No hint of resignation in Andrew Potter's apology to McGill, documents show

Emails obtained by CBC provide a timeline of events between the publication of Andrew Potter's controversial Maclean's article and the announcement, four days later, that he would step down from his post.

Emails provide timeline of events following controversial Maclean's article that ended with his departure

Andrew Potter took over as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in August 2016. He resigned March 23. (McGill University)

A day after his controversial article appeared in Maclean's, Andrew Potter sent an email to McGill's principal and board members of the university's Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) expressing regret — but offering no indication he intended to resign.

Serving as the institute's director "is an enormous privilege and responsibility, the dream job of a lifetime, and I am extremely sorry for having let all of you and the Institute down," Potter wrote in the March 21 email.

"If anyone can suggest any further steps I can take to make this right, for MISC and for McGill, I'm all ears."

The email is part of a collection of correspondence obtained by CBC News through access-to-information legislation that provides a glimpse into what happened between the publication of Potter's article and the announcement, four days later, that he would step down from his post.

Academics have raised a concern that Potter's departure last month would cast a chill over the university. Some contend he was forced out over the article, which came under widespread criticism in Quebec — with even Premier Philippe Couillard calling it an "article of very poor quality."

At least one board member painted a stark picture of the situation in responding to Potter's email.

Alain Dubuc, a columnist for Montreal's La Presse newspaper, said the "incident will not help the MISC, and it will not help McGill University in its efforts to strengthen its links with Quebec." 

A day later, the board called an emergency meeting and, according the university, Potter requested to meet with McGill's principal, Suzanne Fortier, where the "discussion was about his ability to continue in his role as Director of MISC."

"The Board of Trustees of MISC accepted his resignation later that day," Louis Arseneault, the university's vice-principal of external relations, said in a statement to CBC.

He added that Potter himself "acknowledged that the credibility of the Institute would be best served by his resignation."

Potter's resignation was announced the following day, March 23.

An impromptu meeting, and a crafted statement

Fortier has declined repeated requests from CBC for an interview about Potter's resignation and the subsequent controversy. Potter, who issued a public apology about the article, also did not return a request for comment.

Potter's article, which linked a traffic jam on a Montreal highway to a broader "social malaise" in the province, clearly struck a nerve within the institute, which aims to foster dialogue between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

McGill principal Suzanne Fortier has come under criticism for her handling of the controversy. (McGill University)

In his email to Potter, Dubuc wrote that "many members of the board expressed their support with your predicament" but added that "some things have to be said."

The bulk of Dubuc's email is redacted.

So, too, are the entire responses from two other board members, Ken Whyte, former editor-in-chief of Maclean's, and Franca Gucciardi, CEO of the Loran Scholars Foundation.

But by the evening of March 22, it was clear Potter was on the way out. That evening, leadership at the university was preparing a statement announcing his resignation.

It appears Fortier and her chief of staff, Susan Aberman, were among those who worked on a draft of a news release.

"Suzanne and I have just discussed this attached version, with few suggested edits from us," Aberman wrote in an email sent at 11:08 p.m.

The statement, issued on behalf of the institute, said it had "accepted" Potter's resignation "effective immediately." The university said Potter would be staying on as a professor, though it hasn't yet confirmed whether he is teaching next year.

Academics want clarity

The newly released documents come as McGill faces continued questions about whether academics at the university are free to express their opinions. 

Earlier this month, 11 academics holding administrative positions sent a letter to Fortier asking for clarity about the university's position.

Academics with administrative positions at McGill sought clarity about the extent of their academic freedom in the wake of Potter's resignation. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)
The letter, shared with CBC, expressed concern that McGill's handling of the Potter case could undermine academic freedom, discourage faculty members from taking positions of responsibility and engage in public debate.

It also argued faculty members holding administrative positions, such as Potter's, should have the right to the same level of freedom of expression as any other professor.

In response, Fortier attempted to clarify the university's position, saying that academic administrators, such as Potter, "enjoy the full protection of academic freedom in the pursuit of their scholarly activities."

She added, however, that academics in such positions also have an obligation to ensure that "administrative responsibilities are discharged effectively to the highest institutional standards."

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About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.