The nefarious role of a psychiatrist
in the 2008 mobbing of Denis Rancourt,
exposed at last in 2022
Kenneth Westhues, University of Waterloo
Additional commentary, March 2022; original commentary, August 2009.
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. Scroll down or 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 colllective agreement at 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 Universiity 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.
Ottawa's dismissal of Rancourt
Commentary as published online in August 2009 , unchanged except that dead links have been removed.
A good five years of conflict between administrators at the University of Ottawa and senior tenured physics professor Denis Rancourt came to a head on December 10, 2008. Dean of Science André Lalonde formally recommended to the Board of Governors that Rancourt be dismissed from the faculty. That same day, Provost Robert Major suspended Rancourt, closed his lab, and forbade him to set foot on campus.
The Ottawa administration's decision to fire Rancourt, imposing on him the "capital punishment" of labor relations, was even more vigorously opposed than were the lesser punishments dealt to him in preceding years. In a factual, reasoned letter to the Board of Governors dated 5 January 2009, Rancourt defended himself. Well over a hundred professors and students from Ottawa and elsewhere sent individual letters protesting Rancourt's elimination. Even before the axe fell, the Canadian Association of University Teachers had appointed a three-person Committee of Inquiry to investigate the long series of run-ins, dating back at least to the fall of 2005, between the Ottawa administration and Rancourt.
Is this a case of workplace mobbing in academe? Yes — and more precisely, administrative mobbing. (Click here for the standard checklist of indicators, here for the mainpage of the relevant website, and here for a short, basic article.)
What allows so unqualified a diagnosis is that Rancourt has made comprehensive documentation on the conflict (letters, emails, press reports, videos) publicly available on his blog. For want of adequate information pro and con about a professor's dismissal or humiliation, it is often impossible to make more than a tentative assessment of whether it is a case of mobbing or merely a hard but measured and warranted response to some betrayal of academic purpose. In this case, Rancourt has laid bare to the public the actions that got him into trouble, the sanctions imposed, and what is most important, documentary evidence of both his own and his adversaries' views. Thereby he has bolstered his own credibility. Let other aggrieved academics take a lesson: only in so far as full information is publicly available, the cards all on the table, can outside observers make confident judgments and say things worth listening to.
It is plain from the material online that over time, administrators at Ottawa coalesced in the view that Rancourt, despite his stellar research record and the respect given him by very many students, is an utterly unworthy and abhorrent man, fit only for expulsion from respectable academic company. While administrators appear front and centre in this mobbing case, they are joined by dozens, even hundreds of students and faculty who are after Rancourt's neck. According to Karen Pinchin in Maclean's (click here and here), nearly a third of Rancourt's colleagues signed a complaint against him. (Click here to read the petition, unambiguous evidence of ganging up.) Even distant pundits like Stanley Fish and Margaret Soltan piled on.
An email from Chemistry Chair Alain St-Amant is telling. Shortly after Rancourt's suspension, with his dismissal pending, St-Amant apparently agreed to debate him on a TV talk show, but then cancelled out. Rancourt sent him an email asking why, and suggesting that administrative or peer pressure was the reason. St-Amant emailed back, "I refuse to enter a battle of wits with an unarmed man. ... This will be the last you will hear from me on this matter. Enjoy the paycheques while they last." The contempt in these sentences is total. With a clever turn of phrase, St-Amant gives Rancourt the ultimate academic insult, that he has no wits, that is to say no intelligence. Then he cuts off communication and gloats that Rancourt will soon be off the payroll. St-Amant would not likely have felt free to send such a message had he not felt himself part of a campus crowd united by scorn for Rancourt.
From the available documents, Rancourt appears to exemplify a type of professor I described in my first book on academic mobbing, a professor I called "Dr. PITA" — acronym for pain-in-the-ass, or in politer terms, a thorn in administrators' sides, the one who makes them see red. Being a team player is not Dr. PITA's priority. Administrative demands that most professors comply with uncomplainingly are occasions for Dr. PITA to raise questions — and more questions.
