The curious case of X - University of Ulster

X was a Lecturer at the Y Department of the University of Ulster. In 2007 he took the University of Ulster to the Northern Ireland Tribunals for unfair dismissal and won the case.

The statement above is fairly innocuous. Academics are dismissed all the time in UK, and probably more often at the University of Ulster. Nothing special. But this time the University of Ulster had a bit surprise: it lost the case. Not only that, the tribunal Chairperson had a very strong comment about Mr. Ronnie Magee, the Director of Human Resources:

 “… The reasons advanced by Mr. Magee for not following a proper redundancy procedure are simply breathtaking in their arrogance and inadequacy…”

Wow, somewhat a bit too strong a criticism! Now, wasn’t Prof. Gerry McKenna accused for similar reasons as the Vice Chancellor of the University of Ulster and needed to go? Then how come Mr. Magee is still adorning the University of Ulster as the Director of Human Resources? Any guess?

The X verdict can be found openly in the web but many other cases against the University of Ulster may not have come to day light in the fear of losing a chance of future employment. It will be interesting to trace and document them.


Reverse Respect and My Mom, the Dean

The default position for me has always been to respect people in inverse relation to their status, money, and authority. The error rate is pretty low but there are times when the privileged can work their way out of the hole and ways for highly respected people to lose my respect.

How does a person come to that view of others? I think when your grandfather comes from Italy at 16 and is told at Ellis Island that his name, Diaco, too hard so he is Ross now, works as a coal miner till he drops dead putting on his boots, marries a hillbilly, has 5 kids and 10 or so grandkids and only two in the lot finish college and your family get togethers are warm, friendly, and happy but always include subjects like nightshift, car payments, trouble with the law, and so on, you learn to respect lower class people and distrust upper class people.

My Mom, one of those 5 kids died two days ago. She worked hard, sometimes a day job and a night job.The last job--at 70 something -- was handing out samples at Publix. By that point she did not need the money but you could not convince her that it was OK not to get up and go to work every day. She never quite understood what it meant to have a Ph.D. or to be a law professor. To her, almost all law was criminal law. She was extravagant in two ways -- gifts to her grandchildren and jewelry (when she thought she was getting a good deal which she actually never really got.)

I cannot help but think how different her life was than mine and how  she might have reacted to some of the things I see in the privileged world of law professors. Let's take some examples and her reactions if she were Dean for a day.

1. A professor tells her  what he will teach, when he will teach, what room he will teach in and how any students are permitted in the class. Her reaction.  "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

2. A  professor with the most expensive education in American asks to "teach" a class of only 12 about feelings. Her reaction: "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

3. A professor asks a secretary to scan a casebook so he does not have to worry about carrying it around. "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

4. Ten or so people want to fly to Rio for a day long conference and then many will branch out and take a vacation essentially on the school's dime. "Could you repeat that because, if you asked what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

5. The Dean (my mom) announces that budgetary problems mean that we should not all have our own separate printers with unlimited toners supplied by the school. One faculty member objects, calling the measure "punitive." And her reaction,  "Could you repeat that because, if you said what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

6.  A faculty member complains about missing meetings because a secretary did not open the faculty member's email and tell the faculty member about the meetings."Could you repeat that because, if you said what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

7. A faculty member proposes  a groovy new teaching arrangement. She will teach in the summer using taped lectures that will be available on line. Even though on line, enrollment is limited to avoid too much grading. For this there is teaching income. And, since the teaching is a breeze, she can also be paid to do research."Could you repeat that because, if you said what I thought, there's the door. Don't come back. I think Publix is looking for people."

I did not tell my Mom about these things and I am not sure why. I think it had something to do with shame, or perhaps the absence of it.

Ottawa's Dismissal of Denis Rancourt

...The Ottawa administration's decision to fire Rancourt, imposing on him the "capital punishment" of labor relations, was even more vigorously opposed than were the lesser punishments dealt to him in preceding years. In a factual, reasoned letter to the Board of Governors dated 5 January 2009, Rancourt defended himself. Well over a hundred professors and students from Ottawa and elsewhere sent individual letters protesting Rancourt's elimination. Even before the axe fell, the Canadian Association of University Teachers had appointed a three-person Committee of Inquiry to investigate the long series of run-ins, dating back at least to the fall of 2005, between the Ottawa administration and Rancourt.

