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Freedom of Expression Committee

Letter to UofO Pres. Gilles Patry, from Graeme O'Farrell, 29 May 2007

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Graeme O'Farrell,
High-school student


"High school student loses all faith in U of O administration as Activism Course gets the boot following months of evasions, neglect and deception."


An Open Letter To President Gilles Patry of the University of Ottawa - Take Two
(see original letter)

To Gilles Patry, President of the University of Ottawa,
and to all whom it may concern, including local media

Although I have called your office three times and spoken to two separate assistants, being assured of a call back to address my concerns or to otherwise schedule an appointment to address them in person, the only communication you have offered me is the evasive e-mail attached below. The questions I had for you were simple: Will the Activism Course that had its first successful semester last fall continue this coming fall with a second-year course? Will Professor Denis Rancourt be teaching the course? If not, why? The absence of any call back from your office and the e-mail attached below is proof enough that you deliberately avoided answering these questions.

Does this sound like the kind of behaviour that should be expected from someone in your position? You are given the role of "leader" over "Canada's University", a role of immense responsibility, and yet you will not even talk with the people in your immediate community about urgent and immediate issues. I am even skeptical of your interest to address the concerns of the students and professors working with you. Why should I have lost all faith in your governance of this local institution? To answer that, nothing more is needed than a summary of recent events.

The spring of 2007 brought much anticipation to the students and community members who attended the previous fall's highly successful Activism Course. Attendees of Prof. Rancourt's course were fully aware it was incredibly novel within the University of Ottawa and controversial among the administration. Prof. Alain St-Amant's prejudiced insults to the course notwithstanding, there appeared to be a serious conviction among many professors and administrators that Prof.Rancourt's Activism Course was fundamentally wrong. Even though the critics of the course rarely or never attended, there was much slander, deception and disrespect being thrown by the administration in the direction of Prof.Rancourt and the activists who supported him.

You yourself, Mr.Patry, at first expressed enthusiasm for this new course only to later say in private conversation with a student that Prof. Rancourt "seeks nothing but to create conflict within the University." Mr.Patry, I am curious, did you ever attend a class? If so, I find it hard to believe that you see a professor who wishes to give students a chance to democratically guide course content, to find intrinsic motivation to learn, and the intelligence and willpower to act on what is learned outside of the classroom, as someone who wishes to create conflict. In my eyes Denis Rancourt's efforts as a professor attempt to solve all conflicts by going to the root of them: freedom. If our students are not free to learn, think and act as individuals, how will our society ever solve its conflicts?

It seems to me that, if the university truly wishes to be a "university that places students at the core of its educational mission," as stated in the Vision 2010 academic mission statement, as well as "a university that builds strong partnerships to fulfill its social responsibilities," and "a university that offers equal opportunities to its staff," then it would be a conflict of interest for the University not to approve Prof.Rancourt's Activism Course.

This is however just what has happened. The University, through the executive power of upper administration, has delivered the workload for the coming semester to the professors, and in the process has abandoned all traditions of democratic process and collegiality, things you claim to value quite highly in your evasive letters to every community member who presses you to allow the Activism Course to survive. Ultimately the Activism Course was treated as an illegitimate educational experiment, the attendees of the Activism Course knew it was at risk of being taken away by members of the administration who were used to more orthodox methods after only one semester. The expulsion of two young students and the refusal to supply the same number of TA's other workgroup-modelled classes received were only symptoms of the phobic reaction to this way of learning.

Students, community members, and Prof. Denis Rancourt together organized a rally to advocate the continuation of the Activism Course. A petition for a second year course was begun and nearly three hundred signatures received.

The reason I had contacted you by e-mail Mr.Patry , was because I was unable to attend this rally. I knew my contribution was required somehow, because the Activism Course had benefited me so much. I decided to talk to you directly, and to no avail. Friend and fellow Activism Course attendee Shannon Lee Mannion, tried to talk to you in my place, and again you blocked her out.

