment of academic freedom. A couple of the figures quoted in the Chronicle story suggest that labor and human rights law have strengthened "academic freedom" in Canada. They have done nothing of the kind, unless you have an absurd definition of the term. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on August 16, 2013 at 10:13 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink

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I could be wrong, but my instinct is that you mean that he is a "quantum physics" professor, not a "quandom physics" professor, unless this is one of those charming Canadian spelling variations.

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Aug 16, 2013 10:45:39 AM

Sorry - "Quondam."

Posted by: Matthew Reid Krell | Aug 16, 2013 10:46:09 AM

+1 for quondam physics joke. Awesomeness.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 16, 2013 10:46:23 AM

Not that he needs me to defend him, but he totally meant quondam physics. Quondam means "former," and this guy is a former physics professor. It's an awesome joke.

Posted by: Anon | Aug 16, 2013 11:50:16 AM

This story is more complex and perhaps troubling than your summary, particularly the implication that universities need to have greater corporate authority over faculty. While Rancourt is a clown, he is, I think, a serious clown and many of his actions were academic theatre.

Stanley Fish writes than 1/3 of his colleagues (in the physics department? in his college?) signed a petition againt him. That means that 2/3 of his colleagues did not. My own thought is that any administrator can persuade 1/3 of a faculty to do anything--if Rancourt's actions were truly disrupting the university's mission, it seems somewhere between possible and likely that more faculty would have signed the petition. And what were Rancourt's sins? Having 10-year olds sign up for a course? Promising all students in a course an A? How many students were in the course? What course was it? Were there mandatory grading standards? I had a college professor who passed everyone, probably the best teacher I've ever been taught by--every law school I taught at had faculty who graded well outside recognized norms. They pissed off administrators, but some were extraordinary teachers.

The real story here may be that the guy was a prankster, embarrassed his supervisors, but was a good teacher and was making arbuably valid even if unwelcome points. Of course, the real story might be what you suggest, but the Chronicle story is less than clear on this.

And the larger issue is what level of protection a faculty member needs for the institution of tenure to have meaning. It is too easy to paint a good but difficult faculty member as a crazed lunatic. We better be careful that the accused is in fact a crazed lunatic rather than just a troublemaker. I hope in this case that the University met its burden, which was no doubt made easier by Rancourt's lack of contrition and what I suspect were deliberately outrageous defenses of his actions.

The souls of some institutions have, I suspect, from time to time been saved by troublemakers, jesters, and clowns. I don't want to advocate a system where it is too easy to get rid of them.

Posted by: Norman Stein | Aug 16, 2013 2:57:42 PM

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