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|Written by Alroy Fonseca, Illustrations by Adrian Steves,|
|Sunday, 05 October 2008 19:00|
Since 2005, University of Ottawa Professor Denis Rancourt has been showcasing political documentaries every Friday during the regular school year. These evening engagements are quite the show. By 7pm, at the MacDonald Hall auditorium, scores of students and community members – consisting of retired seniors, young professionals, local activists and other assorted characters – arrive to take part in a joint viewing of films documenting various issues of contemporary social significance.
During its last two seasons, Ottawa Cinema Politica (CP) - as it was up until recently referred to - has screened films such as McLibel (which follows activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris as they fight McDonald's attempts to stifle public criticism), The Iron Wall (which documents four decades of Israeli settlement expansion on Palestinian lands) and, most recently, Zero (which reviews inconsistencies in the official account of the 11 September attacks). But perhaps the most interesting part of the evening is the open, free-flowing discussion and debate that follows the film, in which participants can talk, meet new people, and organize further action if the will exists. Indeed, the event soon became a forum of sorts for community and campus activism, and thus a node of resistance against the local establishment.
This past summer, however, the university’s high administration denied Professor Rancourt the right to book rooms for the film screenings, effectively cancelling CP for the coming academic year. Yet, in doing so, the university - perhaps unwittingly - began a fight with Rancourt over the meaning of academic freedom that could set profound precedents.
While Professor Rancourt, who is a faculty member of the Physics department, has had many battles with the university over the years as a result of his relentless criticism of its “undemocratic" approach to governance, and has been viewed with disdain by the high administration at least since he started teaching the so-called Activism Course in 2005, the current round of controversy relating to CP began in the Fall of 2007, when Genevieve Deguire, a community participant in the film series, requested sign-language interpretation for the screenings from the university. Her request was turned down on grounds that the university, which made a profit of $52 million in fiscal 2008, found the costs of hiring an interpreter prohibitively high. Ms. Deguire responded by filing a complaint against the school with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC), which is charged with administering the province's Human Rights Code – a law that explicitly states that “deafness or [a] hearing impediment” are disabilities that cannot be discriminated against. The case is before the Commission as of this writing but, in July, the university’s administration circumvented the process underway by banning CP from campus.
Curiously, in her letter announcing the ban to Rancourt, University Secretary Pamela Harrod wrote that “you are not entitled to request your academic unit to reserve a meeting room on behalf of Cinema Politica as its activities are unrelated to your workload”, even before stating that the lack of interpretative services would be a violation of the Code. This seems to imply that Rancourt, who enjoys full tenure, does not have the right to engage in on-campus teaching activities beyond those dictated from above. As Rancourt has argued, though, a professor has legally-protected academic freedom to teach in a novel forum, such as the community-focussed Cinema Politica.
The relevant regulations appear to be on his side. For instance, the Collective Agreement held by the Association of Professors of the University of Ottawa (APUO) explicitly states that faculty are allowed to “contribute to community projects which are related to the role of the university” as part of their recognized “workload”. Thus, given this rather evident violation of his right to perform “academic service”, Rancourt appealed to the newly appointed president, Allan Rock, in July but did not receive a response. Rock later provided comments for The Fulcrum, the school's undergraduate student newspaper, to the effect that “there are facilities all over the city” that can host CP. In other words, the issue was not up for discussion or reconsideration.
The controversy over CP has always been about more than providing interpretative services. Fundamentally, it is about power and control – that is, the university high administration’s ability to exert power and control over a professor who is actually making use of that special academic privilege known as tenure to challenge his employer’s undemocratic approach to decision-making.
Nevertheless, opposing CP is a bizarre position for the administration to take as the film series fits-in rather well with the university's “academic strategic plan” – a pamphlet entitled Vision 2010 and published in 2005. The plan asserts that a core value of the university is to “encourage freedom of expression in an atmosphere of open dialogue, enabling critical thought, supported by intellectual integrity and ethical judgment.” The document also states that the school will “strengthen our programs and perform our social, political and community-outreach roles thanks to productive ties with ... social and community associations...”
