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Louis Morissette

MindingtheCampus

Reaping Postmodernism’s Violent Whirlwind

By Frances Widdowson January 4, 2023 3 comments
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In December 2008, Denis Rancourt was suspended from his tenured professorship in physics at the University of Ottawa—an action that resulted in his termination a few months later. This occurred after a five-year battle with university administrators. It was, according to “workplace mobbing” researcher Kenneth Westhues, a case in which the administration “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.”

In analyzing why administrators mob some bothersome professors and not others, Westhues considers whether they are academically minded or “purely managerial or technocratic.” In the case of the latter, they will see the “difficult” professor “as nothing more than sand in the gears of the bureaucracy” and will “react with rigidity, threats, and punishment instead of dialogue.” Westhues maintains that this creates the conditions

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.

The Rancourt case is important on many levels. One of its most disturbing aspects is that he was banished from his lab and prohibited from coming on campus. This was justified by a secret report compiled by Quebec psychiatrist Louis Morissette, who was paid by the University of Ottawa to clinically assess Rancourt’s mental state. This “hiring of an outside expert … to write an assessment of the target or of the associated conflict,” Westhues points out, is “a common technique in administrative mobbing.” Because an “outside expert” like Morissette received payment and direction from the university, one would expect him to write a report “lending professional or scientific approbation to the target’s punishment or ouster.” As a result,

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.

In making this assessment, Morissette never even met with Rancourt. Instead, he diagnosed him based on information provided by the University of Ottawa. Although Rancourt had to wait nine years to receive the report, he was eventually able to file a misconduct complaint against Morissette, which resulted in a 2022 disciplinary tribunal finding that the psychiatrist was guilty of ethical violations. The tribunal, according to Westhues, also provided a decision that “document[ed] 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.”

[Related: “Diversity Is a Trojan Horse”]

The Rancourt case shows the lengths to which corporatized universities will go to remove someone who they believe tarnishes their “brand.” I understand this very well in light of my termination from Mount Royal University (MRU) on the evening of December 20, 2021. What took place that night will shock many people who think that universities are truth-seeking institutions that support rational dispute resolution processes. What happened is, in fact, stranger than fiction. (A recording of my account of what transpired that evening, as well as a more detailed summary, can be accessed here.)

The day began quite ordinarily, with my attendance at a virtual presentation given by a Canada Research Chair candidate in indigenous studies. The talk featured an interesting exploration of how maps often embody colonial logic, and how this could be changed using indigenous perspectives. A number of people at the virtual talk asked questions, including Michael Quinn, MRU’s vice-provost and associate vice-president, academic. I, too, asked a question, which was as follows: “How should researchers deal with the historical circumstance of some indigenous groups pushing earlier inhabitants out of their territories?”

A few hours later I had to invigilate my last exams of the Fall 2021 semester, which 60 students were completing from 3–6 p.m. in Room B101. After the last student finished, I gathered up the exams and began to walk back to my office. As I moved down the hallway, I heard a voice behind me calling out “Dr. Widdowson, Dr. Widdowson.” I assumed that it was a student, but it turned out to be Michael Quinn.

Quinn introduced himself in a friendly manner and motioned toward a classroom across the hall, saying, “could you just step in here a minute?” Because I had just been at a virtual talk with Quinn, I assumed that he wanted to discuss the candidate that was being interviewed. When I stepped into the room, however, I saw two people, one of whom I knew to be a human resources professional, sitting at a table waiting for me. As I had been in a disciplinary meeting reminiscent of the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four one week earlier with this individual, I knew that there was only one reason why human resources would ambush me like this after hours: I was about to be fired.

Article 25.1.1 of my Collective Agreement gives Mount Royal Faculty Association (MRFA) members the right to union representation at any disciplinary meeting, and so I told the administrators that the meeting could not take place without providing notice to me and the MRFA. When I tried to leave the room, however, Quinn positioned himself between me and the door, effectively blocking my exit, and tried to force me to take an envelope from him. This led me to panic and yell out that I was being forcibly confined. I then pushed past Quinn, ran back to my office, and tried to contact the union, only to find that my computer had been locked down. As I did not have any of my union representatives’ telephone numbers, I called a colleague and asked her to notify the MRFA.

When I tried to leave my office a few minutes later, I was very surprised to find Quinn directly outside my door moving toward me and attempting, once again, to force the envelope into my hand. Quinn was accompanied by a crowd of administrators, as well as two security guards who stood at either end of the hall. As I thought that I was going to be blocked from leaving and stripped of my exams, I became terrified and called 9-1-1. After calling the police, I yelled at the administrators to stand back and not to touch me. I then fled the building and locked myself in my car while I waited for the police to arrive. It was at this time (6:22 p.m.) that the Dean of Arts sent out an email to dozens of people (including all of the Faculty of Arts department chairs) stating,

I am writing to inform you that Frances Widdowson is no longer a faculty member at Mount Royal University.

We are making plans to ensure her students this semester and next are supported.

I learned from documents obtained from the Calgary Police Service through freedom of information legislation that, according to an interviewee, “Amy” had directed the group of administrators to go to my office. Although the last name of this individual was not provided, the one person present that night with this first name was Amy Nixon, the general counsel and university secretary of MRU.

[Related: “Fighting Back Against Big Brother’s Love”]

The next morning, when MRU couriered the termination letter to me, I was surprised to read the following words from MRU President Tim Rahilly: “You are obligated to provide to the Office of the Dean of Arts, any and all existing grades, gradebooks, coursework and exams of your students from the Fall 2021 semester. This must be complete by the end of the workday tomorrow, December 21, 2021.” This meant that ambushing me and demanding that my exams be turned over immediately was completely arbitrary and not even justified by my termination letter. Given that MRU’s president officially stated that I had until December 21 to return my exams, why did “Amy” direct that I be pursued and intimidated on December 20? It seemed as if these administrators had some animosity toward me, which resulted in them abusing their power to humiliate and terrorize me in the workplace.

This was the result of a long campaign waged by indigenous studies academics, trans activists, and their “allies” to belittle my academic achievements and ostracize me in the workplace. In many instances, I was accused of engaging in “epistemic terror” and creating a “culture of fear” for “BIPOC” [black, indigenous, and people of color] and trans faculty, staff, and students. This was in response to my use of satire on social media and my questions at events about various “woke” initiatives. One wonders what these scholar-activists think of situations where there is actual violence—for example, when one of their colleagues is forcibly confined in a classroom after hours, and then physically threatened by a crowd of administrators and two security guards.

At the time, I was very shaken by what transpired and would often have flashbacks of that evening. After a number of months, however, I was able to put the sequence of events in context. Although it is still shocking, one should not be surprised that this was the response to the years of vilification that the university condoned. Similar to the Rancourt case, it is likely that I was perceived “as mentally deranged, dangerous, and deserving of forcible removal from the university.” This would justify the draconian processes to which MRU had subjected me for over a year.

In discussions about the pursuit of truth, the following quotation is often attributed to philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.” These words ring true today, and it seems like we are entering the “violent” stage. While I endured ridicule throughout the first 20 years of my career, the emergence of the totalitarian or “reified” form of postmodernism means that coercion is now required to suppress dissent.

Violence—actual violence, not disfavored speech—is, of course, the only mechanism for dispute resolution when rational discussion and debate breaks down. The subjectivity embraced by postmodernism has sown the wind, and we will now reap the whirlwind. As was seen on the evening of December 20, 2021, at Mount Royal University, a rejection of Enlightenment values means that intellectual disagreements will have to be decided by force.