University of Ottawa vs. activist prof Denis Rancourt

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Come on. Philosophical questions and academic polices are not resloved or determined through a yes/no questionnaire. That's how internet quizzes work. It's fairly clear through the material presented (that you clearly have not bothered to look at) that Rancourt follows a radical pedagogy at odds with conventional methods. You choose to view this as 'he gives 'em all A+s! Lawl!' rather than addressing his philosophical underpinnings. Is this because you are dishonest or because you are out of your depth?

I'm beginning to understand that what you really object to is radicalism. The idea that you suggest I think any insubordination is dissent because I sympathize with Rancourt's action demonstrates you have an understanding of neither radicalism nor dissent. That explains your thoughtless contributions to this discussion and your utter lack of intellectual rigor.

But, there are millions of people who are afraid of radicalism. They tuned in to watch the half-time show at the Superbowl (and all the attendant commercials, natch!). Go Cardinals!

Snert Snert's picture

Snert, kindly provide a real or hypothetical example of a directive (if any) that a professor would be entitled to defy on grounds of academic freedom.

I don't think that it often takes the form of "University makes inappropriate directive and Professor refuses, citing academic freedom".

I think that for the most part, Universities understand where the line is drawn, and don't meddle in those affairs that would be covered by academic freedom.

So I don't think many Universities start with "One of our big benefactors is Microsoft, so no more criticizing MS in the classroom".  They know they'd be shot down on that.  I think that most directives from the University are going to revolve around University policies and course management. 

I suppose the clearest answer to your question would be "any opinion", which is separate (I think) from actions. 

Wikipedia has a pretty good page on [url=]academic freedom[/url]

Is this because you are dishonest or because you are out of your depth?

It's because I believe he's out of his jurisdiction.  If I don't believe it's his place to decide whether a course is graded or not, his reasons for wanting to not grade become somewhat moot.

That explains your thoughtless contributions to this discussion and your utter lack of intellectual rigor.

Ah.  Well, you had rattled your sabre about ignoring me.  If you believe my contributions to be this valueless, perhaps you should revisit that.  Just remember that it's a bit like making a dramatic exit; nothing more embarrassing than having to return sheepishly for your umbrella.

And while I'll admit that the mere notion of radicalism doesn't get me moon-eyed, I believe I've been arguing from a rational position regarding the limits of academic freedom vs. institutional autonomy.  You're free to ignore all of it, of course, but I think that dismissing everything I've said as ignorance (because I don't "get" radicalism!) is just a convenient out for you.  At a certain point you'll need to actually draw your own line in the sand as regards what Universities should be able to mandate for their faculty and what faculty are entitled to under the rubric of academic freedom, and I get the sense you'd like to avoid that.  No better way of backing out than by saying "You're too irrational/emotional/ignorant to talk to!"

ed'd to add:  you appear to believe that I'm formulating my arguments on academic freedom based on my personal opinion of radicalism.

Does that knife cut both ways?  Do you have the guts to admit that even as you seem to be accusing me of dismissing Rancourt for his radicalism, you're supporting him for it?  Or is yours a purely rational position, and it's only mine that's tainted by emotion?


Snert wrote:

Snert, kindly provide a real or hypothetical example of a directive (if any) that a professor would be entitled to defy on grounds of academic freedom.

I suppose the clearest answer to your question would be "any opinion", which is separate (I think) from actions.

That's very clear - freedom of opinion, but never of action. That's the way it works in the factory, too.

Snert Snert's picture

When your employer signs your paycheque (to the tune of $120,000 in Rancourt's case) they're probably going to expect a few things in exchange, aren't they?

I really haven't been convinced that expecting an employee to follow company policy isn't a reasonable example of one of those things.

But poor Denis Rancourt!  He's allowed to think whatever he wants, but his mean old employer won't just let him DO whatever he wants!! 

For sure, I'd love to be in a situation where I could tell an employer what I will or will not do, and at the same time demand not only that they pay me very handsomely for this, but also pay me until retirement.  That would be super sweet!


Catchfire was right. Instead of dealing with the specificity of this case, you're taking refuge in exaggeration. I found your definition of academic freedom very telling in that respect.


I dunno, I think Snert has made a compelling case for why Rancourt shouldn't have been teaching Conversational Spanish in his Physics class!Wink

Snert Snert's picture

Catchfire was right. Instead of dealing with the specificity of this case, you're taking refuge in exaggeration. I found your definition of academic freedom very telling in that respect.

