The term systemic racism refers to institutions, procedures or processes that, whether by design or by effect, produce discriminatory or unequal outcomes or result in injustices disproportionately affecting an identifiable race. Since the death of George Floyd, charges of systemic racism have become increasingly commonplace. Most recently, they have been levelled by scientists and other academics against universities. Sometimes such allegations lack proof. In these instances, scholars have crossed the line between detached researcher and political advocate.
These conflicting loyalties were at the heart of the 2014 case Joanne St. Lewis v. Denis Rancourt, a contentious defamation suit that pitted two Canadian university professors against one another. The trial remains relevant for two reasons: first, it is firmly rooted in a false presumption of systemic racism on campus; and second, it acts as a warning to those who privilege blind activism over critical thinking.
The Origins of a Lawsuit
Denis Rancourt, a former tenured 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 why visible minorities were disproportionately accused of academic fraud.
Professor St. Lewis was instructed by the university administration to assess the accuracy of the SAC’s findings. She noted in her evaluation that the SAC report was too methodologically flawed to reveal anything conclusive about systemic racism. Instead of assessing the SAC report for himself and discussing its shortcomings, Professor Rancourt resorted to ad hominem arguments.
In a 2011 entry in his “U of O Watch” blog, he twice refers to St. Lewis, who is black, as the university president’s “house negro.” Rancourt, who is white, refused to remove the offending posts, so St. Lewis sued him for libel.
The SAC Report
A 2008 SAC report entitled “Mistreatment of Students, Unfair Practices and Systemic Racism at the University of Ottawa” claims:
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, none of the minority students whose testimony was highlighted in the report suggested that racism was the root cause of their troubles. One of the students understood that what she did—copying sentences directly from assigned readings rather than using citations—was “contrary to the policy on academic fraud” and claimed that she had made “an honest mistake.” As the SAC report notes, “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 has acknowledged that the SAC report was “not scientific,” but “based in the centre’s experience meeting with hundreds of individual students.” Despite these red flags, the report’s 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, St. Lewis was asked by university administration to verify whether systemic racism played any role in the academic fraud process.
Joanne St. Lewis: Evidence Informs Conclusions
Professor St. Lewis is a well-known activist against systemic racism, co-chair of the 1999 Canadian Bar Association Working Group on Racial Equality and author of Virtual Justice: Systemic Racism and the Canadian Legal Profession. She was also the first black woman to be elected to serve as a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada in its over two-hundred-year history. Her social activism, however, did not prevent her from fulfilling her duty to provide a comprehensive analysis of the SAC report’s assertion of systemic racism.
St. Lewis’ evaluation was highly critical of the SAC report’s “methodological failures” and “lack of substantiation.” She was troubled by the report’s sample size—a mere forty-eight 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 writes, “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 SAC 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 racism had played a pivotal role in accusations of academic fraud against these minorities. But, 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 student misunderstanding of university guidelines surrounding academic fraud: for example, the student’s year of study, previous academic experience, prior experience writing papers, program of study and personal life experience. In addition, no attempt was made by the SAC report’s authors to control for language ability. It is highly possible that a language barrier impeded students’ comprehension of plagiarism guidelines and the administrative regulations that enforce them.
St. Lewis also showed how some key concepts which “directly affect the conclusions” were not fully explained: “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?”
Due to 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.” Because St. Lewis could not categorically exclude the possibility of racial bias, she recommended that the university administration “conduct an independent assessment to determine whether systemic racism plays any part in the Academic Fraud process.”
Denis Rancourt: Activism Informs Conclusions
Denis Rancourt has always been open about his radical activist aims. For instance, in what was formerly known as his “activism course,” he gave every student an A+, noting that grading was “a tool of coercion in order to make obedient people.” Rancourt’s preference for “critical pedagogy” was based on the assumption that “our societal structures … represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet.”
Like the authors of the SAC report, Rancourt failed 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,” likening it to “academic fraud.”
Rancourt insisted that St. Lewis and the university administration were involved in a conspiracy, noting 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.”
However, Allan Rock has stated in an email 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.” Rancourt then made the issue personal by referring to St. Lewis as Allan Rock’s “house negro.”
Rancourt deliberately chose not to evaluate the key document in question: the SAC report, conceding that he “never addressed the validity of systemic racism,” “did not make a pronouncement on the validity of the student union report methodology” and—most importantly—did not “make an analysis of the degree of confidence one can have in [the SAC report’s] specific conclusions.” He confesses, “I could have done this, but I did not.”
Despite these glaring oversights, Rancourt was adamant that he had made a “reasoned opinion” concerning the “form and content” of St. Lewis’ criticism of the SAC report—a report he had not analyzed. Had he performed a detailed assessment, Rancourt would have known that the SAC report’s conclusions concerning systemic racism were baseless. Determining probable racial bias was impossible since the SAC report’s methodology was completely unreliable.
One important incentive prevented Rancourt from evaluating the SAC report’s findings: doing so would have marked the end of his radical activist campaign against Professor St. Lewis and the university administration. Instead of embracing the academic value of rational inquiry, Rancourt pledged allegiance to political advocacy. That choice eventually led to his downfall in court.
Aftermath: The Court Case
Joanne St. Lewis v. Denis Rancourt is an important reminder that the first casualty of ideology is truth. Rancourt offered no hard evidence of systemic racism on campus, relying instead on ad hominem attacks. Not surprisingly, St. Lewis took offence at being called the university president’s “house negro,” but, according to Rancourt, she was simply “misguided” about the term’s historical meaning and usage.
The Ontario Superior Court disagreed, finding in favour of the plaintiff, Joanne St. Lewis, and awarding her a judgment of nearly $500,000 in a libel suit. Justice Michel Charbonneau scolded Rancourt during the trial for using “untenable defences” and “unreasonable tactics.” Rancourt blamed his loss on a biased judge and a kangaroo court. Rancourt was also unsuccessful in the appeals court.
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—defending students against what he saw as “institutional discrimination and racism”—but, in today’s university climate, academia has become too “reactionary” to any “violations of political correctness.”
Rancourt contends that the fundamental issue at stake was never defamation of character but free speech—specifically, the undermining of his academic freedom. However, academic freedom is not absolute, but is predicated on a professor’s objective assessment of the questions at hand. A researcher should never assume the role of a political advocate. Rancourt blurred that distinction when he refused to discuss the empirical validity of the SAC report’s conclusions regarding systemic racism at the University of Ottawa.
Claims of Systemic Racism Require Evidence
Whenever student organizations or activists insist that systemic racism exists on university campuses, we must ask: where are the peer-reviewed studies upon which this assumption is based? Academics should not assume that racism is omnipresent, and they should never support–either directly or indirectly–the unsubstantiated claims of student-run groups.
This is how the lives of two professors—Joanne St. Lewis and Denis Rancourt—became entangled. A report issued by the University of Ottawa’s Student Appeal Centre suggested that systemic racism was a valid explanation as to why campus minorities were disproportionately accused of academic fraud. To her credit, Professor St. Lewis refused, as she put it, “to slavishly endorse a poorly written student report.”
Instead of admitting to weaknesses in the SAC report’s methodology, Rancourt chose to engage in a political battle against the university’s administration. His libelous blog posts against St. Lewis and his affinity for militant activism led to years of litigation and a loss of reputation. Like many ideologues, he learned his lesson the hard way.
By Jeangagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52608101