Professor Makes His Mark, But It Costs Him His Job

April 2009

OTTAWA — On the first day of his fourth-year physics class, University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt announced to his students that he had already decided their marks: Everybody was getting an A+.

It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned.

But by abandoning traditional marks, Prof. Rancourt apparently sealed his own failing grade: In December, the senior physicist was suspended from teaching, locked out of his laboratory and told that the university administration was recommending his dismissal and banning him from campus.

Firing a tenured professor is rare in itself, but two weeks ago the university took an even more extreme step: When Prof. Rancourt went on campus to host a regular meeting of his documentary film society, he was led away in handcuffs by police and charged with trespassing.

With his suspension raising questions of academic freedom, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has started an independent inquiry into the matter. “Universities are to be places that not only tolerate, but welcome, vigorous debate,” said executive director James Turk. “There would have to be some very serious misdeeds by Dr. Rancourt to justify this action.”

A university spokesperson refused to comment specifically on the trespassing incident or give reasons for the disciplinary action, saying that the decision was “very serious” and “not made lightly.”

Prof. Rancourt's suspension is the most serious step in a long series of grievances and conflicts with the university dating back to 2005, when, after researching new teaching methods, he first experimented with eliminating letter grades. He also altered course curriculum with student input – although not the approval of the university – an approach he calls “academic squatting.”

A well-published and politically outspoken scientist who revels in hashing out theories on napkins at conferences, Prof. Rancourt's unconventional teaching style has generated both an ardent following among a core group of students, and the rancour of many of his fellow faculty members, one-third of whom signed a petition of complaint against him in the fall of 2007. In the letter, which he provided, the complaints stem largely from a series of critical e-mails he distributed about their “paternalistic” teaching methods – a criticism he still expresses, with little restraint, today.

But he also has some high-profile support from an award-winning psychology professor at the university, Claude Lamontagne, who wrote in an e-mail that faculty members need to fight for the freedom to teach how and when they want, lest their independence be “pressed out of our souls like juice from an orange.”

Building on his science and society lectures, the self-described “anarchist” developed a popular course on activism at Ottawa U, which was cancelled by the university the following year, and started an alternative film society focused on social justice.

He made headlines after 10-year-old twins registered for his course with their mother – and he supported the filing of a human-rights complaint claiming ageism when the university said they couldn't stay. His research can be equally alternative: He has called global warming, for instance, a myth. He has also been an outspoken critic of “Israeli military aggression” and is not shy about expressing those views with students.

And while the university may be keeping quiet, Prof. Rancourt has freely disseminated his side of the story: correspondence with university officials and a video of his arrest has been posted on the Internet. “I have nothing to hide,” he says.

Sean Kelly, a master's student who had Prof. Rancourt as his thesis supervisor until his suspension, said some students complained in class when the professor allowed debates to wander off-topic – or refused to set deadlines for homework. Some people, Mr. Kelly admitted, took advantage of the free A, but many others put more energy into the class. Comparing Prof. Rancourt to other professors who practically give students the questions that will be on exams in advance, the 27-year-old said, “He really pushes you to think more for yourself.”

For now, Prof. Rancourt, 51, is meeting his graduate students in cafés, continuing to advise them unofficially on their thesis projects. He is still receiving his salary while awaiting a final decision from the university. The independent board of inquiry appointed by the Canadian Association of University Teachers may take many months to release a report.

But the professor is undeterred about those A-pluses: “Grades poison the educational environment,” he insists. “We're training students to be obedient, and to try to read our minds, rather than being a catalyst for learning.”

Editor’s Note: On March 31, 2009, the Board of Governors unanimously recommended the dismissal of Denis Rancourt.