Is this a case of workplace mobbing in academe? Yes — and more precisely, administrative mobbing. (Click here for the standard checklist of indicators, here for the mainpage of the relevant website, and here for a short, basic article.)

What allows so unqualified a diagnosis is that Rancourt has made comprehensive documentation on the conflict (letters, emails, press reports, videos) publicly available on his blog and at For want of adequate information pro and con about a professor's dismissal or humiliation, it is often impossible to make more than a tentative assessment of whether it is a case of mobbing or merely a hard but measured and warranted response to some betrayal of academic purpose. In this case, Rancourt has laid bare to the public the actions that got him into trouble, the sanctions imposed, and what is most important, documentary evidence of both his own and his adversaries' views. Thereby he has bolstered his own credibility. Let other aggrieved academics take a lesson: only in so far as full information is publicly available, the cards all on the table, can outside observers make confident judgments and say things worth listening to.

It is plain from the material online that over time, administrators at Ottawa coalesced in the view that Rancourt, despite his stellar research record and the respect given him by very many students, is an utterly unworthy and abhorrent man, fit only for expulsion from respectable academic company. While administrators appear front and centre in this mobbing case, they are joined by dozens, even hundreds of students and faculty who are after Rancourt's neck. According to Karen Pinchin's trenchant article in Maclean's, "nearly one-third of Rancourt’s colleagues at the school have signed a petition of complaint against him." (Click here to read the petition, unambiguous evidence of ganging up.) Even distant pundits like Stanley Fish and Margaret Soltan piled on.

An email from Chemistry Chair Alain St-Amant is telling. Shortly after Rancourt's suspension, with his dismissal pending, St-Amant apparently agreed to debate him on a TV talk show, but then cancelled out. Rancourt sent him an email asking why, and suggesting that administrative or peer pressure was the reason. St-Amant emailed back, "I refuse to enter a battle of wits with an unarmed man. ... This will be the last you will hear from me on this matter. Enjoy the paycheques while they last." The contempt in these sentences is total. With a clever turn of phrase, St-Amant gives Rancourt the ultimate academic insult, that he has no wits, that is to say no intelligence. Then he cuts off communication and gloats that Rancourt will soon be off the payroll. St-Amant would not likely have felt free to send such a message had he not felt himself part of a campus crowd united by scorn for Rancourt.

From the available documents, Rancourt appears to exemplify a type of professor I described in my first book on academic mobbing, a professor I called "Dr. PITA" — acronym for pain-in-the-ass, or in politer terms, a thorn in administrators' sides, the one who makes them see red. Being a team player is not Dr. PITA's priority. Administrative demands that most professors comply with uncomplainingly are occasions for Dr. PITA to raise questions — and more questions.

Real-life professors can become Dr. PITA for any number of reasons. Administrators usually chalk it up to a personality defect. The documentary record suggests that the reason in Rancourt's case, as in many mobbing cases I have studied, is that he has thought deeply enough about education and the search for truth, to realize how much these noble purposes are subverted by the academic structures established to serve them. 

...Awareness of this downside of institutionalization is a common theme of the varied authors Rancourt cites in support of his own brand of anarchism — Paolo Freire, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, Ward Churchill, among others. 

It was apparently Rancourt's deepening understanding of and commitment to what learning actually involves, that led him to refuse to rank and grade his students in the established, expected way. Since grading is central to the institutionalization of learning, he felt obliged to renounce it. This was the sticking point, the offense that became the main official reason for his termination. As Rancourt plaintively wrote in his letter to the Board, "Socrates did not give grades to his students."

