Campus Activism off the Rails: Revisiting St. Lewis v. Rancourt
Within academia, the discovery of truth involves a deep commitment to evidence-based research. Sometimes, however, inquiry is sacrificed in favour of activism.
These conflicting loyalties were at the heart of Joanne St. Lewis v. Denis Rancourt, a contentious legal battle that five years ago pitted two University of Ottawa professors against one another over allegations of systemic racism on campus.
The case remains relevant because it exposes what happens to any professor who privileges ideology over critical thinking.
St. Lewis v. Rancourt: In a Nutshell
Denis Rancourt, former professor of physics at the University of Ottawa, and Joanne St. Lewis, Assistant Professor of law, entered the public spotlight when the authors of a 2008 Student Appeal Centre (‘SAC’) report claimed that systemic racism was the reason campus minorities were disproportionately accused of academic fraud.
Professor St. Lewis was instructed by the university administration to assess the accuracy of the SAC report’s findings.
She noted in her evaluation that the SAC report was too methodologically flawed to know whether systemic racism played any role in accusations of academic fraud.
Instead of assessing the SAC report for himself and providing a comprehensive analysis of its assumptions, Rancourt resorted to ad hominem attacks.
On his 2011 U of O Watch blog, he twice referred to St. Lewis, who is black, as then President Allan Rock’s “house negro”—someone who is a traitor to her race. After Rancourt refused to remove the offending posts, St. Lewis sued him for libel.
The SAC Report: The Document in Question
In a 2008 SAC report titled Mistreatment of Students, Unfair Practices and Systemic Racism at the University of Ottawa, the authors’ remarks below sparked the initial controversy:
“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.”
Ironically, not a single minority whose testimony was highlighted in the report suggested that racism was the root cause of their troubles.
In fact, one of the witnesses understood that “what she did was contrary to the policy on academic fraud” and that she had made “an honest mistake”. As the SAC report noted, “many international students are unfamiliar with our [the University of Ottawa’s] overly strict system of academic fraud”.
Moreover, Student Appeal Centre Coordinator Mireille Gervais acknowledged that the SAC report was not scientific; rather, it was based on the centre’s experience meeting with hundreds of individual students.
Despite these red flags, the authors were unwavering in their position: “The statistics speak for themselves: how long will the U of O continue to follow its racist and punitive system of academic fraud?”.
Due to the serious nature of the allegation, Professor St. Lewis was asked by university administration to verify whether systemic racism played a role in accusations of academic fraud.
Joanne St. Lewis: Inquiry Informs Truth
St. Lewis’ evaluation was critical of the SAC report, mainly because of its “methodological failures” and “lack of substantiation”.
For instance, she was troubled by the report’s sample size—a mere 48 cases of academic fraud. This amounted to 0.12% of the entire university population, which at the time consisted of 37, 000 students.
St. Lewis wrote, “When the pool of subjects to be examined is so small it is critically important that the data is approached cautiously and evaluated carefully. This does not appear to have been the case here”.
The report was also plagued by confirmation bias. The authors did not consider alternative explanations that could challenge their initial hypothesis.
They simply identified the existence of a demographic—visible minorities—and then assumed that systemic racism must be the reason these same minorities were accused of academic fraud. As St. Lewis pointed out, “the reality of the demographic does not explain the why of the reality”.
St. Lewis listed other factors that may have contributed to a student’s misunderstanding of university guidelines surrounding academic fraud.
These included: the year of study of the student, previous academic experience, prior experience writing papers, program of study, and personal life experience.
As well, no attempt was made by the report’s authors to assess the language skills of those accused of academic fraud. This is important, especially when dealing with complex instructions involving plagiarism.
St. Lewis also recognized how key concepts which “directly affect the conclusions” were not operationalized.
She asked, “Who are visible minorities for the purpose of the report’s author? What was the method used to determine who would be in that category? [. . . .] What is the definition of international student being used”.
Because of these methodological weaknesses, St. Lewis concluded that the SAC report did not establish the claim of systemic racism “in any reasonable or analytically plausible fashion”.
That said, St. Lewis could not categorically exclude the possibility of bias, 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”.
Denis Rancourt: Activism Informs Truth
Like the SAC authors, Rancourt was unable to establish a causal link between racism and accusations of academic fraud. Undeterred, he decided to use more aggressive tactics to achieve his ends. In December, 2008, Rancourt’s blog, U of O Watch, criticized Professor St. Lewis’ evaluation as “unprofessional” and “intellectually dishonest.”
Rancourt insisted that St. Lewis and the university administration were involved in a conspiracy. On his U of O blog in 2011, he noted that back in 2008, when the Student Appeal Centre “first publicly exposed the problem of systemic racism at the University of Ottawa, the university’s response was a campaign of denigration and cover up personally managed by president Allan Rock.”
This is ironic since Allan Rock made it clear in an e-mail (dated November 17th, 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 his activist agenda failed to gain traction, Rancourt made the issue personal: he referred to St. Lewis as Allan Rock’s “house negro.”
Rancourt’s problems began once he purposely chose not to evaluate or to even comment on the key document in question: the SAC report.
Just this past fall, Rancourt revealed in the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (September, 2018 issue) that he “never addressed the validity of systemic racism,” that he “did not make a pronouncement on the validity of the student union report methodology,” and more importantly, that he did not “make an analysis of the degree of confidence one can have in [the SAC report’s] specific conclusions.”
As Rancourt confessed, “I could have done this, but I did not.”
Even with this glaring oversight, Rancourt is adamant that he made a “reasoned opinion” concerning the “form and content” of St. Lewis’ criticism of the SAC report—a report he could not be bothered to analyze.
Had he performed a detailed assessment, Rancourt would have known that the SAC report’s conclusions were baseless. But this would have marked the end of his radical activist campaign against Professor St. Lewis, Allan Rock, and the university administration.
Instead of embracing the academic value of inquiry, Rancourt pledged his total allegiance to political advocacy. That choice eventually led to his downfall.
Aftermath: Lessons Not Learned
St. Lewis v. Rancourt is now part of legal history, but the case serves as an important reminder that the first casualty of ideology is truth.
The Ontario Superior Court disagreed, finding in favour of the plaintiff, Joanne St. Lewis, and awarding her a judgment of nearly $500,000. Justice Michel Charbonneau scolded Rancourt during the trial for using “untenable defences” and “unreasonable tactics.” Rancourt blamed the loss on a biased judge and a kangaroo court.
Unsuccessful in appeals court, Rancourt has become increasingly adept at turning victimhood into performance art.
He still insists that his use of the term “house negro” must be viewed “in the context of a struggle for justice and in good faith.” In other words, his goals were noble, but in today’s university climate, institutions have become “reactionary” to any “violations of politically correctness.”
Rancourt contends that the fundamental issue at stake was never defamation of character but free speech—specifically, the undermining of his academic freedom.
Herein lay the crux of the matter: academic freedom is not absolute. Its credibility is predicated on a professor’s honest search for truth, not his blind obsession with activism.
Stuart Chambers, Ph.D., is a professor in the school of sociological and anthropological studies at the University of Ottawa. Contact: [email protected]