In 2008-2009, when physics professor Denis Rancourt was mobbed by a coterie of administrators at the University of Ottawa and formally drummed out of the faculty, he took an action that served both his own and the public interest: he published online as much evidence about the events as was then available. That enabled me to analyze the campaign against him, drawing insight from it for understanding basic dilemmas in the institutionalization of research and higher education, dilemmas that underlie many cases of academic mobbing.
I intended the analysis of Rancourt’s dismissal that I published in 2009 to be an enduring contribution to the scientific study of mobbing. Nothing has happened since to make me change my mind. The analysis is as valid now as it was then. Click here to read it.
Over the past dozen years, three noteworthy bodies of additional evidence on the Rancourt case have become available. First, thanks to his steadfast efforts to hold those who ganged up on him accountable, new information has come to light about the role, secret at the time, played by Quebec psychiatrist Louis Morissette. Second, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), to whom Rancourt appealed for help in 2008, at long last answered his appeal in 2017, publishing a lengthy report on his dismissal. Third, while Rancourt has been embroiled these past dozen years in legal proceedings pursuant to his being mobbed, his adversaries in the campus conflict moved on to other challenges that let us see his mobbing in broader perspective.
These three new bodies of evidence enlarge our understanding not just of Rancourt’s mobbing but of the general process. Accordingly, the paragraphs below summarize each of them in turn and provide links to relevant documents.
The nefarious role of Louis Morissette
At the 2010 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), Joan Friedenberg, Mark Schneider, and I identified and described a common technique in administrative mobbing, the hiring of an outside expert (psychologist, psychiatrist, lawyer, specialist of some kind) to write an assessment of the target or of the associated conflict. In most cases, this consultant takes a cue from the party that foots the bill and writes a report that blames and disparages the target, thereby lending professional or scientific approbation to the target’s punishment or ouster. Click here to read our three interrelated papers from the APA meeting.
It turns out that this technique was deployed against Rancourt in the last months of 2008, just prior to his dismissal in March 2009. The senior administrators of the University of Ottawa – President Allan Rock, Provost Robert Major, University Secretary Natalie Des Rosiers, and Science Dean André Lalonde – engaged the Quebec psychiatrist, Louis Morissette, to make a clinical assessment of Rancourt and provide them with an opinion of his mental state.
Morissette came through as expected, saying Rancourt had a profile of dangerousness and might react violently to being disciplined. Morissette therefore recommended that Rancourt be denied access to his lab, which contained some radioactive materials, that a security officer escort him from campus, and that he be investigated for firearms possession and a criminal record. Morissette’s report, in effect, diagnosed Rancourt as mentally deranged, dangerous, and deserving of forcible removal from the university. This diagnosis undoubtedly carried extra weight, given that in 2005, Morissette had testified in defense of the notorious serial killer Karla Homolka, saying she was not dangerous and should be released.
Morissette’s assessments of Homolka and Rancourt differed also in that he actually met with the former before pronouncing on her mental state, while he never laid eyes on the latter. Morissette diagnosed Rancourt by meeting for two hours with Rancourt’s chief adversary, Dean Lalonde, and by studying information Lalonde gave him, including excerpts from Rancourt’s radio program.
It is a measure of how total was the administrators’ debasement of Rancourt, how complete their positioning of him outside the circle of respectability, that they did not inform him at the time of Morissette’s report on his mental state. Rancourt learned of the report’s existence only 38 months later, in February 2012, during an arbitration proceeding related to his dismissal.
A further measure of the administrators’ contempt for Rancourt is that even after he learned of the existence of Morissette’s report, they refused to give him a copy. So did Morissette, despite Rancourt’s repeated request. It took more than five further years of appeals to the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and later to the Superior Court of Justice, before the university finally, in October 2017, gave Rancourt a copy of Morissette’s report. This was nine years after Morissette wrote it, nine years after Rancourt’s dismissal from the university.
Predictably, once he read the report, Rancourt filed formal complaints against Morissette for professional misconduct, most notably for having made his diagnosis without interviewing Rancourt, without reviewing his medical file, but instead using false information provided by Dean LaLonde. A three-member disciplinary tribunal of the Quebec College of Physicians upheld this complaint in a decision issued in February 2022, finding Morissette guilty of violating its code of ethics. Click here to read the decision in the original French at the Canadian Legal Information Institute, or here to read it in English translation on Rancourt’s own website.
The main value of the tribunal’s decision for present purposes is not that it convicts Morissette on some charges and acquits him on others, but that it documents in a careful, authoritative way how this psychiatrist assisted the University of Ottawa administrators in their successful collective effort to get rid of a troublesome professor. Altogether apart from Morissette’s flawed procedures, the most important conclusion I draw from the tribunal’s decision is that Morissette’s diagnosis of Rancourt’s mental state was drivel, just plain wrong. Proof of its wrongness is that Rancourt has remained nonviolent these past 15 years despite extreme provocations. He is indeed dangerous, but not because of a short fuse or propensity to violence, instead because of the power and independence of his mind and his stubbornness in seeking truth. As was said of Diderot, Rancourt has the courage of his convictions.
The report of CAUT’s one-man Committee of Inquiry
A second body of noteworthy new evidence is the Report of the Independent Committee of Inquiry into the Situation of Dr. Denis Rancourt at the University of Ottawa, issued by CAUT in December 2017. Its origin lies in Rancourt’s request to CAUT in 2008, when the Ottawa administrators were in the midst of dismissing him. Rancourt asked CAUT to intervene on his behalf. In response, CAUT established a three-member committee to investigate his situation.
