Professor Denis Rancourt & Academic Freedom

In response to the recent firing of Professor Denis Rancourt from the University of Ottawa (detailed here), my colleague Dr. Marc Spooner has written and sent a letter to the President of Ottawa U, Alan Rock. This is a passionate, well-written piece that outlines important ideas for those who defend the principles of academic freedom. I commend Dr. Spooner for his bravery and action.

RE: Professor Denis Rancourt & Academic Freedom

It is with a great deal of regret that I compose this letter. However, an overwhelming sense of alarm compels me to write to you as the president of the University of Ottawa because your institution is my alma mater, the university where I received my doctorate, worked as a part-time professor, and served many years as an elected representative on the Graduate Student Association (GSAED, 1999-2004). Collegial affiliation is a powerful “tie that binds”, and I cannot pretend that momentous events at the place that shaped me as an academic are of no concern to me now that I have taken a position elsewhere.

So it is with immense dismay that I read two recent articles in the Globe and Mail (February 6 & 11, 2009) outlining the suspension, possible firing, and forcible arrest and removal of Professor Denis Rancourt from the University of Ottawa campus.

It was at the U of O that I came to understand the power of the great ideals that have always guided the Academy. Ideals that are fundamental to the Academy’s role in a progressive and inclusive society and so compelling that if borne in mind for even a moment would surely disbar us from allowing faculty disagreements, academic differences, and/or bruised egos to cloud our judgment and let the petty politics of the day win out.

At your behest the university invoked an armed branch of the state, the police, to squelch speech. This speech did not promote hate nor incite violence, but simply took a critical view of the institution itself, and the larger polity it serves. The university’s action was not only irresponsible, but reprehensible, anathema to the very cornerstone upon which the academy rests.

There must be space for dissent and critical reflexion in a pluralistic and peaceful society and universities ought not shirk their responsibilities in this regard. To the contrary, they ought to be shining examples of it– beacons of freedom, diversity, and rational and passionate dialectic. In a world where, all too often, parties seek to resolve conflict at the barrel of a gun, or through force and intimidation, a university’s role as a space for dialogue and respectful disagreement becomes all the more evident and all the more vital. As the first point in the CAUT’s policy statement on academic freedom1 reminds:

“Post-secondary educational institutions serve the common good of society through searching for, and disseminating, knowledge, truth, and understanding and through fostering independent thinking and expression in academic staff and students. Robust democracies require no less. These ends cannot be achieved without academic freedom.” (Source)

As to the specific of Professor Rancourt’s grading policy: I first implore that we do not make the fallacious assumption to mistake grades for learning. Second, to suggest that under a pass/fail (or in Dr. Rancourt’s case an all “A”) approach students do not learn, become unmotivated, or that such a system is not a well-respected and credible marking scheme is simply unfounded. I proffer the University of Saskatchewan’s medical school and the University of Prince Edward Island’s Bachelor of Education program as two examples; the former highlights that, even with something as self-evidently important as a medical doctor’s education and training, such a system can be employed to great success; the latter is an example of its adoption by those who research and practice effective pedagogy.

Professor Rancourt and I worked on several projects in my time at the University of Ottawa that I truly believe made tangible contributions to the campus, community, and greater society, despite not always sharing one view of the way forward. Had I been in his position these last four years I no doubt would have employed a different set of tactics than those utilised by Dr. Rancourt throughout his longstanding conflict with the Physics Department, the Faculty of Science, and the Central Administration. Although Dr. Rancourt’s tactics, or my tactics, or anyone else’s tactics, might offend, a discussion of them is simply not germane when the issue at hand is the fundamental right and essential need for universities to respect academic freedom and divergent viewpoints.

I believe in my academic colleagues. I believe in their intelligence, their expertise, their experience, and in their difference. I also believe that our actions should follow that which we profess. To act on anything less than the belief in the fundamental principles of academic freedom is an assault on the creative act of teaching, and an insult to the abilities and expertise of our colleagues as we seek, in the ideal, to serve in the public interest.


Marc Spooner, Ph. D.

Centre for Future Storytelling

The MIT Media Lab has announced the creation of the Centre for Future Storytelling through a Partnership with Plymouth Rock Studios.

With the establishment of the center, whose research program begins immediately, the Media Lab and Plymouth Rock Studios will collaborate to revolutionize how we tell our stories, from major motion pictures to peer-to-peer multimedia sharing. By applying leading-edge technologies to make stories more interactive, improvisational and social, researchers will seek to transform audiences into active participants in the storytelling process, bridging the real and virtual worlds, and allowing everyone to make their own unique stories with user-generated content on the Web. Center research will also focus on ways to revolutionize imaging and display technologies, including developing next-generation cameras and programmable studios, making movie production more versatile and economic.

Future of Storytelling

This is an exciting project and I look forward to the innovation and possibilities that emerge in the coming years.

No, THIS Guy Is Edupunk

My friend and colleague Marc (who really needs a blog) alerted me to this story regarding a recent legal ruling in the matter of the University of Ottawa and the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (UPUO). The case arose when the U of O charged that Professor Denis Rancourt “had misrepresented his course in a detailed web posting, in such a way as to have described a dramatically different course not compatible with the official course description.” The 65-page ruling the case supported Dr. Rancourt’s actions as within the purview of academic freedom.

But here is the stuff I really like! See these pieces of the ruling that help to describe how Dr. Rancourt led this controversial course.

The ruling establishes that pedagogical innovation and implementation are fully protected under the academic freedom enjoyed by a professor, including the choice of grading system – considered an integral part of the pedagogical method.

In the specific case, the protected pedagogical innovations included:

(a) A large fraction of the class time used to present societal and political material – in a physics course intended to deliver fundamental physics concepts as the only required physics course in an environmental studies program – as a way to motivate student learning and to position the science in the broad societal context. This was achieved using invited scientist and non-scientist speakers that included activists, politicians, community workers, etc. The ruling clarifies that no “exception [was] taken to the use of activism and social and political issues as catalysts to learning.”

(b) Parallel student workgroups with evolving themes and freely changing student memberships and town-hall-style whole-class discussions instead of traditional lectures delivered by the professor.

(c) An open invitation to all community members to freely and fully participate in the class, without necessarily officially registering and paying tuition, as a way to bring in the community to enrich class discussions and strengthen relevance and community connections. This brought in a variety of perspectives and expertises that would otherwise not have been available.

(d) Large latitude in individual student decision making regarding: order in which to learn things (e.g., workgroup membership and topic), depth of treatment, method of study, method of reporting progress, degree of cooperative work, etc. (Sharing was not considered cheating.)

(e) A satisfactory/non-satisfactory (S/NS) grading system rather than the traditional letter grade system (used in all other science courses given that term).

I have been very lucky that my Faculty and University has been supportive of my work in pursuing several similar approaches in my teaching. I am pleased to see the results of this case so positive for Dr. Rancourt as it has the potential to help other professors take risks toward passionate and creative forms of teaching and learning.

Learn more about this story here.