And thus far, I've found your definition of academic freedom entirely absent.  And yet here you are, arguing with conviction, on a topic that you admit you really don't know much about.

If you don't like my definition, did you like Wikipedia's?  It's pretty much a rollup of academic freedom in several jurisdictions; surely there's something in there that could provide a starting point.  And if nothing else, it might tip you off to the fact that "Academic Freedom" is a concept that (in North America, anyway) primarily affects research, and not course management.  Rancourt isn't being silenced in his research, but he is being censured for refusing to comply with course management policies.  Y'know... the ones hatched up by that anonymous bureaucrat. 

But honestly, Unionist, what is it you think I'm "hiding" from?  What specifics have you or Catchfire advanced that you believe I'm dodging?


I dunno, I think Snert has made a compelling case for why Rancourt shouldn't have been teaching Conversational Spanish in his Physics class!

Excellent!!!  That's as close as anyone but me has come to acknowledging that there are necessary limits to professors' freedom to do whatever they feel like!  Now all we need to do is refine that.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Actually, I linked to primary sources that support both my view of Academic freedom and the one that some have used to criticize Rancourt. You linked to wikipedia in to defend (quote lazily) your argument that had hitherto been comprised of hyperbole and empty mockery. In fact, when you are not exaggerating, you are simply trying to reverse my own arguments which evidences your lack of critical thought.

And when you do start talking in specifics, like on how classes are taught and how university administration works, you have demonstrated that you don't know what you're talking about. But, this characterizes your comportment on babble thus far: you are simply a contrarian, and not a very good one. I wonder how far your lawling!!! will see you.

Snert Snert's picture

No worries.  To my embarrassment, I only now noticed that this site very recently lobbed some generous softballs to Rancourt and called it an "interview". 

Given this site's such obvious sympathy for him and his windmills I probably shouldn't have wasted my time arguing for anything other than his Perfect Wisdom.  Maybe I'll go start a thread entitled "Tommy Douglas Wasn't All That".


See, the guy strikes me as a nutcase (yes I know I am using language used to tear down dissent etc etc.)

 However, I'd say moving to pass/fail (and believe me, you can fail those courses easily enough) is a defensible position, and the UofO's refusal to do what is routine elsewhere either (a) shows them as reactionary or (b) hides something else. His contract MAY require him to follow foolish regulations of that sort -- it may not, I have not read it. I'd think CAUT is a good body to look into it.

Rancourt's protest, yeah, would have been more consistent had he announced the only grades were A+ or F. His A+ only option suggests, given the rest of what he talks, about that he's a controversy entrepreneur. However, we don't fire professors for that. 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

The provocative professor

At the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, general counsel Alan Borovoy said that "universities should always err on the side of professorial freedom." But in that context, the professor is still required to do his job, he said. If grading is required, he suggested, then "even though the professor may think this is a reactionary and Neanderthal practice, that professor would nevertheless be obliged to grade his students."

A more openly critical position was taken by Stanley Fish, a professor of law at Florida International University, who wrote in his blog for The New York Times that Prof. Rancourt is an example of turning "serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom." There is a difference "between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world," said Prof. Fish, who has written a book arguing that professors overreach when they instruct students on ethics and morality.

"That's nonsense," said Robert Gaucher, a recently retired law professor at the University of Ottawa. "Of course we bring our political views; how do we leave them aside? Professors spout off in all directions during their lectures."

Dr. Gaucher, who wrote a letter of support for Prof. Rancourt, suggests that the broader issues at stake have been obscured by the rancour between the two sides - citing in particular a January incident that saw the professor escorted off campus in handcuffs when he attended a film society meeting.

"What happens in the classroom has to be discussed more broadly," he said. As for the suggestion that professors should strictly follow curriculum, he asked, "Well, what is the curriculum, who created it, and what was their point of view?"



Cathfire: "And for the second [applying to grad school], I would point out that reference letters and interviews are the primary materials on which graduate admissions base their decisions. With standardized tests like America's GREs, Britain's A-levels  and other metrics like number of published papers, conference presentations and panel discussions, the available materials increase."

Right now, I'm doing a preliminary look at 219 applications for our PhD programme and 91 applications for our MA programme for next year. The committee will eventually make offers to about 24 PhD applicants (with the hope of getting 12 to come), and about 15 MA applicants (with the hope that about 12 will come).

