J’accuse! Maclean’s, McGill, and the Andrew Potter Affair

The Invite

In early March of 2017, the Opinion editor at Maclean’s contacted me by email, inviting me to write a piece regarding the resignation of Dr. Andrew Potter as Director of the McGill Centre for the Study of Canada.  Maclean’s was looking for an “open letter to McGill from the point of view of what this means for Canadian academics, with a call to action of your choosing. If so, we would be delighted to publish it, and to ask for other academics to sign on.”

Potter, you may recall, had made some sweeping and unflattering comments about Quebec society based on reactions to a recent snowstorm. His comments went viral, and university officials went into damage control mode. Their  statements and Potter’s actions raised questions about academic freedom, the robustness of university autonomy, and the nature and extent of external interference in the internal academic processes and decisions of one of Canada’s top two universities.

My Maclean’s contact indicated I had been recommended to them by my former student and friend, Michael Byers of UBC, who made his own response to the Potter situation in the Globe & Mail. The Maclean’s staffer referenced also my “reputation in academe and over academic freedom issues.”  On this basis, I agreed to write an open letter, and set to work researching the debate around Potter’s commentary and resignation, and the governance structure, history, and mandate of the MISC.

In the course of the next week or so, I had several interactions with Maclean’s staff, culminating in their declining to publish what I wrote. In the course of these email exchanges, I agreed first to shorten my draft to a thousand words, while insisting that I would not change the substance of my analysis and recommendations. The shortened version of my draft then went upstairs at the magazine for further consideration. I learned that they liked the mix of wit and authority on display but felt it was not what they expected, indeed, required, of an open letter that might be signed by other scholars.

I then suggested that they drop altogether the idea of an open letter and publish the piece they had elicited and liked as my personal take on a sequence of events that raised important questions of interest to the general public as well as to academics. After all, I was still the same fellow whose reputation and expertise had caused them to contact me in the first instance.

At the end of the day,   I received a top-level apology from Maclean’s for leading me on and effectively wasting a good deal of my time, and I was left to wonder, both about possible sensitivities inside the Maclean’s organization to my spirited remarks and about possible fears of backlash, should they publish, as they had promised, what I had written.

I’m still wondering about this. Was the decision not to publish the result of trepidation on their part or inadequacy on mine? Can I accuse Maclean’s of censorship or not?  What follows here is what I wrote and they eventually refused. Make up your own mind whether it deserves to have been published while the story was everywhere in the mediascape, and whether my accusations levelled more confidently against Dr. Potter and McGill have any validity at all.          

Academic Freedom

Everyone claims to believe in academic freedom until someone  elects or is required to define or exercise it. Then differences disclose themselves and the  debate resumes. This is a good thing: a potentially teachable moment in current contestations of ancient liberties and their modern iterations in democratic and not-so-democratic societies.

In Canada that debate’s commonalities and differences gather around CAUT’s several policy statements on academic freedom, and AUCC’s (now UC’s) revised Statement on Academic Freedom issued to help mark its centenary in 2011. The latter document differs from CAUT’s policies primarily in the matter of extramural speech, in the right of academic staff to criticize their institutions, and in administrators’ desire to confine academic expression within the norms of particular academic disciplines and considerations of institutional loyalty and repute, often despite the policies in place in their own institutions. Administrators’ brand anxiety constantly threatens to subordinate core academic values of inquiry and expression (that the Supreme Court of Canada expected to be undertaken in a “free and fearless” way) to leadership’s version of the institutional interest.     

The affirmation and policing of academic brands occurs in ways as externally timorous as they are internally crass. And Canadian universities thereby create a problem for themselves. Frank Underhill long ago declared that the best way to preserve academic freedom was to exercise it. The converse is also true. The best way to undermine it is to discourage, dilute, or prohibit it. When any of the latter occur, the life of the mind may succumb to the urging, “Mind how you go.”

“The Silence of the Deans”  Redivivus

What happened at the University of Saskatchewan in 2014 entailed an over-scripting of senior administrators and the whipping of their votes in collegial fora. It was a sad travesty of shared governance in our time, and precipitated an instant global reputational meltdown after years of expensive effort in developing and burnishing the institutional brand. Alas, the lessons of that overreach and meltdown have not been widely heeded, including at McGill.

Most senior academic leaders are still drawn from the ranks of the professoriate. That means they either have to forget academic freedom as they knew and exercised it, or they have to wonder whether a reason for their elevation to a leadership position was that they had no record of commitment to academic freedom or that they openly shared administrators’ views of its appropriate subordination to quasi-cabinet solidarity and the need to be reliably on message for the good of the brand and the consoling flow of executive compensation.  This line of thinking is seriously at odds with the policy on “Academic Freedom for Academic Administrators” ratified by CAUT Council in 2010.   