Besides evasive rhetoric about the University, you said only that "[...] universities have a long tradition of working in a collegial and democratic environment. It would be inappropriate for the President of a University to decide unilaterally on the content of a program or on what course should or should not be offered in any given year or semester. It would also be inappropriate for the President to decide who should or should not be teaching a given course."

May I ask then, Mr.Patry, if it would be inappropriate for you to decide unilaterally what course should be taught by whom, who is able to do it appropriately? If it wasn't you, it was someone else. At some level, somebody made a decision that the Activism Course not only shouldn't be taught by Denis Rancourt, it shouldn't even be discussed by the Science Faculty Council as a possibility. If the Faculty Council meetings become exclusive to new ideas and student-led initiatives, where is the democracy at the Univesity of Ottawa? Items of discussion were struck from meeting agendas, meetings cancelled and community members forced to leave at the hand of security guards. Where is the long tradition of collegial democratic process? Where is the justice in this backhanded form of decision making?

As far as the administration was concerned, all the effort put into the rally demonstration and petition campaign were for naught. The petition along with a formal proposal for the continuation of the Activism Course and the creation of a second-year course to accompany the first-year course already developed by Prof. Rancourt were meant to be delivered to the science Faculty Council. When student representative Severin Stojanovic attempted to get these items addressed during and before the meeting of the Faculty Council, he was absolutely ignored and blocked. Administrators, among them science dean Andre Lalonde, blatantly refused to put the Activism Course item on the agenda. Community members present at the meeting expressed their dissatisfaction, asking that the by-laws of the University be respected and followed, after which Dean Lalonde forcibly closed the meeting with the use of security guards.

What is so terrifying about an Activism Course that security guards are necessary to end and evacuate democratically founded meetings? The day before this meeting took place, you and Vice-President Major met with three students who spoke on behalf of the students and community members who now assemble under the title "Freedom of Expression Committee" (FEC) to press the issue of free expression at the University of Ottawa.
A student testimony claims that you said at a formal gathering that you were "not afraid of the FEC". There is no reason to be afraid of the FEC, what you should be afraid of however is the image you are putting across by running a University that requires a Freedom of Expression Committee. I can tell you, as a community member, you don't look very good right now. And I can tell you also that, as a high school student, the Univesity of Ottawa is not all that appealing either.

You apparently offered that Denis Rancourt continue his course under the Social Sciences department, saying you would recommend to the appropriate Dean that Prof.Rancourt be the teacher of the "Science in Society" course, known to students as "Activism Course". However you did not make this offer to Prof.Rancourt, but instead to the student council meeting that occurred before the failed Faculty Council meeting. Was this a sincere offer, or merely an excuse to refuse that the course continue under the faculty of science?
During your meeting with student representatives, you refused to give any recommendation that the course continue under the faculty of science and explicitly stated that you could not promise that Denis Rancourt be able to teach the course he created. Based on this meeting, within which there was no decision making process, no "senate approved procedure", the topic of the Activism Course was removed from the agenda of the Science Faculty Council. You expressed in this meeting that you could, if you wanted to, "suggest" that a particular course be given in a particular faculty, even by a particular professor. But you refused to "suggest" that the course Prof.Rancourt created and taught under the faculty of science continue, without any discussion as to the reason why. And since it is obviously not you who makes these decisions unilaterally, I wonder who it is who takes your suggestions, or the lack of your suggestions, so close to heart?

Since then you have received numerous complaints, questions, and suggestions from community members, students and Prof. Rancourt. You have blatantly lied to myself and Shannon Lee Mannion, a columnist at The Citizen, in saying that there was no reason for you to meet with either of us to discuss our mutual concern that the Activism Course was being unfairly vetoed. Citing the "collegial and democratic traditions" within a University, you have effectively blinded the community to the incredibly un-democratic process that is occurring.

