Cover-ups 101 at University of Ottawa

On January 14, Denis Rancourt – the University of Ottawa’s notorious “activist teacher” – released a report detailing allegations that the University hired a spy to covertly monitor his activities in the period leading up his (contested) dismissal. The accused spy has denied the allegations, University officials have systematically declined to comment (or else ignored communications), and the story has remained largely untouched by mainstream media. But no amount of apathy and no amount of detractors have been able to bust Rancourt’s stack of hard facts.

Dr. Rancourt was dismissed from his tenured position at the University of Ottawa in March 2009. The University’s official statements (first here and then there) affirmed that “the grounds for the [dismissal] include Mr. Rancourt’s assigning a grade of A+ to all students enrolled in his fourth year physics course and his Master’s level course.” Although the University here suggests that teaching method is just one part of the problem, the rest of those “grounds for dismissal” have yet – a year later – to be unearthed.

Rancourt argues that grading and pedagogical method are enshrined in fundamental principles of academic freedom, and there exists expansive support for Rancourt’s teaching methods among Canadian academics. Conversely, former U of O VP-Governance Nathalie Des Rosiers argues, “the collective aspect of academic freedom (the principle of autonomy of academic decision-making through department and faculty councils) suggests that it is not contrary to academic freedom to adopt binding academic regulations about grading, content of courses, etc.” But a question that begs to be answered is, who decides what “academic freedom” really is: academics, or administrators?

The University of Ottawa’s administration has made no secret of their opinion on the matter, and Rancourt’s dismissal is currently being grieved. But now added to that grievance is another, against the University’s alleged acts of subterfuge. Rancourt was alerted to the surveillance activities by one of his students, Abla Abdelhadi, in February 2008. Abdelhadi’s friend, Jennifer MacLatchey, was the roommate of biochemistry major and student journalist Maureen Robinson – who allegedly bragged to MacLatchey that Dean of Science André Lalone had hired her to spy on Rancourt. Abdelhadi has sworn in an affidavit that Robinson told MacLatchey she was spying on Rancourt, and that the administration was compensating her for it.

Rancourt now accuses Robinson of creating a false Internet identity – including an e-mail address and a Facebook account under the name Nathalie Page – to infiltrate student groups sympathetic with Rancourt’s “anarchist” pedagogy. Nathalie Page appeared abruptly on the U of O activist scene (in digital format only), joined Facebook groups affiliated with Rancourt, requested information from his student supporters, and just as abruptly disappeared. Rancourt also believes that Robinson is responsible for a covert recording made of a talk he gave at Queens University in October 2007, which was subsequently disseminated through the upper echelons of University governance.

Of course, it would be tenuous at best if Rancourt’s allegations rested on Abdelhadi’s testimony and a suspicious Internet character alone, but after getting wind of the story the professor filed an access to information request with the University – which was promptly refused.

This was not a dead end, however, because by refusing to release the information, the University of Ottawa was forced to explain why – and consequently gave up some curious documents as part of the arguments they made to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (subsequently forwarded to, and publicly released by, Rancourt). An index of all the e-mails exchanged between Robinson and Lalonde – most of which have Michelle Flaherty, former University Legal Counsel, in CC – was given to Rancourt as part of the University’s defense plan. The index shows odd subject lines such as “do you need a job” and “need info for cheque.” Robinson suspiciously inserts “P&C” – presumably meaning “private and confidential” – into the subject line of nearly all her e-mails.

Also in the index are what appear to be the forwarded e-mails of another student. Philippe Marchand, one of Rancourt’s student supporters, sent electronic messages to Robinson as well as social media groups to which Robinson did not belong – but the ephemeral Nathalie Page did. The communications Marchand wrote – and which appear to have been forwarded by Robinson to University administration (their subject lines unchanged except for an added “P&C”) – were, generally, in support of Rancourt and his unorthodox pedagogy (e.g. “Reinstate the Activism Course,” referring to Rancourt’s controversial science class).

Also released to Rancourt was an e-mail that Counsel Flaherty sent to VP-Academic Robert Major, entitled “DGRlecture.doc” – i.e. Denis G. Rancourt – with an attached transcript of a talk that Rancourt gave at Queens University in 2007. In the e-mail, Flaherty notes that she has an audio recording of the same. Neither Rancourt nor the organizers of the talk recorded it; but the evidence proves that someone did, that they did it covertly, and that they probably did it at the behest of the University of Ottawa – with the tacit or ignorant acquiescence of its upper levels of governance (the VP-Academic is the highest office next to the President). Since the transcript includes personal conversations that took place after the lecture, such a recording would be criminally illegal, so it’s no surprise that the University’s legal team is doing its best to keep the public’s hands off it.

