Pushing Academic Freedom Too Far

In a truly astounding display of arrogance, a Canadian professor announced that he would devote his physics class not to teaching the students physics, but to trying to turn them into zealous opponents of “the system.” And almost as astounding, the university had the nerve to say “No, you don’t.”

Denis Rancourt teaches (rather, used to teach) at the University of Ottawa. He is vehemently opposed to allowing universities to serve as “boot camp in the service of capital.” That line gives you a good idea of his political philosophy. Capitalism is the universal enemy and universities should be churning out students eager to take it on.

Since the University of Ottawa did not, however, see that as its role, Professor Rancourt decided that he would “squat” one of his courses; that is, use it to teach what he wanted to rather than what the course was supposed to cover. Why waste valuable time with “Physics and the Environment” when profit-driven global finance is wrecking the world?!

He wrote about that theory in his blog, Activist Teacher, but has since taken the post down.

University officials were not amused.

This was not the first time Rancourt had clashed with the university. A few years back, he had created a course on “activism” that the university subsequently canceled. The final straw came when he adopted a policy of assigning all students grades of A+ against university policy that professors evaluate students. This time, university officials suspended his employment and banned him from the campus. They might even fire him, although the procedural hurdles to firing a tenured professor are daunting.

However the case turns out, it’s a severe embarrassment to those who say that the problem of politicized college teaching is simply a myth invented by conservative reactionaries who need an issue to rile up the rednecks. Denis Rancourt was perfectly open about his desire to use his classroom to motivate students to leftist activism.

The interesting question regarding l’affaire Rancourt is whether the professor’s conduct can be defended.

Asking whether this flagrant insubordination and breach of contract can be defended is rather like asking if theft is defensible, but in the academic world, strange arguments are made all the time. Writing about the case recently, Professor Stanley Fish made at least a half-hearted attempt at defending Rancourt , saying that it all depends on whether one takes a broad or a narrow view of academic freedom.

Under a “narrow” view, this is a slam-dunk. Rancourt is not doing his job. Academic freedom means that a professor can’t be penalized for his research, writing, and utterances, but it does not confer license to ignore the terms of his contract. It doesn’t mean that professors are so important that ordinary rules of law such as the need to abide by contracts are waived.

Is there a “broad” view? Rancourt thinks so, claiming that academic freedom is “the ideal under which professors and students are autonomous and design their own development and interactions.” Instead of saying that students and professors are free to do what they want but not to violate university rules and contracts, Fish vaguely suggests that Rancourt’s view has some validity and can only be defeated by “an essentially political decision.”

No doubt Rancourt and Fish would complain loudly if someone else pulled this relativistic “I just have a broader view than you do” stunt on them. If their respective universities paid their salaries not in money but in discarded library books of supposedly equal value, saying that they were taking a broader view of the contract, Fish and Rancourt would be upset, and justifiably so.

Or, turning to politics, I’d wager my last dollar that both were highly exercised at former President Bush’s assertion of a broad view of executive powers.

There is some “gray area” around the edges of academic freedom. For example, just how unscholarly does a book have to be before it becomes illegitimate for a professor to use it in a class? (That was at the core of the dispute at Wellesley College that I wrote about here.) “Squatting” courses to teach whatever you think is most important and ignoring school policies to make a statement are far beyond the edges, however. Someone needs to tell Professor Rancourt that however laudable his goals may be, he ought to try to save the world on his own time.

Wait a minute—that’s the title of Stanley Fish’s latest book! I reviewed his Save the World on Your Own Time , agreeing with his fundamental argument that professors are not supposed to teach anything but the subject matter of their courses while in class.

Problems mount in a society when people start to think that the rules don’t apply to them because they have such elevated goals and such deep understandings. The University of Ottawa is doing the right thing in upholding respect for contracts. If any other school should ever think about employing Denis Rancourt, its officials should make it plain to him that his job is to teach physics, not his view of the world.