Grades do not come close to telling the whole story, but they help us make decisions. If you didn't get mostly A's in the discipline, then you won't get into the programme, unless there's some special countervailing evidence in your file. Grades, together with letters of recommendation, really do help us make a first cut. I know of no major department in my discipline that uses interviews. It's simply too much work, and not all that probative anyway. GRE's are frequently used, but there's a lot of debate about whether they should be used. Most applicants to our direct entry PhD program only have a BA, or maybe an MA, so few have published papers, conference presentations or panel discussions. The most important part of the file is the writing sample: this will make or break an application. Sadly, we simply do not have the time to read 310 20-page writing samples. Thus the unfortunate reliance on grades.

So, perhaps unfortunately, grades are an important part of an application; they help us make preliminary cuts.

Grades also matter for the Ontario Graduate Scholarship. In fact, there are specific rules about minimal grades needed for your application even to be considered. Students from universities that do not have grades (e.g. St. John's in New Mexico) are basically out of luck if they apply for an OGS.


A very interesting discussion.

I tend to be in favour of as much academic freedom as feasible. Though I do recognize some limitations on my own academic freedom. I can't set a policy of giving all the men A's and all the women B's, or vice versa, as a protest against grading. I can't spend my entire Intro to Calculus course railing against the patriarchy, or against feminism. I can't spend the entire Intro to Quantum Mechanics course reading the novels of Jane Austen. Any of these actions would draw an appropriately negative response from my chair, if it were brought to her/his attention. Probably a talk, with a caution, maybe some sensitivity training ... but if I persisted, I'd probably risk getting fired.

I remember an extremely sad case at Yale a decade ago: an important geophysicist,  was involved in a child porn ring, and using university computers to trade images. It took weeks (maybe months) before the university fired him, for "moral terpitude". (See


Torontoprofessor, besides your colourful exaggerations of what academic freedom does not mean (we've had enough of those already, thanks), did you have any examples in mind of what it might mean?

ETA: By the way, it's "turpitude".


You're right. It's "turpitude".

Basically, academic freedom means one thing in research and another in teaching. By the way, everything I am about to say is subject to revision, but here goes.

In research. Academic freedom is the freedom to pursue, without fear of dismissal,

- research projects that might not bear fruit (e.g., a mathematician should be free to spend years trying to close some extremely difficult open problem, even if that means she won't have any publications for very many years, and even though she has no guarantee of success in closing that open problem);

- research projects that are controversial or politically sensitive.

It is also the freedom to express, without fear of dismissal, opinions in newspapers, academic journals, personal correspondence, etc., that might offend. I would say that this second freedom should be nearly absolute, perhaps limited by Canadian hate speech laws. (I am open to refining this position.)

In teaching, Academic Freedom means,

- getting to set your own set of readings, within reason; your own syllabus, within reason; and your own grading scheme, within reason. Here, we are required to have at least 10% of the course graded before the add/drop date. This allows students to have some sense of how they're doing before they decide whether to drop a course. This strikes me as a reasonable restriction on my academic freedom. We are also required to have a final exam for lower level courses. I think that final exams can be bad pedagogy (depending on the course). I have argued strenuously against this requirement, though I do meet it. This is also a restriction on my academic freedom; one that I would say is a borderline case.

- getting to discuss controversial issues, and express controversial views. Here care needs to be exercised, since certain views might create a hostile learning environment for certain students. Should a professor be allowed to opine that certain races are superior to others? I'm thinking of Rushton at UWO here. The university resisted moves to have him dismissed. Should a professor be allowed to opine that homosexual acts are unnatural? Should a professor be allowed to opine that Christianity or Islam is bunk? I suppose that I think so, as long as she does not break Canadian hate speech laws.


This is a bizarre thread illusions to child pornography, outright comparisons of Rancourt with holocaust deniers, racists and creationists. innumerable unfounded character assasinations.

 There is also the disturbing inquisitional tone of denouncing Rancourt as a Global warming heretic and right wing hack even though it is clear he is neither right wing and nor is  an apologist or a denier of the devastation that corporate activity is wreaking on the environment. Is Global warming the only game in town? Should all other forms of environmental devastation be viewed as secondary or less significant?

I'm not saying I believe his claims concerning global warming but to be honest I also don't have the scientific expertise to challenge them.  To be honest I'm not sure where my beliefs concerning global warming come from apart from popular science articles that I've read and discussions on the internet. I'm certainly sceptical of research that is funded by specific corporate interests, the fossil fuel sector in particular. It does raise some interesting questions concering the dissemination and acceptance of scientific beliefs. If anything this thread is interesting due to the numerous unacknowledged assumptions and grand narratives being presented. I do agree with Rancourt that the research on Global warming is unlikely to change the exploitive nature of corporate behaviour.

