A University of Ottawa physics professor who was suspended after awarding automatic A's to his students to protest against the tyranny of tests and grades is receiving mixed marks from academics across North America - some offering high scores, others flunking him.
His case has become a talking point for academic freedom: When does a tenured professor cross the line from exercising intellectual independence - a tenet of university life - to failing to live up to his job description?
The University of Ottawa administration has decided the latter, recommending to its board of governors, in a rare move, that senior physicist Denis Rancourt be dismissed from the school, in addition to banning him from campus. A statement from the university said the reasons include Prof. Rancourt's refusal to follow a grading system, which challenged the "credibility" of a degree from the school and ignored the fact that students need marks to win graduate positions and scholarships.
The decision, however, follows years of conflict with Prof. Rancourt over course curriculum - in particular his practice of discussing politics in science classes - and complaints from many of his faculty colleagues about his conduct. Prof. Rancourt, who describes himself as an "anarchist," insists that properly teaching science requires a consideration of social issues, and that eliminating the pressure of grades allows students to focus on learning.
But while supporters say the university has been heavy-handed in its treatment of the veteran professor, they also acknowledge that his combative stand with colleagues, and claims that his suspension is linked to his political views - in particular his criticism of Israel - have only fuelled the dispute. Most recently, an editorial in a campus student newspaper, The Fulcrum, sided with the university, criticizing Prof. Rancourt's ongoing "harassment" of the administration.
At the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, general counsel Alan Borovoy said that "universities should always err on the side of professorial freedom." But in that context, the professor is still required to do his job, he said. If grading is required, he suggested, then "even though the professor may think this is a reactionary and Neanderthal practice, that professor would nevertheless be obliged to grade his students."
A more openly critical position was taken by Stanley Fish, a professor of law at Florida International University, who wrote in his blog for The New York Times that Prof. Rancourt is an example of turning "serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom." There is a difference "between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world," said Prof. Fish, who has written a book arguing that professors overreach when they instruct students on ethics and morality.
"That's nonsense," said Robert Gaucher, a recently retired law professor at the University of Ottawa. "Of course we bring our political views; how do we leave them aside? Professors spout off in all directions during their lectures."
Dr. Gaucher, who wrote a letter of support for Prof. Rancourt, suggests that the broader issues at stake have been obscured by the rancour between the two sides - citing in particular a January incident that saw the professor escorted off campus in handcuffs when he attended a film society meeting.
"What happens in the classroom has to be discussed more broadly," he said. As for the suggestion that professors should strictly follow curriculum, he asked, "Well, what is the curriculum, who created it, and what was their point of view?"
Aruna Srivastava, an associate professor of English at the University of Calgary who has also written a letter backing Prof. Rancourt, said that while she may not support all his actions or politics, she believes he raises important questions about accepted teaching practices at universities.
Like Prof. Rancourt, Prof. Srivastava prefers to allow students to guide the format of classes, and participate in their own grading process. While the concept is more commonly accepted in humanities than science faculties, she says she has also experienced disapproval for her approach. Of Prof. Rancourt's case, she says: "The university shouldn't be setting up a fort mentality against people it doesn't like. In fact, academic freedom says the university should protect people it doesn't like."
Until the university's board of governors rules on the case, Prof. Rancourt has been suspended with pay.