...More often, however, administrators and colleagues find ways to accommodate, sometimes even to honor and reward, the brilliant, unusually effective researcher and teacher whose process of growth has led to reluctance to give grades. Three professors of this kind have written letters of support for Rancourt: John McMurtry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, John Southin, retired Professor of Biology at McGill University, and David Noble, Professor of Social and Political Thought at York University. These respected academics report that their universities managed to put up with them for decades, albeit sometimes grudgingly, despite their own dissent from conventional systems of student grading.

...Why do some university administrations mobilize collective resources to eliminate professors of the Dr. PITA type, professors like Rancourt or McMurtry or Illich, while others somehow make room for them? One key difference is whether the administrators, despite all the bureaucratic pressures upon them, continue to have a feel for what searching for truth actually means. If they still hear that search as a personal call, they cannot bring themselves to demonize, harass, and try to get rid of one who embodies truth-seeking in a pristine way, despite the administrative challenges such a professor poses. They are able to recognize in Dr. PITA not just bothersomeness and impracticality but successful engagement with inquiry and learning, the fundamental goals of a university...

On the other hand, to the extent a university's administrators are of a purely managerial or technocratic frame of mind, they lose sight of the institution's basic purposes and see a professor like Rancourt as nothing more than sand in the gears of the bureaucracy. They react with rigidity, threats, and punishment instead of dialogue... The administrators and their minions begin circling the wagons against the targeted professor, as if he or she were an invading army and the embodiment of wickedness. Compliant and afraid, many faculty and students join the circle. Energies that could be devoted to some kind of search for truth are expended instead on keeping a genuine, successful searcher outside the embattled circle of imagined rectitude.

...One of the things about Denis Rancourt that has led me to pick his case — out of the very many that come to my attention — for commentary here is his impolitic tenacity in telling the truth as he sees it. As if his troubles with the Ottawa administration over the grading issue were not enough, he committed the further transgression of allying himself with the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in defiance of President Rock's well-known sympathies. While drawing inspiration from Noam Chomsky, Rancourt has upbraided Chomsky for not being brave enough and serving power too much. And despite drawing much of his support from the left, Rancourt nonetheless published in 2007, an insightful, scientifically informed critique of one of the left's main priorities, the alleged threat of global warming. Here is a man with little more prudence than the storied boy who said aloud that the emperor has no clothes. Any half-way decent educator has to feel admiration for Rancourt and to be glad that Claude Lamontagne and several dozen other professors and students at Ottawa have gone on record as opposing Rancourt's banishment.

The campaign against Denis Rancourt reflects badly on the University of Ottawa, but few professors can accurately say nothing similar has lately happened in their own academic homes. On the whole, Ottawa is not likely a worse educational institution than most others across the continent. We live in what KC Johnson has called, in a 2009 essay in Minding the Campus, "an era of academic mobbing." Some mobbings arise from the left, others from the right, very many from plain intolerance of a skilled truth-seeker with an independent mind. An era of greater devotion to the classic goal of seeking truth is worth working toward.

The Cruelty and Hypocrisy of Law School Grading Curves

Maybe the most remarkable thing about law professors (and perhaps others) is how 3 years of doing well in law school makes them experts on anything from administration to meditation. Lately, though, I have been thinking about law school grading curves and the lack of rationality created by these self-appointed experts.

I first found out about curves in calculus class. The teacher gave an exam and the best test taker got about 50% of the problems right. The teacher said, not or worry, the grades would be curved. I did not understand why but it was definitely OK with me. I thought curves were for when everyone did miserably but the teacher for one reason or another could not bring him or herself to report accurately how the students did.

When I started law teaching there was no curve. Then, in response to some low graders there was a suggested curve. I do not recall if this cured the low grader problem but it definitely coincided with the "grade race" and grade inflation. This was in the era of student teaching evaluations and the beginning of vanity courses. High grades reduced the risk of bad evals and could pack students into vanity courses if one was known as an easy grader. I might add, this was also the beginning of the -- what to call it -- "do not hurt their feelings"  era and anything might just do that. Actually, I do not mean to criticize this change since most of the harshness, I felt, was contrived.