CAUT has not made public why this committee never produced a report, only that it resigned in 2017. It is a fair guess that the members had trouble reaching agreement, and that the CAUT leadership was itself so conflicted that the Rancourt case was left hanging year after year. In May of 2017, CAUT constituted a new “committee” consisting of just one man, industrial psychologist Victor Catano, a former CAUT president. Catano produced his report in seven months. Click here to read this 22-page document, CAUT’s formal, official response to Rancourt’s request nine years earlier.
Catano’s report deserves the most careful study for the conception of a university it is rooted in. The university is understood to be essentially like a business corporation. On one side is the party that holds the power, namely management, administrators from president on down to deans and department chairs. On the other side is the party that does as it is told, labour, professors and others who sell their work for pay. Relations between management and labour are governed by a collective agreement that sets the terms of sale, that is, spells out what management is and is not allowed to tell labour to do, and the amount and kind of remuneration labour receives in return. This is the model of a university that has gained currency across Canada since World War II. Most faculty associations of individual universities have won recognition as unions under provincial labour relations acts. These associations negotiate collective agreements with university administrations. CAUT has been a major proponent of professors unionizing. Increasingly, this is the orthodox conception of what a university is.
Catano single-mindedly viewed the conflict surrounding Denis Rancourt in terms of labour-management relations and the collective agreement at U Ottawa, as if this were the only lens through which the conflict could be seen. Accordingly, he came down firmly and unequivocally on the side of the university administration against Rancourt: “The University of Ottawa was justified in terminating Dr. Rancourt for insubordination. He was not fired for his ideas or beliefs, but rather for persisting in violating the Collective Agreement by not grading on an objective basis after being warned on several occasions to do so.” Nowhere in Catano’s report is there a whisper of sympathy for Rancourt’s side of things, not a whisper of doubt in the objectivity of grading schemes, not the slightest hint that Rancourt might have something to say worth listening to. The Ottawa administrators could not have wished for a better defense of their actions against Rancourt than they got from CAUT.
Fortunately for Rancourt and for the cause of seeking truth, the local faculty association at Ottawa showed broader, more complex understanding of the nature of a university than CAUT showed in Catano’s report. Further good news was that Jacques Frémont succeeded Allan Rock as President of the University of Ottawa in 2016. With a background in human rights, Frémont was more open to resolving the dispute with Rancourt. Responding to pressure from academics across Canada (as reflected, for instance, in this petition at change.org), he authorized negotiations between the university, the faculty association, and Rancourt, toward a settlement of all outstanding issues surrounding Rancourt’s dismissal. The well-known lawyer and mediator, William Kaplan, presided. By an agreement dated 16 January 2019, all matters in dispute were amicably resolved. Given that the University of Ottawa is a public institution, I find it regrettable that the terms of the agreement were not publicly divulged, but that regret pales beside my delight that, unlike in many mobbing cases, reconciliation was at long last achieved.
Extraneous, post-mobbing events
The third bit of new evidence worth pondering consists of post-mobbing events in the lives of key participants, events that put Rancourt’s mobbing in wider perspective. While a mobbing is underway, the key players tend to be well-nigh obsessed with it — the target above all, understandably, but also the target’s main supporters and the leading figures on the other side, the people trying to bring the target down. Mobbing is similar in this respect to war and other kinds of rancorous conflict. It is not the sort of activity humans engage in casually. People get caught up in a mobbing as if their lives depended on how it turns out — as the target’s life indeed sometimes does.
Yet no mobbing is ever the only game in town. Myriad other social processes are unfolding around and in the midst of it. In the heat of conflict, a workplace can seem to be a closed system, but it is not. It is always just one footstep in the ragged, scrambling march of history that extends across centuries and to the ends of the earth.
When I read the Quebec tribunal’s exposé of how the Ottawa administrators managed Rancourt’s ouster, including their use of a hired-gun psychiatrist, I wondered how this fairly damning news would be received by the administrators. I therefore googled their names, looking to see where they are now.
In this way I learned that André Lalonde died of cancer in 2012, at the age of 57. As Dean of Science, Lalonde had carried the ball for Rancourt’s dismissal. A two-hour interview with Lalonde was the main basis for Morissette’s diagnosis of Rancourt’s mental state. Just as Rancourt was unable at the time to respond to what Lalonde said about him, so now is Lalonde unable to respond to what anybody says about him — a good reason to be gentle and generous.
The same point applies to Victor Catano, who wrote the CAUT Report saying Rancourt got what he deserved. A year and a half after he wrote the report, in May 2019, Catano died at the age of 75.
Nathalie Des Rosiers, the Dean of Law and University Secretary who formally engaged Morissette to write his assessment of Rancourt, seems to have thrived ever since. She was General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association from 2009 to 2013 — a position for which she must have had some other qualification than the inattention to Rancourt’s civil liberties she showed in her dealings with him. Des Rosiers was elected to the Ontario Legislature in 2016 and 2018, and served as Minister of Natural Resources in the Government of Kathleen Wynne, but then resigned her seat in 2019, to become Principal of Massey College at the University of Toronto.
The lesson in extraneous events like these for the study of academic mobbing is elementary but too often ignored. Mobbing is not the be-all and end-all of anybody’s life, not even the target’s. It is one chapter, one episode, of a longer story whose duration and composition depend mainly, though not entirely, on fate. The role a person plays in a mobbing — target, guardian, rescuer, mobber, chief eliminator, bystander — is just one of the parts a person plays in a lifetime, just one of the exits and entrances Shakespeare wrote about. Besides dealing with the hard fact of being mobbed, Rancourt has busied himself as an independent scholar since 2008. He is well-known as a critic of the conventional wisdom on climate change and he maintains a rich and informative website.