Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy

Posted on Categories Higher Education

Stanley Fish’s most recent column in the New York Times (The Two Languages of Academic Freedom, Feb. 8, 2009) is a good read. Fish tells the story of Denis Rancourt, a tenured full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa. Professor Rancourt is (or perhaps, was) a serious scientist, at least if his profile page at the university’s website is accurate. Under the heading “Main Discoveries and Contributions,” he lists the solution to the Invar Problem of metal physics, the derivation of the fundamental quantification relation of X-ray diffraction, the reactive diagenetic Fe-oxyhydroxide phase in lake and marine sediments, the description of the phenomenon of superferromagnetism, and advances in Mossbauer sprectroscopy methodology and in layer silicate crystal chemistry and geosensors. He lists scientific publications with titles as opaque to a lawyer as the aforementioned “discoveries and contributions.” He was tenured at the U of O in 1984 and far be it from this old lawyer to second guess his academic qualifications.

What gets this obscure Canadian professor a column in the New York Times is not his solution of the Invar Problem of metal physics, but rather the fact that he is a self-professed and practicing academic anarchist. His profile describes himself as “an activist, anarchist, and critical pedagogue.” If his anarchistic activism were limited to speaking and writing, he would be just another campus radical. What got him headlines and an official Recommendation of Termination of Employment from his $120,000 professorship was his pedagogical activity. For example:

In 2005, without administration or general faculty approval, he experimented with using pass/fail grades in lieu of letter grades.

  • He also changed course content from what appeared in official university publications, a process in which he sought and obtained the consent of only the students enrolled in the course, a practice he calls “academic squatting.”
  • He created and maintained an anarchist blog sharply critical of the university administration and urging other professors to engage in “academic squatting.”
  • When the university revoked the enrollment of 10 year old twins who registered with their mother for one of Professor Rancourt’s courses, he supported the twins’ filing of a human rights complaint against the university claiming ageism.

On the first day of Professor Rancourt’s 4th year physics course in the second semester of 2008, he announced that each of the 24 senior and graduate-level students would receive a grade of A+. As the Globe and Mail newspaper reported, “it was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be ‘information transfer machines,’ regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become ‘scientists, not automatons,’ he reasoned.” This turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. On December 10th, Rancourt was informed that he was being placed on academic suspension and recommended for dismissal from the faculty. He was also locked out of his laboratory and barred from campus. When he came to campus to host a meeting of his film society focused on social activism, he was arrested, handcuffed, and charged with trespassing.

It appears that the university authorities are in the process of deciding whether to dismiss Rancourt. The Canadian Association of University Teachers is independently reviewing whether Rancourt’s academic freedom has been or is about to be violated.

(For a more complete picture of Professor Rancourt and his relationship with his university, see the videos at YouTube when you search “Denis Rancourt.”)

Was the university justified in suspending Rancourt? In locking him out of the laboratory as well as the classroom? In banning him from campus? In having him arrested, cuffed, and criminally charged with trespass? In dismissing him (if dismissal occurs)? Stanley Fish has little sympathy for Rancourt. He wrote:

Last week we came to the section on academic freedom in my course on the law of higher education and I posed this hypothetical to the students: Suppose you were a member of a law firm or a mid-level executive in a corporation and you skipped meetings or came late, blew off assignments or altered them according to your whims, abused your colleagues and were habitually rude to clients. What would happen to you?

The chorus of answers cascaded immediately: “I’d be fired.” Now, I continued, imagine the same scenario and the same set of behaviors, but this time you’re a tenured professor in a North American university. What then?

I answered this one myself: “You’d be celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom.

He added that “some academics contrive to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom . . .”

I confess to having some sympathy for Rancourt.

I have long had a deep hostility to the tyranny of academic grades. In my second year of law school teaching, I made a written motion to the faculty that we shift from our (then) numerical and oppressive grading system to a pass/fail/honors system. Not surprisingly, the motion failed for want of a second. Over a couple of decades of teaching, I encountered many students who more interested in the grade to be obtained from a course than in mastery the subject matter. Competition for grades and class rank led to joy and anticipation for some students but dejection and resignation for many more. Both those at the top of the class and those in the vast middle tend to place much too much emphasis on grades. I recall vividly one young man crying in my office. He received a very creditable grade in my evidence course, but it wasn’t quite an “A” and his class rank was not in the top 10%. He was going through a rough time with serious illness in his family so his law school performance was hardly the only thing on his mind, but he felt like a failure. I asked him what grade he got for honesty, what grade for good judgment, what grade for empathy and the ability to relate well to other people, etc. He looked at me as if I were nuts, of course, but I reminded him that there’s a lot more to becoming a good and successful lawyer than the grades one gets in law school. He is practicing today in one of Milwaukee’s well respected medium sized law firms. I can’t know but I suspect he is an excellent lawyer, every bit as capable as his classmates who received higher grades.

In my third year of teaching I engaged in a subversive initiation of anonymous grading. I was appointed to the faculty upon my graduation from the law school in 1970, i.e., in the middle of the Vietnam War. I had served in Vietnam in the Marines prior to starting law school in 1967 and by 1969 I was no longer subject to being called back to active duty as a member of the standby reserves. Most of my classmates on the other hand were subject to the draft and many were in fact drafted. Many others joined the active reserves in order to avoid the draft. When they finished their 2 years of active duty as draftees or 6 months of active duty as reservists, they returned to complete their legal studies. Thus when I started to teach (and test and grade) students, some of my former classmates were now my students. There was a fair amount of paranoia about grades in those days and the last thing I wanted to deal with was claims of favoritism towards friends and former classmates. I also didn’t want to deal with tension I might feel grading the bluebooks of students who were my friends, so I devised an anonymous grading system and used it – without clearing it with the administration or the faculty. Why? Because I knew it would never be approved. Better to seek forgiveness than permission. As I expected, I had a number of very upset colleagues when my transgression was discovered.

I never thought there were academic freedom issues in connection with my unhappiness over the law school’s examination and grading policies in the 1970s, but there were rare occasions when such claims arose. One visiting professor awarded a large number of very low grades and refused to change them in the face of great student, faculty, and administrative displeasure. Academic freedom? When a student complained to a former dean that his passing grade in one course was too low, the dean had the protesting professor produce the exam and blue book to be reviewed by an associate dean. Academic freedom? A junior faculty member assigned a mid-semester book review to his class of 1Ls, causing a senior professor to complain that the assignment led many students in his class to plead “not prepared” when called upon in the days before the assignment was due. Pressure was put on the junior faculty member to stop requiring midsemester book reviews in his class. Academic freedom? When grading norms were adopted by the administration with faculty concurrence, some faculty members claimed infringement of academic freedom. True?

I suspect that 99% of law professors go through their entire careers with no issue of academic freedom arising. This is probably a good thing, certainly better than living with the kind of the kind of intense campus turmoil created by Professor Rancourt. I vote with Stanley Fish on this issue.

One thought on “Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy”

  1. Great piece, I read about this professor on another site, and you fleshed it out nicely.

    I think Rancourt may be pushing for things far too forward-thinking for their time. I can clearly see where he is coming from with his ideas, and they make sense in a completely different, much more anarchist society.

    As it is, I found it rather humorous to read the quote from Stanley Fish. His quip about the differing perceptions of nonconformity within North American universities and the corporate world may better serve to illuminate a need for democratic reforms in the corporate workplace than cast a dubious light on the reasonableness of the ivy tower.

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