Thursday March 23, 2017

McGill 'blatantly failed' to protect Andrew Potter's academic freedom, prof says

Andrew Potter took over as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in August 2016. He resigned Thursday after fallout from a controversial Macleans's article.

Andrew Potter took over as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in August 2016. He resigned Thursday after fallout from a controversial Macleans's article. (McGill University)

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There was the storm — and there was the storm that followed the storm.

Last week, a blizzard left hundreds of people stranded overnight on a Quebec highway. That prompted Andrew Potter, who works at McGill University, to pen a controversial piece for Maclean's blaming the incident on a breakdown in Quebec's social order.

"Compared to the rest of the country, 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.

 

highway 13

Dozens of drivers were trapped last week on Highway 13 in Quebec. Some of them ran out of gas and had to be towed. (Simon-Marc Charron/Radio-Canada)

The backlash was swift and severe, and Potter has stepped down as head of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. 

'Academics can be completely wrong, but still they deserve the protection of academic freedom to articulate unpopular and controversial ideas. Otherwise, the state of our knowledge and our capacity to learn crawls to a halt.'  -  Emmett Macfarlane, UWaterloo

Before news of Potter's resignation, University of Waterloo political science professor Emmett Macfarlane wrote a column for Maclean's about the "chilling effect" of McGill publicly distancing itself from the controversial article. 

Macfarlane spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about why he thinks McGill failed to protect Potter's academic freedoms — and why his subsequent resignation sets a dangerous precedent. 

Emmett MacFarlane

University of Waterloo Emmett MacFarlane says McGill should defend its employees' academic freedom. (Emmett MacFarlane/Twitter)

Carol Off: What do you make of Andrew Potter's decision to resign?

Emmett Macfarlane: I think that it's, frankly, unacceptable and I'm not sure it's clear he resigned on his own volition. Obviously the university faced a lot of pressure and people tend not to simply resign over an op-ed without facing pressure from their administrators. I think McGill University administration, and especially the principal at McGill, have a lot to answer for. 

CO: What role do you think McGill actually played in this resignation?

EM: Well, I would want to know whether or not there was any communication between any political office — whether that's at the provincial level or locally — that placed pressure on the McGill administration to censure or sanction Mr. Potter. I'd certainly want to know whether or not Mr. Potter, in fact, faced a choice of either resigning or being fired. But until McGill's admin can be forthright in answering those questions, we can't be sure. 

Maclean's snowstorm story

This Maclean's article has sparked major backlash in Quebec. (CBC)

CO: What did you make of the article when you read it?

EM: Personally, I found the connection between the highway incident and the rest of some of the conclusions to be really questionable. I didn't find the op-ed itself persuasive. I think there were parts of the op-ed, and Mr. Potter has subsequently acknowledged this, that were completely over the top, that were based on anecdotes rather than sufficient information. I also think other parts of the op-ed were simply a relatively interesting discussion from statistics from Statistics Canada that showed some inter-provincial differences in levels of social trust and indicators.

EM: So, well I think the op-ed itself was thoroughly unconvincing and personally I didn't find it particularly well put together, it raised interesting and legitimate questions for any type of academic inquiry into the topic of social capital and social trust. The university, frankly, has no business commenting on the substance of one of its own scholars' public communications or arguments.

EM: This is something that can be settled, and was indeed settled, in public debate. There were responses to Potter's op-ed prior to his resignation that were highly and sharply critical, but that raised interesting points about the things that Mr. Potter was trying to discuss.

So, academics can be completely wrong, but still they deserve the protection of academic freedom to articulate unpopular and controversial ideas. Otherwise, the state of our knowledge and our capacity to learn crawls to a halt. Without the protections that McGill has blatantly failed to ensure, as the core principal of its academic mission, then it ceases to be an effective university in my view.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Emmett MacFarlane.