A novel interpretation of academic freedom

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to this column by Stanley Fish.  I’ve copied four excerpts below:

My assessment of the way in which some academics contrive to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom has now been at once confirmed and challenged by events at the University of Ottawa, where the administration announced on Feb. 6 that it has “recommended to the Board of Governors the dismissal with cause of Professor Denis Rancourt from his faculty position.” Earlier, Rancourt, a tenured professor of physics, had been suspended from teaching and banned from campus. When he defied the ban he was taken away in handcuffs and charged with trespassing.

What had Rancourt done to merit such treatment? According to the Globe and Mail, Rancourt’s sin was to have informed his students on the first day of class that “he had already decided their marks : Everybody was getting an A+.”


Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” a style of teaching derived from the assumption (these are Rancourt’s words) “that our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet” (Activist Teacher.blogspot.com, April 13, 2007).

Among those structures is the university in which Rancourt works and by which he is paid. But the fact of his position and compensation does not insulate the institution from his strictures and assaults; for, he insists, “schools and universities supply the obedient workers and managers and professionals that adopt and apply [the] system’s doctrine — knowingly or unknowingly.”

It is this belief that higher education as we know it is simply a delivery system for a regime of oppressors and exploiters that underlies Rancourt’s refusal to grade his students. Grading, he says, “is a tool of coercion in order to make obedient people” (rabble.ca., Jan. 12, 2009).

It turns out that another tool of coercion is the requirement that professors actually teach the course described in the college catalogue, the course students think they are signing up for. Rancourt battles against this form of coercion by employing a strategy he calls “squatting” – “where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.”

And then:

Rancourt first practiced squatting when he decided that he “had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.” Accordingly, he took the Physics and Environment course that had been assigned to him and transformed it into a course on political activism, not a course about political activism, but a course in which political activism is urged — “an activism course about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.”

Clearly squatting itself is just such a “defiant or non-subordinate assertion.” Rancourt does not merely preach his philosophy. He practices it.

How did Rancourt’s supervisors respond to his activities?

The record shows exchanges of letters between Rancourt and Dean Andre E. Lalonde and letters from each of them to Marc Jolicoeur, chairman of the Board of Governors. There is something comical about some of these exchanges when the dean asks Rancourt to tell him why he is not guilty of insubordination and Rancourt replies that insubordination is his job, and that, rather than ceasing his insubordinate activities, he plans to expand them. Lalonde complains that Rancourt “does not acknowledge any impropriety regarding his conduct.” Rancourt tells Jolicoeur that “Socrates did not give grades to students,” and boasts that everything he has done was done “with the purpose of making the University of Ottawa a better place,” a place “of greater democracy.”


  1. cymast

     /  February 11, 2009

    Rancourt’s ideas are noble, but his demonstration of them is not, IMO. Rancourt’s students paid money for something they did not receive.

  2. acilius

     /  February 11, 2009

    I wouldn’t even agree that his ideas are noble. The U of Ottawa should be enmbarrassed that it let him use its resources to carry out his clownish escapades for so long.

  3. lefalcon

     /  February 17, 2009

    That his approach to education is desperately needed in the world of today is amply validated by how these “powers-that-be” respond to what he’s doing: first they attempt to understand but cannot; then they answer with brute force. We’ve seen this script played out thousands of times in various contexts; and will continue to do so, until more people can discover the inner resources to throw our grim societal “programme” into question.

  4. acilius

     /  February 17, 2009

    Fight the power!

  5. lefalcon

     /  February 17, 2009

    Well said. In every time and age, men have endeavoured to kill that which they were not prepared to comprehend. We are no longer Neanderthals … but we still possess the requisite FORCE OF STRENGTH to deliver a few blunt strikes against the Dean’s abdominal region. Take that, you bastard!

  6. acilius

     /  February 18, 2009

    Fuck yeah! Take that, you crusty old dean!

  7. cymast

     /  February 18, 2009

    I identify “Fight the Power” with Flava Flav and NWA:

    When that video first came out I was quite awestruck, and actually a little afraid . .

  8. cymast

     /  February 18, 2009

    Point of clarification- “NWA” the self-identifying empowerment, not the band.

  9. acilius

     /  February 18, 2009

    I was amazed when Northwest Airlines put the logo “NWA” on its planes- all I could think of was “Northwest With Attitude.” Considering the way Northwest’s employees treat the passengers, that was amazingly truthful advertising.

  10. cymast

     /  February 18, 2009

    How funny, all I could think of was the original “With Attitude.”

  11. acilius

     /  February 18, 2009

    I don’t know if Northwest has an all-white staff, but all the Northwest employees I remember from my flights with them were white. I can say with confidence that on those occasions when I got stuck with a Northwest flight they had an all-rude staff. I’ve never really been aware of how much power the flight crew of an airliner has over the passengers in the coach cabin except when I was on a Northwest flight. They never miss a chance to let you know that you’re at their mercy. I’ve been able to avoid Northwest for the last several years, so they may have changed, but I doubt it. If they had enough masochists buying tickets from them to stay in business through the 90s and the first couple of post 9/11 years, I’m sure they wouldn’t have changed their business model since.

  12. cymast

     /  February 18, 2009

    Wow. My first career aspiration (I was in middle school and we had to pick a career aspiration and do a report on it) was Flight Attendant. (Well, actually it was Airline Stewardess, but whatever.) I spent a full day imagining myself in every career I could think of and that was the 1 career that I could imagine myself not hating.

    Whenever I fly I don’t pay attention to the airline or the attendants. Though wasn’t it Jet Blue that made its passengers sit in a plane for an entire day before taking off? I would’ve gone ballistic. No question.

  13. acilius

     /  February 18, 2009

    “Whenever I fly I don’t pay attention to the airline or the attendants.”

    Fly North-Worst and you’ll have no choice but to pay attention to them. If you have a bag in the overhead compartment, they’ll irder you to put it under the seat in front of you. If you have a bag under the seat in front of you, they’ll order you to put it in the overhead. Once, the same flight attendant ordered me to take a bag out of the overhead compartment at the beginning of a flight, then came by and ordered me to put it back in the overhead compartment. Both times she was irate.

    They also like to order you to change seats. Once they did that to me four times on one flight. That was the flight when I noticed the sign in the jetway as I exited that read “The customer’s always right? Not necessarily- we value our employees.” I haven’t flown NWA since.

  14. cymast

     /  February 18, 2009

    That’s amazing. You would’ve had quite a different experience had I been an attendant on your flight.

  15. acilius

     /  February 19, 2009

    I’m sure! The more I think about it, the more it seems to me Northwest must have been catering to customers who enjoyed being controlled and humiliated. It’s like the Monty Python sketch where someone walks into an office and the person behind the desk greets him with a barrage of insults. “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” the visitor protests. “Oh, you must have the wrong office, then. This is Insults.”

  16. cymast

     /  February 19, 2009

    ” . . catering to customers who enjoyed being controlled and humiliated.” You described my current job perfectly. How did I get so off-course from my flight attendant aspiration?

  17. acilius

     /  February 19, 2009

    Maybe that’s a future for the airline business. They could offer as many options as PSO lines do. NWA seem to have cornered the market for dominance and abuse, several others seem to be vying for the “ignore” trade. Of course, they all offer financial domination.

  18. cymast

     /  February 19, 2009

    hmmm . . you certainly are current on PSO . .

  19. acilius

     /  February 19, 2009

    Oh, that’s just a small part of my Great Wealth of Knowledge.

  20. cymast

     /  February 19, 2009

    OK, now we both know “Great Wealth of Knowledge” has to be somewhere in our new tagline.

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