Although Severin Stojanovic, student member of the Faculty Council, used only the "senate-approved processes and procedures" you are so fond of to address the item of Denis Rancourt's Activism Course, you completely marginalized the "long tradition of working in a collegial and democratic environment" by condoning Dean Lalonde's prejudiced and evasive actions, ignoring Severin's items on the agenda and turning a blind eye to my letter and many others.
In a public discussion with a student you stated that the FEC did not scare you based on the assertion that it was made of very few people and the rally it organized was small and ineffective. To make such a statement is completely disrespectful towards the more than fifty students and community members who advocate the continuation of the Activism Course.

In spite of the letters in support of the Activism Course, which are neatly organized on the FEC website ( freedomofexpress.tripod.com) if you ever want to read them, sent by people such as Shannon Lee Mannion, columnist at The Citizen; Alroy Fonseca, a policy analyst at the Department of National Defence; Sabrina Bowman, an intern for the office of MP Pat Martin; Gerald Ohlson, a retired diplomat of Canada; Atiya Hussain, the parent of a student who attended the Activism Course; Claude Haridge, an electro-mechanical engineer; Tammy Kovich, student and activist at the U of O; University of Ottawa alumni Conchita Fonseca and Jean-Pierre Thibault; research analyst David Mandelzys; and organic farmer Douglas Grant Budden, you have said to a student that "Dr.Rancourt has been hired to teach physics," that you "have a University to operate," and that you "will not change [your] position on this issue as long as [you] remain Rector of the University."

Contrary to the insults received by members of the administration, the people named above actually attended the course, something that few if any of the course's harshest critics can boast. Did Prof.Andre St-Amant ever attend a course? Did Dean Lalonde? I ask again, did you, Mr.Patry?

On Tuesday, May 22nd, the meeting that Dean Lalonde forcibly closed on April 5th, even though it was against the University by-laws to do so, was continued. The council re-convened and again met with Prof.Rancourt and many students and community members. Media was also present with cameras. For some reason, it was Dean Lalonde's conviction that the meeting should be carried out privately. After asking for cameras to be shut off and being ignored, Dean Lalonde again cancelled the meeting.

Is this how Faculty Council meetings are to proceed every time there is a difficult issue to be discussed? Are prejudiced staff going to be allowed to block student-led initiatives at every turn? What does this evasive action serve?

During the period of science faculty council limbo, Denis Rancourt's workload has been assigned for the coming semester. On it is no trace of what was once his normal teaching routine, and of course there is no Activism Course. Without discussion, without following any procedure whatsoever, the Activism Course had disappeared. Several hundred students and community members have been let down.

During a conversation with a student, you disclosed that a research chair had opened up at the University of Ottawa in the faculty of arts, and the professor to fill that chair would be starting a new "Science in Society" course.

Does it not seem strange to you, Mr.Patry, that you can simultaneously tell community members that the selection of courses and which professors teach those courses is completely beyond your control, tell students that Prof.Rancourt seeks only to create conflict, has failed to carry out the senate-approved curriculum, and cannot be promised any course of his own creation or liking, while another professor is being guaranteed a place to teach "Science in Society" in another faculty? This sounds an awful lot like unilaterally intervening in the long tradition of collegiality and democratic decision making following senate approved procedures, the one thing you have claimed to avoid. Have you lost your ways Mr.Patry? Or are you lying to the public to deliberately manipulate the structure of power at the University? Do you stand by the values and structures you claim to? If so, why is there so much hypocrisy in this story?

Perhaps if there is one valid reason for yourself, Vice-President Major and Science Dean Andre Lalonde to block any attempt at the creation of an Activism Course, it is that it undermines what you would like to see in the curriculum. To truly understand the phobia surrounding this course, we must look at its conception.

The Activism Course was born out of an environmental science course in which Prof.Rancourt employed novel grading methods and course structure which allowed the students to guide course content and to control their own learning process and success. This class was originally seen as unacceptable and the administration immediately tried to put an end to it, saying that the curriculum was not being followed, a complaint also being made now.

Although the Dean demanded the course stop, Prof.Rancourt and students proceeded with their novel ways of learning and effectively became academic squatters. By the end of the semester it seemed to be a huge success to those who attended and the administration appeared to soften just enough for the class to continue into the next year. Students, community members and Prof.Rancourt entered into a very long battle to have the course formally accepted the following semester that involved numerous meetings and lengthy negotiations.