Real-life professors can become Dr. PITA for any number of reasons. Administrators usually chalk it up to a personality defect. The documentary record suggests that the reason in Rancourt's case, as in many mobbing cases I have studied, is that he has thought deeply enough about education and the search for truth, to realize how much these noble purposes are subverted by the academic structures established to serve them. During his first dozen years of university teaching, he seems to have not only lengthened his vita but actually developed his mind, gaining awareness that institutionalizing the process of learning (that means creating a formal organization with a policy manual, chain of command, course credits, degree programs, human resources office, and so on), even though it facilitates learning in some ways (not least by providing teachers with a stable livelihood), cheapens and diminishes learning in many other ways. A student's working life easily becomes a matter of memorizing things and jumping the hoops of standardized tests, without personal engagement or independent thought. Indeed, one of the things students learn is not to learn about power, nor to question the structure of power in place, since the organization depends on this structure for funding and public legitimacy. Awareness of this downside of institutionalization is a common theme of the varied authors Rancourt cites in support of his own brand of anarchism — Paolo Freire, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Herbert Marcuse, Ward Churchill, among others.
It was apparently Rancourt's deepening understanding of and commitment to what learning actually involves, that led him to refuse to rank and grade his students in the established, expected way. Since grading is central to the institutionalization of learning, he felt obliged to renounce it. This was the sticking point, the offense that became the main official reason for his termination. As Rancourt plaintively wrote in his letter to the Board, "Socrates did not give grades to his students."
Rancourt's revulsion at assigning marks is not common among professors, but neither is it rare. Over the past four decades, I have known dozens of professors who, in the course of their intellectual maturation, became exceedingly uncomfortable with assigning grades. A few of them met the same fate as Rancourt. One of the offenses that led to the dismissal of theologian Herbert Richardson from the University of Toronto in 1994 (a case of administrative mobbing to which I have devoted a substantial book), was that he and his students in a graduate seminar agreed that all of them should receive the same final grade.
More often, however, administrators and colleagues find ways to accommodate, sometimes even to honor and reward, the brilliant, unusually effective researcher and teacher whose process of growth has led to reluctance to give grades. Three professors of this kind have written letters of support for Rancourt: John McMurtry, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, John Southin, retired Professor of Biology at McGill University, and David Noble, Professor of Social and Political Thought at York University. These respected academics report that their universities managed to put up with them for decades, albeit sometimes grudgingly, despite their own dissent from conventional systems of student grading. McMurtry wrote that he "almost got fired for challenging the grading system at my university 35 years ago. The V-P Academic, the Dean and the Chair all went on the record as deciding to dismiss me, but many faculty and students successfully defended me." Noble told Maclean's that "he hasn’t given grades for more than 35 years."
It is worth remembering, moreover, that Ivan Illich, dean of educational iconoclasts and author of the 1971 classic, Deschooling Society, was recruited to the faculties of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Bremen in the last decades of his life. Those universities were apparently pleased to have Illich around for students and colleagues to learn from, despite his congenital lack of docility and institutional loyalty.
Why do some university administrations mobilize collective resources to eliminate professors of the Dr. PITA type, professors like Rancourt or McMurtry or Illich, while others somehow make room for them? One key difference is whether the administrators, despite all the bureaucratic pressures upon them, continue to have a feel for what searching for truth actually means. If they still hear that search as a personal call, they cannot bring themselves to demonize, harass, and try to get rid of one who embodies truth-seeking in a pristine way, despite the administrative challenges such a professor poses. They are able to recognize in Dr. PITA not just bothersomeness and impracticality but successful engagement with inquiry and learning, the fundamental goals of a university. Their own commitment to education obliges them to show respect for the dissenter, in much the same way as commitment to the basics of Christianity obliged Joseph Ratzinger, an organization man if ever there was one, to invite the dissident theologian Hans Küng to dine with him at the Vatican, a few months after Ratzinger was elected pope.
