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Physics Students Subpoenaed to Labour Arbitration Board about A+ Marks

January 28, 2012
Phillip Vinten ___________________  Daniel Pohl

As a student, have you, or any of your student colleagues ever complained about your professors and courses – about the relevance of the course material, the fairness of the evaluation method, or about the prof’s lecture style?  Maybe you thought that the prof went off on tangents that seeemed disconnected to what you were learning, or you might not have agreed with the proportion of homework/midterm/final requirements?

The overwhelming majority of U of O students have complaints of this type at some point in their studies – some keep their gripes to themselves and their friends, some file official complaints with administrators (almost all of which fall on deaf ears), and yet there remains a trace number of students whose objections do get heard and are championed by the University with the full force of its expert human resources management and hired corporate legal team.

Physics students Phillip Vinten and Daniel Pohl appeared this week before the labour arbitration board headed by arbitrator Claude Foisy in the matter of the University of Ottawa vs. the Professors’ Union representing Professor Dr. Denis Rancourt, who was fired for attributing A+ marks to all of his students in a split 4th year/graduate course on Solid State Physics held in the Winter 2008 semester.  The University claims that the A+ marks were assigned arbitrarily from the outset of the course.  Mr. Vinten and Mr. Pohl were called by the University to support the dismissal in relation to letters they wrote in 2008 which described their disapproval with the class teaching methods.

The students were asked questions about the first day of class regarding the marking scheme, homework and examination requirements, in class discussions, attendance requirements, and more.  Over the course of two days of hearings, the witnesses testified that:

  • Homework, a midterm, and a final exam did exist in the course.
  • The final exam could be written or oral.
  • Attendance in class was required.
  • Phil Vinten testified that he did not remember if it was Professor Rancourt or a student who raised the issue of A+ marks.
  • Both students confirmed that it was possible that Professor Rancourt stated that he “expected” each student in the class to obtain an A+ by the end of the course, and that he repeatedly stated during the course that “everything (was) negotiable.”
  • Questioning from both sides revealed that the students’ primary concern with the course was that they would not receive final marks, since Departmental Chairman, Bela Joos had informed them that previous A+ marks in other courses taught by Professor Rancourt had been “frozen” by the department and not yet attributed at that time.
  • Dan Pohl testified that his initial reaction to the prospect of obtaining an A+ in the course was that it would be “great.”
  • Phil Vinten testified that he was afraid that if he obtained an A+ in the course, it would be looked at negatively in the future because it would not have been “earned.”  He also stated that he dropped the course half-way through because of his concerns.

During his appearance before the board, Phil Vinten described what he stated was “the worst class of the course.”  In this case, according to the witness, the class began when a student went to the blackboard and began to present a question on magnetism to the class.  From there, the topic of discussion moved onto stainless steel, at which point a student wanted to know why stainless steel doesn’t rust.  The topic switched to rust, and later to faulty building construction.  A final stage in the evolution of the discussion was the topic of faulty building construction in the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers on 9-11.  Mr. Vinten described the array of topics dealt with in this  instance as moving from “definitely solid state physics” to “more chemistry than physics” to “useless nonsense.”

It is certainly a painful experience when a professor allows an in-class discussion to evolve from fundamental theory to practical applications of societal relevance.  Surely Phil was speaking across faculties and discplines in support of other students who have been treated likewise?

In a university where it is not uncommon to hear of students being yelled at, intimidated, or neglected by their research supervisors, suffering racial discrimination from professors in class, and being threatened with deportation from the country due to their academic performance or even due to illness, it is reassuring to know that, despite the University’s apparent inability or unwillingness to resolve these other problems, it nevertheless retains untold thousands and millions of dollars in legal resources to take action on behalf of those few students – in that unfortunate 99th percentile – who have suffered of the most shocking and reprehensible treatment at the hands of powerful professors… and still received a mark of A+ at the end of it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. steve permalink
    January 28, 2012 4:56 pm

    The days of academic freedom (including running a course the way a professor sees fit based on the material, interests of the students and approach the professor feels is appropriate) being replaced by corporatist lock-step conformity within a university are clearly here. I’m disgusted that a university administration can behave in such an underhanded and unethical way (whether real or perceived remains to be seen). Can anyone say “scapegoat”? I remain surprised that an institution like a university can be so free with its ‘critical thinking and analysis’ of everything with society, but excludes itself from its prying and judging eyes. Even though Rancourt should never have faced these trumped up charges, I hope (but doubt) fairness, transparency and accountability take starring roles in this arbitration process… I’m deeply ashamed to have been associated with this university, particularly some highly questionable experiences with the current Dean of Education. Just my opinion….

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