Administrative overreach among and beyond its own numbers creates, in the  virtual absence of scepticism and critique, conditions that enable even greater folly, transforming the university into what I have elsewhere termed a “semiotic stockade,”  a place where free and  emboldened expression becomes meek or careerist messaging, and the logo police intrude  everywhere to serve and protect the institutional promise of rigour and harmlessness.

The Potter Affair

Dr. Andrew Potter seems at first blush an inspired choice to direct the MISC at McGill. He is an accomplished scholar and author, has pursued a successful career in an analogous domain where freedom of inquiry and expression are zealously protected and fearlessly practised (on a good day). He has the reputation, networks, and capacity for public intervention one might hope for in someone in such a position, especially in this the 150th year of Confederation, when the federal state looks longingly (and warily) to its scholars and artists to take it and its citizens beyond the sedative, the anodyne,  the wholesome, the solemn, into a robust, rancorous, emphatically unsettling set of encounters and interventions appropriate to a country with much to live up to and much to live down.

Colourless Confederation we no longer need, and can no longer afford. Coercive Confederation we have survived and should not return to. Provincial tranquillity, however revolutionary, we also have no need of. We need to nourish and gratify a renewed appetite for challenge and disquiet, if we are to come anywhere close to reimagining the Canadian project.

Québec (solidaire, carré rouge, secessionism, pure laine, and all) is an invaluable participant in this nations-building process, and Québec is diminished not a whit by a piece of impromptu, gotcha! anthropology reminiscent more of a mock in the snow than a walk in it. Potter took the time (though not enough) to write the piece that triggered the uproar. It was an appropriate use of his considerable experience and skills, and it appeared in print under the byline of the Director of MISC but neither on behalf of MISC nor on behalf of McGill.  Who, on reading the piece, could imagine that Potter was speaking in any other than his own voice, in an act of personal venting with exasperation as his muse and insouciance as his  modus operandi?     

Potter’s piece is singularly, even admirably unguarded, unfiltered, spontaneous. It also embraces risk in an age when academic leaders are intensely, even pathologically risk-averse and hope their minions, academic staff, and students will follow their cautious, too often craven, example.

Publish and be damned!

The Duke of Wellington’s famous rejoinder to would-be blackmailers offers an apt reminder of the vulnerability that attends eminence and reputation, and the need, if you think you deserve a high reputation, to act with the integrity and confidence that appropriate to that condition. McGill’s rapid, rote disavowal of Potter’s piece is knee-jerk brand-anxiety getting ready to enter full damage control mode while bringing an errant leader to heel. McGill sends a message whose chill is felt across its campus and hence across the Canadian academy. If this is how a pre-eminent institution deals with such matters, then this is the model to follow. 

J’accuse!

When academics of any sort or rank speak out, they should invite rebuttal but not fear reprisal. They should admit to errors and produce corrigenda, (as Maclean’s and Potter did) without necessarily feeling recantation and resignation are the proper paths to follow.

Potter’s relative inexperience as a faculty member seems to have led to overcompensation on his part when things got heated and nasty. He showed himself much too eager to take one for the team. Meanwhile, the origins of that eagerness remain unclear.

As for Principal Fortier and the army of advisors and brand managers that surround her (and virtually every other university president across Canada), she ought to be ashamed of herself for how she handled l’affaire Potter. Her distinction between promotion and provocation is laughable and dangerous, her notion of administrative responsibility more worthy of an Ottawa mandarin or Bay Street Captain Bligh than a university president.                    

Accordingly, I feel compelled to accuse Dr. Potter of unnecessary impulsiveness, not in writing his article, but for the rapidity and depth of his plunge into a snowdrift apology and remorse.

I feel compelled to accuse the MISC Board of Trustees of weakness in their acceptance of Dr. Potter’s resignation. They ought to recommend to Principal Fortier that Potter be asked to resume his Position as Director of MISC. The trustees are a group replete with accomplishment, integrity, and understanding of the role of the media, culture, and the academy in the fashioning and ongoing animation that keep our democracy alive and intermittently well. They can and should do better.

McGill’s senior administration needs to remedy a situation they helped create and aggravate. If McGill is the university it thinks it is, and which many of us sincerely esteem and wish the best for, it needs to apologize to its community, its alumnae, and to all Canadians for action and blather more befitting of a child caught doing something it knows to be wrong than of a great university.

Meanwhile, nervous nellies,  aggrieved patriotes, and devotees of gentility and gravitas should commit themselves to rebuttal, not reprisal, so that, once again, MISC can become as it claims to be, “no stranger to debate and controversy.“