A foot on either side
McGill’s commitment to academic freedom remains hazy

By: Kyle Dewsnap, contributor
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In March 2017, Andrew Potter, former director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), resigned after publishing a column titled “How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise” in Maclean’s magazine. In addition to causing a rare McGill snow day, the blizzard also sparked a decidedly less rare debate over the limits of academic freedom. After his resignation, Potter’s case became the centre of a national debate hingeing on McGill’s apparent failure to protect a faculty member from criticism. While McGill insists that Potter resigned of his own accord, many academics claim that McGill’s actions—allegedly forcing Potter’s hand—represent an egregious violation of academic freedom. Heading into a new school year, the concern remains that McGill’s administration may be more committed to attracting donations than protecting its faculty.

As most students only see their professors during class time, it's easy to forget that most tenure-track university contracts have both teaching and research obligations. In order to be considered for continued employment by their universities, professors have to produce original research. Many would posit that to perform this task to their best ability, professors need a space in which they can work without fear of repercussions for researching unpopular or controversial topics.

“Education and research benefit society, but society does not benefit when teachers and researchers are controlled by corporations, religious groups, special interest groups, or the government,” writes the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on their website.

The main defense from this control is the foundational principle of academic freedom. According to the AAUP, the university must extend this protection to their faculty.

The concept of academic freedom was established with the earliest universities, but modern tools designed to protect it, such as tenure and faculty associations, weren’t developed until the early-20th century. In response to the Stalin-led communist party banning Soviet researchers from studying certain theories—Mendelian genetics, for example—American professors founded the Society for Freedom for Science, whose mission was to promote the cause of free science. During the same year, the AAUP created the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

“Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth,” the document reads.

In order to guarantee this freedom, universities must ensure that professors are protected from external societal pressures that would otherwise influence their research.

“When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech or publications research findings,” the AAUP wrote. “They cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge.”

Given that the internet has revolutionised the way people share thoughts, some academics are beginning to question the relevance of academic freedom in the 21st century. With a computer, anyone can not only access a functionally unlimited supply of free information, but can contribute to it as well. Websites like Wikipedia and Khan Academy provide free, high-quality information to millions of people, and the premium on academic research is faltering.

“As the breadth and volume of search engines’ results increase, providing a source of certainty for those building an argument, the validity of academics’ knowledge, the fundamental assumption of academic freedom, becomes problematic,” Philo Hutcheson, associate professor at Georgia State University said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

On March 14, 2017, Montreal was hit with a record-breaking snow-storm, and while students enjoyed a rare day off from school, Andrew Potter set to work writing the think-piece that would ignite the academic freedom debate at McGill. The blizzard caused a catastrophic traffic jam on Highway 13, which extends from the Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Airport to the city of Boisbriand. At 4:29 a.m., Montreal firefighters arrived on the scene to dispatch emergency fuel, food, and blankets to stranded motorists. In total, 300 vehicles were left stranded on the highway, many of which were stuck for more than 12 hours. One motorist, Jean-François Grégoire, had to abandon his car and walk for 20 minutes in the snow to his office so that he could take a dose of insulin for his Type-1 diabetes.

As the incident made national headlines, both politicians and the public took swift action to find out what went wrong.

“Personally, I find it unacceptable that people were stuck for 13 or 14 hours before things were unblocked,” then-mayor Denis Coderre said in a meeting of the city’s executives.

The Sûreté du Québec (SQ), Quebec’s provincial police force, quickly published a series of press releases announcing that two senior officers were placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. While Quebec’s political world was figuring out which fingers to point where, Andrew Potter saw the traffic-jam as something more sinister. Six days after the storm, Potter’s op-ed framed the debacle as a symptom of “social malaise,” which, according to him, was a pathology that plagued Quebecois society. Potter, who declined to comment, bolstered his thesis by using data gathered from national surveys and by drawing upon his own experiences as an anglophone living in Montreal.

“Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted,” Potter wrote. “A serious winter storm hits, and there is social breakdown at every stage. In the end, a few truckers refuse to let the towers move them off the highway, and there’s no one in charge to force them to move.”

The public’s reaction to Potter’s piece proved to be its own storm. Some Quebecois Twitter users claimed that Potter, an anglophone born in Manitoba, wrote this piece as an outlet for his anti-francophone bigotry. Others criticized McGill for allowing him to teach students given his apparent bias against Quebec.

Awash with controversy, McGill sought to distance itself from the Maclean’s op-ed. McGill’s Office for Communications and External Relations used the university’s typically apolitical twitter account to address the crisis.