The force of reason was on the side of the students, and administrative fear gave way to acceptance that a new "Science in Society" course be given, a course that would become known as "Activism Course". But that didn't mean that the administration had come to terms with this new pedagogy. Quite the contrary, resistance to the course was present up to the very last moment of its creation when the student-written course description and curriculum was changed behind the backs of the students.

The whole point of the Activism Course was and is to put the curriculum in the hands of the students, so it seems benign to say that the curriculum was not followed by Prof.Rancourt. The Activism Course was founded on the demands of students, and the real tragedy about all of this trouble going on now is that it needn't have ever been. There would be no legitimate reason to block the Activism Course if only at the beginning of the fall semester you had allowed the student-approved curriculum to guide the course and committed to a new era of democratic education: the student democracy. Instead, the course description was secretly changed at the last moment, a surprise to the students when they saw the formal course description on the U of O website. The changes were minor enough that the course went on without Prof. Rancourt's pedagogical methods being compromised, but nonetheless the curriculum has served as a repeated excuse for you to implicate Prof.Rancourt and the activists who made the Activism Course possible in disobeying the rules.

This is, ultimately, what we are really facing here. Students are trying to find freedom over their own education, and the administration is blocking them at every turn, imposing dominant values, asserting that they know what's best for the students, even better than the students do. Here's a question Mr.Patry: Is it ethical for any rules, be they within a curriculum or University by-laws, to deprive a student of their freedom to engage in free thought, expression and action? Is it ethical for any person or institution to control the lives of our students, our most precious resource? Whether the curriculum was followed or not doesn't matter. Whether the course content was controversial or not doesn't matter. Whether ten year olds or non-registered students got something out of the course doesn't matter. What matters is that, for the duration of at least one course, the students get to write the curriculum for a change. Students deserve at least that much, they deserve educational freedom.

The Activism Course must exist because the students require it to exist, and it is not up to you or to the professors to intervene on their behalf. If the students want to learn about topics that you don't think relate to "science in society" that is really not so bad. Students learning about activism is a good thing, even if it means you have to dish out a few more TA's. What is really important here is that you are meeting the demands of the students and not the other way around.

I know, I know Mr.Patry. You have a University to run. You can hardly be expected to listen to every student's complaints and to address them all. You can hardly be expected to allow every student or professor with a wild idea to have absolute academic freedom in the University. But surely you can listen to the united voice of three hundred students and community members compiled on a petition. Surely you can listen to a committee of over fifty members whose reason to exist is to bring freedom of expression to the University of Ottawa. Surely you can listen to the students and community members who are directly involved in your democratic processes, attending the Council meetings. Surely you can listen to your own University by-laws. Surely you can listen to the mission statement and vision you helped conceive.

I urge you Mr.Patry, listen to reason. Allow democracy to function as it normally would without the prejudice of traditional teaching or the executive dominance of higher administration. It is not up to you to run this University. It is up to you to facilitate the operation of the University of Ottawa by helping the thousands of students who actually run it.

The Activism Course will go on, no matter how much resistance there is in the University of Ottawa. It is not just some inconsequentially novel course, it is the future of education. I urge you to attend just one class. You will see the demand is too great, and the risks too minimal, for the Activism Course to be forgotten after one successful semester.

I, like many others, am taking the only course of action I know how to take: I am speaking out. I am writing to you, I am telling my friends and family, and I am signing the petition that calls for the Activism Course to be immediately reinstated or otherwise your resignation along with Vice-President Major and Dean Lalonde. It is my sincere hope that you are able to see what great potential lies in this student-led initiative, but it is also my sincere hope that if you cannot, you will be replaced with someone who will.

Best of luck to you Mr.Patry
May peace be with you.

Graeme O'Farrell

see also: Letter to Patry from Graeme O'Farrell, 25 March 2007

back to: Letters to Patry 2007

back to: Press Releases