On the other hand, to the extent a university's administrators are of a purely managerial or technocratic frame of mind, they lose sight of the institution's basic purposes and see a professor like Rancourt as nothing more than sand in the gears of the bureaucracy. They react with rigidity, threats, and punishment instead of dialogue. They recoil from a value on institutional roominess, preferring efficiency and Gleichschaltung. Faced with administrative intransigence, the professor then often, as in this case, becomes more insistent in questioning, more provocative, more daring, readier to go out on a limb for the sake of the truths he or she has learned. The stage is thus set for the strange and singular social process of workplace mobbing to get underway. The administrators and their minions begin circling the wagons against the targeted professor, as if he or she were an invading army and the embodiment of wickedness. Compliant and afraid, many faculty and students join the circle. Energies that could be devoted to some kind of search for truth are expended instead on keeping a genuine, successful searcher outside the embattled circle of imagined rectitude.
But what keeps some administrators in touch with the essentials of teaching and learning, while others are held captive by a bureaucratic ethos? Among many relevant factors, personal background is a major one. Allan Rock, who became president of the University of Ottawa five months before Rancourt was dismissed, has had a long career in politics, even as Canada's Minister of Justice and then Ambassador to the United Nations, but his biography shows scant evidence of a scholarly or scientific vocation. Rancourt's mobbing was well advanced by the time Rock took office, but nothing in Rock's past suggests he is the sort of man to call it off.
Beyond personal attributes is the key organizational factor of how much power the professoriate has in running the institution. Professors are capable of collective mischief of their own, but they are important for keeping the bureaucratic impulses of administrators within educational bounds. McMurtry's recollection is worth noting, that what saved his neck decades ago was defense by colleagues and students. Rancourt's case seems to imply that such defense is less effective now than formerly, universities having become more bureaucratic and administrators better insulated from professors' priorities. Today's university has moved beyond the classic model of a collegium toward the newer model of a market-oriented business corporation, with power concentrated in the office of the CEO.
One of the things about Denis Rancourt that has led me to pick his case — out of the very many that come to my attention — for commentary here is his impolitic tenacity in telling the truth as he sees it. As if his troubles with the Ottawa administration over the grading issue were not enough, he committed the further transgression of allying himself with the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — in defiance of President Rock's well-known sympathies. While drawing inspiration from Noam Chomsky, Rancourt has upbraided Chomsky for not being brave enough and serving power too much. And despite drawing much of his support from the left, Rancourt nonetheless published in 2007, an insightful, scientifically informed critique of one of the left's main priorities, the alleged threat of global warming. Here is a man with little more prudence than the storied boy who said aloud that the emperor has no clothes. Any half-way decent educator has to feel admiration for Rancourt and to be glad that Claude Lamontagne and several dozen other professors and students at Ottawa have gone on record as opposing Rancourt's banishment.
The campaign against Denis Rancourt reflects badly on the University of Ottawa, but few professors can accurately say nothing similar has lately happened in their own academic homes. On the whole, Ottawa is not likely a worse educational institution than most others across the continent. We live in what KC Johnson has called, in a 2009 essay in Minding the Campus, "an era of academic mobbing." Some mobbings arise from the left, others from the right, very many from plain intolerance of a skilled truth-seeker with an independent mind. An era of greater devotion to the classic goal of seeking truth is worth working toward.
 Thanks to Loraleigh Keashly, a first-rate researcher of mobbing and bullying who directs the M.A. Program in Dispute Resolution at Wayne State University, for prodding me to analyze the Rancourt dismissal. Thanks of a different kind to Thomas O'Dea (1915-1974), an important sociologist of religion about whom I learned a lot in graduate school from O'Dea's former student, my friend and classmate, Kendall White. O'Dea identified the pros and cons of institutionalizing the free, authentic, primordial act of worshipping. My analysis of Rancourt's troubles takes a similar approach, identifying pros and cons of institutionalizing the free, authentic, primordial act of seeking truth.
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