Four years ago, former University of Ottawa physics professor Denis Rancourt lost a libel suit to University of Ottawa law professor Joanne St. Lewis. The case took a strange turn of events following a student-produced report alleging systemic racism in the university’s Academic Fraud process. Rancourt backed the report’s conclusions; however, when professor St. Lewis, who is black, challenged the findings,Rancourt referred to her in a blog as then President Allan Rock’s “house negro,” a remark that initiated the libel suit.
To assess the validity of systemic racism, St. Lewis and Rancourt employed two very distinct approaches. St. Lewis chose to critique the student-produced report’s methodology, whereas Rancourt chose to attack St. Lewis personally. The label “house negro” was purely diversionary. It side-stepped the fact that Rancourt could not prove the existence of systemic racism. The case is important because it highlights one of the primary functions of a university professor, that being, a duty to support truth claims with credible evidence.
Rancourt based his position of systemic racism on a 2008 Student Appeal Centre (SAC) report concerning “unfair practices at the University of Ottawa” (p. 4). As the SAC report noted, “Out of the 48 students who consulted the Student Appeal Centre between November 1, 2007 and October 31, 2008 with cases of academic fraud, 71% were visible minorities. Arab, Black and Asian men and women – these are the students that most often get accused of academic fraud. This systemic racism at the University of Ottawa must stop” (p. 9). Ironically, not a single minority whose testimony was highlighted in the report claimed that racism played a factor. In fact, one of the witnesses even understood that “what she did was contrary to the policy on academic fraud” (p. 5) and that she had made “an honest mistake” (p. 6). Moreover, Student Appeals Centre Coordinator Mireille Gervais admitted that the SAC report was not scientific; rather, it was based in the centre’s experience meeting with hundreds of individual students.  Despite these red flags, Rancourt remained convinced that systemic racism played a causal role in accusations of academic fraud against minorities.
However, Rancourt fell into the trap of confirmation bias. Convinced that systemic racism existed, he ignored other possibilities that could potentially undermine his claim. For instance, visible minorities may not have adjusted to the university’s expectations. As the SAC report admitted, “We observe that many international students are unfamiliar with our overly strict system of academic fraud” (p. 9). As well, English or French may not be their first language, a reality that compromises their ability to understand complex instructions, especially those surrounding plagiarism.
Unable to establish a causal link between racism and accusations of academic fraud, Rancourt relied on ad hominem attacks to discredit Professor St. Lewis. In December, 2008, Rancourt’s blog, U of O Watch, “likened Professor St. Lewis’ evaluation to academic fraud, and criticized the evaluation as unprofessional, intellectually dishonest and lacking in independence.” This is ironic since then President Allan Rock made it clear in an e-mail (dated November 12th, 2008) that the administration “imposed no limitations, constraints or conditions” on St. Lewis’ report and that “she has been entirely free to say anything she wants” . When Rancourt’s claim of systemic racism failed to gain traction, he shifted the debate to St. Lewis’ character, twice referring to her in his 2011 U of Oblog as Allan Rock’s“house negro.”
St. Lewis’s Approach
Professor St. Lewis began by examining the evidence behind the claim of systemic racism. She refuted the SAC report’s conclusions, noting how the entire analysis was based on “less than 1% of the total student population”  (p. 1). St. Lewis added, “it is the methodological failures and the lack of substantiation that make the [SAC] report most troubling” (p. 2).
Unlike Rancourt, Professor St. Lewis did suggest other possibilities that may have contributed to a student’s misunderstanding of plagiarism guidelines. These included: the year of study of the student, previous academic experience, prior experience writing papers and personal life experience (p. 6).
Because the SAC report did not control for any of these variables, St. Lewis concluded that it did not establish the claim of systemic racism “in any reasonable or analytically plausible fashion” (p. 13). Although the SAC report indicated that minorities were accused of academic fraud, it could not adequately explain the “why” of that reality (p. 14).
That said, Professor St. Lewis could not categorically exclude racism, so one of her recommendations suggested that the university’s administration “conduct an independent assessment to determine whether systemic racism plays any part in the Academic Fraud process” (p. 15).
Instead of demonstrating precisely how accusations of academic fraud against minorities were racially motivated, Rancourt distorted the issue by relying on personal attacks against Professor St. Lewis. This tactic eventually resulted in a libel suit, which Rancourt lost. The case would have never reached the courts had Rancourt admitted to oversights in his own analysis of the SAC report’s data. His first mistake—jumping to conclusions—led to his second error in judgment: adopting ad hominem argumentative strategies.
The credibility of the SAC report’s methodology was key to understanding whether systemic racism undermined the Academic Fraud process. Professor St. Lewis clearly demonstrated why the methodology was weak. In contrast, Rancourt ignored the report’s flaws and accused St. Lewis of being Allen Rock’s “house negro.” Once sued by St. Lewis, Rancourt claimed victimhood status, declaring that his “free speech,” not his lack of academic rigor, was the issue. The lesson here for professors is simple: truth claims must be substantive. Conjecture only clouds the issue.
- Mireille Gervais, cited in Brendan Kennedy, “Student racism report flawed.” The Ottawa Citizen, 26 November 2008, C.3.
- Personal e-mail. Allan Rock, Subject: SAC Annual Report, November 12th, 2008.
- Professor Joanne St. Lewis. “Evaluation Report of Student Appeal Centre 2008 Annual Report.” University of Ottawa, November 15, 2008.