It is also disheartening to see such reactionary responses to radical positions.




Rancourt is being interviewed right now on The Current (eastern time).

ETA: Now the editor of The Fulcrum (anti-Rancourt) is starting his interview.


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I just managed to catch the Fulcrum editor and the interview with Stanley Fish (see column above). Fish is such a knob.


I listened online and was disappointed but not surprised with the bias. The editor of the Fulcrum just proposed a series of unverified statements concering student opinion that even if they were true really have little bearing on Academic freedom. Academic freedom is not something that is determined by student popular opinion.

Fish is also an ass as Catchfire mentions. The point that was ignored throughout the discussion and that is at the heart of critical pedagogy is that ideological assumptions and dynamics of power are embedded in standard pedagogical practices. The dissemination of dominant ideologies are dependent on these hidden assumptions not being manifested or examined. I didn't listen to most of the Fish interview but I somehow doubt he was asked about his particular ideological bias, although it is obvious to anyone who is critical. I think a letter to the CBC is in order.


Fully agree with Catchfire and N.R.KISSED. I thought the Fulcrum editor was downright sinister. And simple journalistic fairness would have required finding someone to interview who supported Rancourt to some small extent, instead of essentially piling on him three against one (including the interviewer). David Noble appeared only via a short taped clip, which was then played to Fish for him to "demolish".

By the way, through the magic of the internet, here is the whole thing again in MP3 format:



By global warming, does he mean climate change due to CO2 levels? If so, I agree with him. 



Might as well revive this thread - and begin with this rabble interview that was mentioned way back in the OP:

[url= critical pedagogy: Denis Rancourt vs. University of Ottawa[/url]



Although this latest update is somewhat different from OP, thought I'd post it here.


Rancourt is being sued for libel by a law professor at U of O who claims he made racist statements about her.


Denis Rancourt

Here is the blog post that leads to the rest in this matter:

U of O law professor Joanne St. Lewis sues Rancourt for $1 million, will give half to a law student scholarship fund

and see the few comments, including a contribution from gay mariage legal battle expert Adele Mercier (Queens U).


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Wow. What a terribly inappropriate remark for Rancourt to make. I'd say the plaintiff has a good case (IANAL, etc.)


Denis Rancourt's Struggle for Justice  -  by Stephen Lendman

"Injustice defines Western societies. America long ago spurned rule of law principles. Canada marches in lockstep. Denis Rancourt is a distinguished tenured University of Ottawa physics professor. He's a recognized expert in his field. He also champions equity, justice, and human rights. Political activism led to his dismissal. On U of O's campus, it's not safe to advocate right over wrong.."



People in Western countries use pejoratives often without retaliatory lawsuits.


So? Just because people don't always sue when they feel they've been defamed doesn't mean St. Lewis isn't entitled to sue. Rancourt should have chosen his word and/or his target more carefully.

Ken Burch

onlinediscountanvils wrote:


People in Western countries use pejoratives often without retaliatory lawsuits.


So? Just because people don't always sue when they feel they've been defamed doesn't mean St. Lewis isn't entitled to sue. Rancourt should have chosen his word and/or his target more carefully.

And it's not even true for ALL "Western countries".  In the UK, you can be found guilty of libel even if what you said was, in fact, factually correct.  British libel law has had an incredibly chilling effect on political debate as a result.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

What a long-winded and diversionary article. I find it astonishing that Denis Rancourt and his allies are trying to justify calling St. Lewis what he did. "Malcolm X first used the term." Holy fucking shit. And yes, as our local anvil salesman points out, the other justifications in this "article" are just as spurious.

Lord Palmerston

[url= Rancourt ordered to pay $16,000 in legal costs in defamation case[/url]


[url= rejects Denis Rancourt’s bid to quash libel lawsuit[/url]

Denis Rancourt has lost his bid to derail a $1-million defamation lawsuit filed against him by University of Ottawa law professor Joanne St. Lewis.

In a March 13 decision, Superior Court Judge Robert Smith rejected Rancourt’s argument that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the University of Ottawa’s decision to pay St. Lewis’S legal costs was an abuse of process.