But this isn’t the worst of it. In its official Representations (this one and that one) to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, the University claims protection of the indexed e-mails between Robinson and Lalonde by invoking client-solicitor privilege. Robinson is designated an “agent of University legal counsel,” where her role was “to assist University of Ottawa legal counsel with the management of labour-relations matters” – ipso facto an admission that Robinson was, if not a spy, at least an informant. This would be a certain contradiction to the University’s claim that “all procedures required by the collective agreement with the Association des Professeurs de l’Université d’Ottawa (APUO) in this matter had been properly followed,” inasmuch as union members must be alerted to any investigations into their actions, as well as the purpose and the methods of those investigations.

But in February, the University fumbled its way into an even more egregious contradiction. Rancourt’s report suggests that the administration was not only spying on him, but also members of the teaching assistant’s union, CUPE. CUPE filed a grievance of its own and met with the University’s resident lawyers, who argued that Maureen Robinson was nothing but a “clerk” and that any surveillance she performed or reported on was at her own behest. As reported by Sean Kelly, President of CUPE local 2626, this contradicts the University’s Representations to the IPC, which seek to protect the Robinson-Lalonde communications with a defense of client-solicitor privilege. Kelly argues, “If… the Agent was not hired to perform these tasks, but provided the information on a voluntary basis against the will of the University, then the records are not labour-relations materials… nor were they the work of a solicitor’s agent for the client.” He concludes, “the University of Ottawa appears to have made either false written statements to the IPC or false verbal statements in legal labour-relations proceedings.”

So, was Robinson a spy, or a clerk? The University will have to decide; or, more likely, they will try to maintain the legal arguments separately in a futile attempt to continue their blatant cover up.

After making these discoveries, but before making his report public, Rancourt wrote an open e-mail to University of Ottawa VP-Governance Nathalie Des Rosiers requesting that she make a public inquiry into the surveillance affair. Des Rosiers didn’t even acknowledge the request, which was made formally under the University’s Policy 92 (a framework for the VP-Governance’s investigations into wrongdoing).

When asked to comment, Des Rosiers initially said, “It is probably inappropriate to comment on the process [of Rancourt’s dismissal] until it has been completed,” and that “there does not seem to be that much that I can add.” When pressed with specific questions about her professional conduct, Des Rosiers pointed out that there was a six-month period of time before the Policy came into effect. She blamed her poor memory for lack of further insight. It certainly is poor: according to University documentation, Policy 92 came into effect no later than March 2008 – more than a year before Rancourt made his complaint. And if Policy 92 wasn’t in effect, she could at least have replied to Rancourt’s request to inform him that this was the case.

Indeed, potentially more disturbing – though no less reprehensible – than the covert surveillance of academics in publicly-funded institutions is the fact that two of the individuals implicated in the subterfuge and subsequent cover-up at the U of O are now top-ranking officials in Canadian public legal institutions. Des Rosiers is now the General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and Michelle Flaherty is a judge on the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Rancourt’s story has been utterly absent from any non-student, local news outlet; and the only corporate outlet to pick it up so far (taking the “nutty professor” angle) is Macleans. Ottawa Citizen editor Peter Robb told me that the story – and its attendant disturbing implications for Canadian justice – “wasn’t newsworthy.”

Other than Des Rosiers, all the University officials implicated, including Robert Major, André Lalonde, and Michelle Flaherty, have ignored this reporter’s repeated communications. Oh, and Nathalie Page? She didn’t answer my e-mails, either. Maureen Robinson has strenuously denied the allegations, saying, “I was never hired by the administration at the University of Ottawa for the purpose of reporting on Denis Rancourt’s lectures and/or activities. This fabrication is an attention-seeking affront to my integrity and that of the University.” Unfortunately for Ms. Robinson, the University’s Representations to the IPC contradict her version of the story.

Due to the University’s obstinate secrecy, the jury will probably be out on this one for a while; but the whole affair reeks of guilt, and the utter lack of any significant counter-arguments only makes it worse.