Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How far should we go to protect academic freedom?

Noam Chomsky once said "If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.". I couldn't agree more. See we have this tenured professor at Ottawa U who likes to stir shit, his name is Denis Rancourt. One day he decided to turn his environmental class into an activism class and decided to fight the powers or "speak truth to power" as he likes to say. He decided to get rid of the grading system and give A+ to everyone because grading maintains an oppressive class system that legitimizes the heredity of the rich elite. I personally would have been pissed if it had been my class and I was genuinely interested in learning about environmental chemistry, but certainly don't oppose those ideas being taught on his and his student's own time. He then practiced what is known as academic squatting (link to his blog) to show political documentaries and invite speakers and allow both students and the public to be exposed to those ideas in the university's space. Finally he put up a website whose sole purpose is to document anything that would be suspicious about the university called UofOwatch. In short he stirred shit.

Of course the university blew a fuse, he was stripped of teaching duties, cannot mentor graduate students, all the lawyers went after his UofOwatch site for libel and copyright infringement, and they tried to shut down his cinema night because it didn't include access for the deaf. See this is where the university failed to do the right thing. Yes he shouldn't be teaching activism in a chemistry class, yes it is inappropriate for him to have graduate students, because he doesn't do research but why make a martyr out of him. What's wrong with debating ideas and exposing students and the public with controversial political thoughts, what's wrong with criticizing the administration. If they had legitimized him instead, well he would've been largely ignored anyways, and the university could have taken the moral high ground. Instead we are at risk of losing academic freedom and the role of universities to promote free speech and discourse.

See that's the kicker, I don't agree with anything I've ever heard coming out of his mouth: I don't think global warming is a plot to keep the masses in fear, I don't think corporate interests control all academic research, I don't think chemotherapy has never been proven to work, I don't think tenure forces professors to turn into sheep, I don't think higher education stops us from thinking on our own, but goddamn it I do think he should be allowed to proclaim those ideas without being muzzled. Because if we don't let this professor criticize our university and expose his cockamamie ideas, then when somebody comes with something important to say we wont be able to hear them. So I appeal to you Mr. A-ROCK, someone I admire a great deal more than Denis, do the right thing. Remember the days when you organised peace conferences and brought Lennon to Canada, or when you came within a smidgen of passing the pot legalisation law as a justice minister? I want that guy back as my university president.


rob said...

Now who's stirring shit?

Anonymous Coward said...

it's been too quiet here...

Larry Moran said...

I don't think you need to worry too much about this one. The Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) has already won a major victory in defending Rancourt and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) will certainly step in if necessary.

As you point out, this is clearly a case where the university is wrong. It's hard to imagine what they were thinking.

Is it true that the university's lawyer, Michelle Flaherty, has resigned?