“The views expressed by [Dr. Potter] in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill,” McGill tweeted a day after Potter’s article went online.

Their reaction was highly unusual. Generally, McGill’s Twitter is quick to retweet its professors’ appearances on the news, yet the university's social media team quickly separated the school from Potter’s op-ed. Louis Arseneault, vice-principal of Communications and External Relations, was in charge of McGill’s public relations office during the crisis.

“The University supports professors’ engagement with the public and media, and we will Tweet about that engagement,” Arsenault wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “The [Potter] tweet [...] was a clarification on the position taken by an administrator at McGill.”

While McGill wanted to distance itself from Potter’s opinion, using its official Twitter to do so created unnecessary ambiguity, which instead fueled further controversy.

“McGill probably should have responded by a venue other than Twitter because the issue was more complicated than a simple tweet merited,” Terry Hébert, former president of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), said in a previous interview with the Tribune. “[The tweet] could be interpreted many ways, some innocuous, some not.”

The tweet inspired more activity on social media centred around Potter and his article. According to internal McGill correspondence gathered by Canadaland, an emergency meeting of the MISC was convened on March 22. The next day, Potter posted his resignation on both Facebook and Twitter.

“I deeply regret many aspects of the column,” Potter wrote in his resignation. “Its sloppy use of anecdotes, its tone, and the way it comes across as deeply critical of the entire province.”

His post maintains that he resigned from the MISC of his own volition.

“This has been the dream job of a lifetime, but I have come to the conclusion that the credibility of the [MISC] will be best served by my resignation,” Potter wrote.

While McGill holds that Potter chose to resign, others believe the administration played a more active role than he let on. Ken Whyte, former visiting fellow of the MISC, claimed that McGill’s administration forced Potter out of his directorship.

“I suggested alternatives to demotion, such as a reprimand or a suspension,” Whyte said in an interview with the Globe and Mail. “These seemed of interest to many people I spoke to at McGill and MISC, but they would not and did not fly with the Principal's office, where Suzanne Fortier was arguing that he had to go.”

Maclean’s editorial board was among the first to accuse McGill of academic censorship.

Maclean’s continues to believe in the vital importance of a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions—even if McGill University does not,” the editorial board wrote.

In the eyes of the media, McGill had failed to protect its faculty member’s right to freely voice controversial opinions. Within the school, Professor Víctor Muñiz-Fraticelli, associate professor in McGill’s Faculty of Law and associate director for the Centre for Research on Religion, and 10 other professors wrote a letter to Principal Suzanne Fortier voicing their concern about Potter’s resignation.

“The biggest problem of university administration, at McGill and elsewhere, is a deep aversion to controversy, especially when it will displease donors and political benefactors,” Muñiz-Fraticelli wrote in an email to the Tribune. “A clear commitment to the mission of the university, and to the relation between professors and faculty, would go a long way towards remedying this problem.”

Muñiz-Fraticelli believes that McGill’s actions represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of a university.

“The university (not just the individual institution, but the university as a global community of academics) is the setting for scholarly inquiry,” Muñiz-Fraticelli wrote. “But it is the individual academic who is the agent of inquiry. The university exists to protect the conditions of individual academic inquiry... and exists for nothing else.”

McGill’s alleged actions in Potter’s case seem to suggest that academic freedom has its limits.

“When academic administrators no longer believe that they are able to discharge their administrative responsibilities effectively, then it is reasonable for them to step down from those responsibilities,” McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier wrote in a reply to questions McGill senators asked on Potter’s resignation. “Similarly, the University may [...] replace academic administrators who are no longer able to discharge their responsibilities effectively.”

What happened to Andrew Potter could be deeply concerning to McGill students starting classes this September—especially to those with hopes to eventually join a university faculty themselves. While academics and universities work toward progressing the arts and sciences, they need to remain financially viable in order to fund these goals. At public universities like McGill, which rely heavily on grants and donations, the administration needs to ensure that the university's brand remains as agreeable as possible. This objective translates into a need for a squeaky-clean public image. Sometimes, the drive to maintain this image comes into tension with the university’s commitment to academic freedom, forcing a choice between the two. With all of the uncertainty regarding Potter’s resignation, Fortier’s non-committal response shows that McGill has chosen to keep one foot on either side of the line. While the school may want to avoid choosing a side in this debate, academics, in the present and future, should be aware of McGill’s precarious commitment to academic freedom.