So in response to a lack of grading norms (or one might even say collegiality) and complaints that the School's GPA meant that our students could not compete with others schools giving higher grades we, like may schools, instituted a curve.  (I never understood the student competition argument. I thought law firm recruitment people would be bright enough, in a world of different curves, to rely on class rank. I was assured that this was not the case.)

So in this era of "be kind to students" the solution was to pit them against each other and ratchet up the competition. Grading became a zero sum grade. No matter how you cut it, if one student were given an A, it decreased the probability that another could have an A. Instead of grading on the basis of each student's merit most schools pit their students in a horse race. It seemed to be welcomed by the students because the numbers were high enough that all horses appeared to win. Eventually, though, they adjusted as they realized that B did not mean "good" but average or, in the case of most curves, below average.

There was, however, an even more bizarre twist. Although the advent of the curve meant that no student was evaluated on the quality of his her work, the argument was made that in some classes, the curve should be higher. The reasoning was that individual merit could be counted in some contexts and for some reason this was in small classes -- yes back to packing them into vanity classes.

In the name of being fair to the students this twist meant students were torn between taking small course in something they had no interest in or even scoffed at  in order to boost their GPAs or taking classes that were often more interesting and more useful. In fact, most law schools, unless they normalize in some way,  now have multiple curves. How many? As many combinations of high and low curve courses possible in an 88 hour teaching load. And, if they then rank the students on the basis of GPAs calculated on multiple different  curves, they are being about as honest in those rankings as they are with their employment figures.

Since it does not change, I assume the students like the increased pressure and the perversion of their decision making and professors will keep doing what is "best" for their students (and for themselves.)

What Are They Thinking??

Law  School graduates are having a hard time finding jobs. It is a sorry state of affairs in part because many of those now graduating may be better at doing what lawyers do than students who graduated years ago. Just like tenure, getting there first may block things up for capable and more talented people.

But this is not why I writing. Law schools are all out to somehow do something "radical." Radical means, in this setting, teaching more skills or making law a two year degree. The demand for more skills is really a call from those in practice for greater subsidization from public and private schools. That may be fine for private schools but I have never figured out where profit making law firms get off asking for handouts in the form of instruction. What is the distinction between that and paying them to hire law graduates. In fact, why not just pay the firms directly and let them to the skills training. After all, the dirty little (not really so) secret fact is that most law professors practiced so long ago or so little that they do not have an inkling of how to teach skills.

The two year degree may be a good idea but, if it is, it has nothing to do with the current crisis. Sure, it means a lower investment in legal educations and and an easier time paying off loan IF salaries do not similarly decline. How many people actually think  the 2 year law graduate is going to demand the same starting salary as the three year graduate?  In short, the two year option is likely as not to leave people exactly where they are.

You can think if it in terms of supply and demand. Demand has shifted to the left or not shifted to the right sufficient to offset the rightward shift in supply. The resulting surplus means unemployment. In theory, wages could fall so there is less or no unemployment and but the salaries would be rock bottom. Just how far they would have to fall to soak up the surplus I do not know. Lowering the cost of a legal education by going to two years does mean less debt. It also shifts the supply curve even further to the right -- an increase in supply. Does increasing the supply of lawyers -- even two year lawyers -- seem like a sensible solution to the current glut?

Again, maybe the two year degree idea is sound but I am not sure how it is viewed as a serious reaction to the current plight of law grads.

Recent develompents in the Denis Rancourt case

Dear friends,

The following links give a recent update for my case.

The University of Ottawa is now funding an aggressive $1 million defamation lawsuit against me.

I am self-represented because I have no money, having been wrongfully dismissed from my tenured full professorship in 2009.

They now want my spouse's house and everything.

The best pre-lawsuit summary of my case is here; it is a chronological list of the incredible things they did: 

Lawsuit summary: 

Maintenance and champerty motion: 

Web page of links for lawsuit:

My new book:
"Hierarchy and free expression in the fight against racism" 

Request for help with legal expenses: 

Please do what you can to inform the public about what the University of Ottawa is doing.


Denis Rancourt