Notice: This interview was recently updated to include parts of our interview with Denis Rancourt that were previously omitted.
Professor Denis Rancourt was recently fired by the University of Ottawa for giving every student in his fourth-year physics class an A+. Maclean’s OnCampus spoke with him Monday morning to find out what he’ll do next.
When did you find out that you had been fired?
I found out the day after they made the decision. The Executive Committee of the Board of Governors made the decision on March 31, and a couriered letter was sent to my house April 1.
Were you surprised when you got that letter?
“They [the school’s administration] had to violate the rules to have the meeting on that day. And they did explicitly say that they did not consider key documents, which they were obliged to consider. Even they admit that they violated the rules. That in and of itself was surprising, because normally they would have seven months to study this very complicated case, with hundreds of pages of documents and everything. Instead the administration sent the committee members some of the documents only days before the meeting, or made them aware that they existed and could come and see them, or something like that, literally just a few days before their meeting. Some of those documents they saw only at the meeting. And the documents I was entitled to submit by that day’s deadline? They explicitly said they didn’t look at them.
School to A+ professor: you’re fired
Do you think they intentionally ignored the initial legal brief that you sent them?
Yes, and I’ve got in writing. Of course they’re not allowed to do that. The lawyer of the faculty association has called it a “fatal procedural error.” No, no, no. It’s unheard of to have committee meeting on the day of my deadline to submit the brief. Depending on what lawyer you talk to, the deadline is either the end of the workday or midnight. You don’t schedule the decision day on the same day as the deadline. Normally they take weeks, months, so they never rush it like this. This was steamroller-style pushing it through as fast as they could.
How did you react? The last time we spoke, you seemed pretty convinced that you wouldn’t be fired.
My association lawyers are the most conservative legal people I know, and they are saying that this is a violation of natural justice principals, that this was a fatal procedural flaw, and that you cannot go there. I’ve never seen them say anything like that before. They normally pick up the pieces after it’s done, but this was preemptively their position. It was clear. If anyone reads the collective agreement, you really need to wonder what [the administration] is doing. It really gives the impression of a gang of thugs pushing someone out. I was surprised that they would be that bold.
Have you responded at all?
To the university? There’s nothing to respond to. The letter basically says, “We’re going to put your stuff in boxes and ship it to you” and “give us all your keys and identity cards immediately.”
What are your next steps, then?
The first thing I did was ask my faculty association to give their recommendations for the wording of the grievance where I would grieve wrongful dismissal. They just responded today, and I was just reading that. It is very, very clear that the professor’s union is going to fight this vigorously. They want to win this, and they want to do it in such a way that the least possible amount of harm comes to me. It’s very clear from their communication with me that that’s where they stand. I’m pleased about that.
Were you relieved that the faculty association came down on your side?
I’m relieved to see that they’re finally going beyond just their legal responsibility to give me fair representation. They’re professional sense has finally kicked in, in the sense of standing up for me in a real way. They’ve hired a fairly high-profile labour lawyer here in Ottawa, Sean McGee, who is very highly regarded. He’s going to be leading the case in coordination with the staff association lawyer whose name is John Henderson. They’re teaming together and it looks like they’re going to put together a good case.
Is it strange to you that this case is now totally out of your hands?
Yes, it is strange. My personality is such that I don’t like to not have standing. I don’t like to leave it to others, I like to be in control and to be completely informed about what’s going on. You have to understand that even legally speaking, my union has standing. They can decide to settle the case, and they can design and run the case however they see fit. They have some responsibility to consult me, and they have to keep me informed, but they have standing, I do not. That’s a feature of labour law in Ontario, and that is a little bit unnerving, but that’s the way it is.
So what are you planning on doing with your time now?
It doesn’t really give me more time, because these legal proceedings are very, very demanding, and there’s a lot of them. You have to understand that I have something like over 20 grievances in the works. At this stage it’s becoming a full-time job. In addition to that, I have almost as many Freedom of Information requests in with the university that involve hundreds and hundreds of documents. They’ll almost all go to appeal, because it appears that the university considers it its job to not follow the Freedom of Information Act. They’re resisting every step of mine to get information.
What subject are those Freedom of Information requests on?
I want all information about the offices of the administrators. It’s mainly requests of that type. I’ve been getting some really surprising evidence, unambiguous proof that they were hiring reporters, spies to come and listen to my talks about the university. I have copies of these reports and I have lots of evidence that they hired and nurtured a student spy, for years. A spy who, under a false identity, went around joining Facebook groups and things like that, collected information and regularly sent it to legal counsel at the university. So there are dozens and dozens of e-mails from this person to legal counsel at the university. I could talk about that whole spy story for an hour, because it’s really interesting. Some students, who were close to the spy, found out and actually provided me with an affidavit of their conversations with the spy, about her activities.
Are you planning on digging your heels in, or would you ever consider a teaching or researching position somewhere else?
There’s a side of me that says, “You have these nice potential offers, people are rumbling, people are contacting you, you could just leave,” but there’s a lot more people who are insisting on the fact that this isn’t just about me, and that I have a responsibility to stand and fight this one. Because if [the administration of the University of Ottawa] wins, it will be quite a blow for academic freedom in Canada. The [Canadian Association of University Teachers’] executive director [Jim Turk] has made it very clear that this isn’t just about me. They’re investing a lot in this through their independent committee of inquiry, and they want to get to the bottom of this and ensure that academic freedom is protected. My friends are telling me that they’ll back me, but that I need to take this on. It’s in my nature to take it on, to want to obtain justice, and in addition to that, there are a lot of people telling me that I don’t really have a choice.
If that’s what I wanted to do, I’m sure I could secure something. There’s a minority of colleges and universities that pride themselves on hiring dissidents and hiring people who innovate on the pedagogical side and who inspires students. There are a number of those in North America, and even a few in Canada.
Which of these universities have approached you?
I don’t want to name names, but there are quite a few both in North America and in Canada. If you look at the letters of support on my website, then you could probably figure it out.
Are you concerned about your professional prospects?
My firm position is that the university administration doesn’t have a case and that we will win this. I am going to fight this vigorously alongside with my union. The biggest enemy here are all the forces that don’t want us to dig, if you know what I mean. They don’t want these Freedom of Information documents to come out, they don’t want us to discuss the power influences that are at work here. From the media that has come out now, to me, it appears that it’s part of a coverage that would ensure that we don’t touch the real points, that we fabricate something superficial about what’s going on here. That’s what’s happening right now in most of the media.