It is difficult to think of many other university-based initiatives that so regularly bring together students and community members in an “atmosphere of open dialogue” and “critical thought” as CP. (In fact, the other example that comes to mind is Rancourt's now banned Activism Course.) But it doesn’t stop there. Vision 2010 further claims that the administration will ensure “that the student body has the benefit of an education that goes well beyond the academe,” that it will promote “diversified means of learning,” and that it will ensure that “students’ experience at the University profoundly marks their future as responsible citizens who are aware of local, national and international social and community issues.” Now, to anyone who has attended CP, it is evident that all these ideals seem to be more than clearly embodied in Professor Rancourt’s efforts.
Throughout most of his recent struggles with the university, Rancourt had been rather isolated from other faculty and, now prevented from booking rooms, it appeared as though the film series he had been running over the past three years was dead. But in late August a group of students and community members formed to agitate for CP’s continuation. And then, remarkably, Rancourt received support from two professors.
First, Professor John Jensen of the Department of Linguistics wrote in support of CP to Mr. Rock. This was then followed by the intervention of Professor Claude Lamontagne, a tenured professor of psychology with three decades of teaching experience and two ‘teacher of the year’ awards as well as a 3M fellowship under his belt. Lamontagne took it upon himself to book the auditorium under his own name and make it available for Rancourt’s film screenings in early September, which the two professors jointly renamed Cinema Academica.
Asked why he joined Rancourt’s fight against the university at this point, Lamontagne explains that he had been following Rancourt’s extensive open correspondence with the high administration and was “puzzled” by the latter’s unwillingness to address the points being raised. “They had remained completely silent, refusing to comment on the extremely detailed and relevant questioning of academic issues contained in Denis’ open letters. It is not at all that I agreed with Denis on all that he was saying, but I had always conceived of the university as the ultimate place for debate,” says Lamontagne.
Yet, Lamontagne himself has faced resistance from his faculty for siding with Rancourt. On the afternoon of September 5, the day of the season’s first film screening, Lamontagne received a message from the Dean advising that he would unilaterally cancel the room booking for that evening (a threat he did not make good on) and all subsequent Fridays for the rest of the term. On September 12, however, Lamontagne provided a written response to his Dean informing him that he had no authority to cancel the room bookings and that the film series would proceed as planned. Since then, the Dean has apparently not been heard from and has not dared to cancel the room bookings as he originally claimed he would do.
This story of Professor Rancourt’s struggle to make Cinema Academica an accepted part of his official duties is of particular importance because it strikes deeply at the issue of freedom. The University of Ottawa, like most modern universities, is happy to tout high-minded principles and slogans espousing community-building, diversified learning, and academic freedom in its strategic planning documents, but try invoking any of these to authentically question the democratic credentials of the high administration – as Rancourt has repeatedly done over the years - and all bets are off. (In Rancourt's case, this has led to serious disciplinary action being handed down by the Executive of the Board of Governors.)
Lamontagne recalls that over his 30-year teaching career he had frequently organized a film club tied to his classes and that nobody tried to cancel his room bookings. “In fact,” he attests, “I was congratulated for my extra efforts at offering a rich and diversified learning environment to my students, and I would argue this played an important role in my being awarded the major signs of recognition for excellence in teaching, locally, provincially and nationally.”
“But never,” he adds, “did I challenge anything critical for the ‘authority’.”
In the midst of this battle, the psychology professor notes that he is “very concerned” about the amount of power held by the high administration. But what concerns him even more is “the amount of power they implicitly claim to hold, as they act, which is far greater than the amount they can actually justify holding.” A program of resistance is thus required, he declares.
Professors in western universities are afforded some of the greatest labour protections around by virtue of various regulations and potent collective agreements. But it often seems that few actually use tenure and academic freedom to make a positive difference where, according to Rancourt, it counts most: their own workplace. This seems to be Rancourt’s key message as he continues the fight for Cinema Academica and, it appears, he is slowly making progress and winning new allies.
As Rancourt always says about tenure: “Use it or lose it.”