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Rancourt’s case to pick up in January

Former U of O professor fighting a legal battle with the university
Courtesy of Denis Rancourt

ARBITRATIONS TO DETERMINE whether former U of O professor Denis Rancourt should be reinstated, which took place on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, have been adjourned until early 2012. The case—which shut down after opening statements were made—was delayed at the request of the University of Ottawa, asking for more time to determine whether or not Rancourt’s teachings could be thought of as “experiments.”

“[The case] hasn’t really gone anywhere yet,” said Rancourt. “We just keep adjourning all the time.”

Rancourt, who was fired in April 2009 for telling the students of two senior-level physics classes  they would achieve As in his class on the first day, has been trying to regain his status as a professor since the controversy began.
Rancourt says he wanted to remove the fear of obtaining a poor grade to improve his students’ focus on learning. In opening statements, the U of O said this method showed a “reckless disregard” for students.

“From the university perspective, it’s not about pedagogy, nor is it about academic freedom,” said the U of O’s counsel at the arbitration. “This isn’t a novel case about academic freedom. This is a downmarket case of an individual fired for some very basic behaviours that involve dishonesty, breach of trust, [and] insubordination.”

The counsel also claimed Rancourt deceived André Lalonde, dean of the Faculty of Science, about the manner in which classes under Rancourt’s supervision were being conducted. Rancourt’s counsel disagreed.

“This is a case about whether or not a professor can adopt a methodology in his teaching, and defend and protect that methodology without fear of reprisal,” said Sean McGee, counsel for the Associate Professors at the University of Ottawa and Rancourt’s legal representative. “Calling this grading experiment academic fraud is a shocking hyperbole from such an institution.”

“He was conducting an experiment in which he made an assumption that people could be driven to learn in such an environment, and that he could work with his class to prove his assumption correct.”

In an interview after the hearings, Rancourt disagreed with his counsel, denying his behaviour qualified as “experiments.”

“I’ve never used that word,” said Rancourt. “I think it misrepresents what’s going on in that classroom. Whenever you are in front of a class, you’re doing something that’s called teaching. Depending on the methods that you choose to use, there are going to be different responses.”

One of the issues raised at the arbitration was the introduction of evidence that has developed since Rancourt’s dismissal, which could build a stronger case for the university. These include emails from Rancourt to his students and posts on his personal blog.

The U of O also brought up alleged defamation of professor Joanne St. Lewis on Rancourt’s blog—the post in question suggested St. Lewis was acting like “Allan Rock’s house negro.” She currently has a pending defamation lawsuit against Rancourt.

“I clearly do not believe that it’s defamatory,” said Rancourt. “I’ve written a statement of defence for the court that’s online that explains, in detail, how it’s not defamatory. Some people are of the strong opinion that for me to use racial terms that applied to a black person, as a white person, is improper. There are others who are of the opinion that this kind of criticism is essential to making society better.”

The U of O Communications Officer Vincent Lamontagne declined to comment on behalf of the university, saying doing so would be in breach of the confidentiality regulations to which they are legally bound.
No decision has been made as to whether post-dismissal evidence will be included. The next date for arbitrations is Jan. 23, 2012.