“I find that the university had a legitimate reason for assisting St. Lewis and there is no evidence that the university agreed to fund St. Lewis’ libel action for an improper purpose or based on an improper motive,” Smith concluded.

The decision clears the way for the libel action to proceed against Rancourt, a former tenured physics professor who was fired by the University of Ottawa in 2009. His dismissal is being contested in a labour arbitration between the university and his union.


Lawsuit Against Canada Professor Causes Controversy (and vid)

"A defamation lawsuit against a professor in the Canadian city of Ottawa has caused controversy, Press TV reports. The lawsuit was filed against Denis Rancourt, a former physics professor who was fired by the University of Ottawa, after he defended a student report that accused the university of racial discrimination..."


[url= of O prof wins libel case against Rancourt, awarded $350,000[/url]

He is also a very strange litigant. He has been in court for over 10 years, 29 grievances and almost 20 weird civil suits. He has been suing on of U of Os most important feminist academics for years. He recently lost and was ordered to pay her a great deal of money. Check his name on the Canadian legal decisions data base.


Ottawa Citizen: [url= U of O prof who libelled colleague ordered to pay nearly $445,000 in legal costs[/url]

Former University of Ottawa professor and blogger Denis Rancourt has been ordered to pay $444,895 in legal costs to a colleague he libelled, but he won’t face a contempt of court hearing for continuing to make online postings about the defamation trial.

The awarding of legal costs last week brings the total Rancourt owes Joanne St. Lewis and lawyers to more than $1 million.



He seems to fit the profile of a High Conflict Personality developed by Bill Eddy.


An Observable High Conflict Pattern

High-conflict people (HCPs) have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people. The issue that seems in conflict at the time is not what is increasing the conflict. The “issue” is not the issue. With HCPs the high-conflict pattern of behavior is the issue, including a lot of:

                              All-or-nothing thinking

                              Unmanaged emotions

                              Extreme behaviors

                              Blaming others


All-or-nothing thinking: HCPs tend to see conflicts in terms of one simple solution rather than taking time to analyze the situation, hear different points of view and consider several possible solutions. Compromise and flexibility seem impossible to them, as though they could not survive if things did not turn out absolutely their way. They often predict extreme outcomes if others do not handle things the way that they want. And if friends disagree on a minor issue, they may end their friendships on the spot – an all-or-nothing solution.


Unmanaged emotions: HCPs tend to become very emotional about their points of view and often catch everyone else by surprise with their intense fear, anger, yelling or disrespect for those nearby or receiving their comments over the Internet – or anywhere. Their emotions are often way out of proportion to the issue being discussed. This often shocks everyone else. They often seem unable to control their own emotions and may regret them afterwards – or defend them as totally appropriate, and insist that you should too.


On the other hand, there are some HCPs who don’t lose control of their emotions, but use emotional manipulation to hurt others. They may trigger upset feelings in ways that are not obvious (sometimes while they seem very calm). But these emotional manipulations push people away and don’t get them what they want in the long run. They often seem clueless about their devastating and exhausting emotional impact on others.


Extreme behaviors: HCPs frequently engage in extreme behavior, whether it’s in writing or in person. This may include shoving or hitting, spreading rumors or outright lies, trying to have obsessive contact and keep track of your every move – or refusing to have any contact at all, even though you may be depending on them to respond. Many of their extreme behaviors are related to losing control over their emotions, such as suddenly throwing things or making very mean statements to those they care about the most. Other behaviors are related to an intense drive to control or dominate those closest to them, such as hiding your personal items, keeping you from leaving a conversation, threatening extreme action if you don’t agree, or physically abusing you.      


Blaming others: HCPs stand out, because of the intensity of their blame for others – especially for those closest to them or in authority positions over them. For them, it is highly personal and feels like they might not survive if things don’t go their way. So they focus on attacking and blaming someone else and find fault with everything that person does, even though it may be quite minor or non-existent compared to the high-conflict behavior of the HCP. In contrast to their blame of others, they can see no fault in themselves and see themselves as free of all responsibility for the problem. If you have been someone’s target of blame, you already know what I’m talking about.

They also blame strangers, because it is so easy. On the Internet, they can be anonymous and make the most extreme statements. Even if they know you, there is a sense of distance and safety, so that extremely blaming statements can flow.



There has been a lot of back and forth in this thread about the academy, and academic freedom.

I thought it appropriate to link to a post by Professor St. Lewis after her important victory:

And another one, by one of her colleagues, calling out Rancourt for his attacks on the judiciary.