L’affaire Potter

(Those who have been following the news will no doubt know that Andrew Potter, our co-blogger here on In Due Course, as well as my friend and sometime co-author, has been at the centre of not one, but two, recent scandals, the first when he published an unpopular column in Macleans, which he quickly came to regret, and the second when he stepped down from his position as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Unsurprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter…)


The McGill administration appears to have sleepwalked into what is arguably the most egregious violation of academic freedom in this country in living memory. To see how outrageous it is, consider how it would look had it occurred to me. Suppose, for instance, that I wrote an opinion column called “10 things I hate about Toronto.” That actually wouldn’t be much of a stretch, because I hate Toronto, and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a list of 10 things. In any case, no one would bat an eyelash. Why? Well among the many things wrong with Toronto, oversensitivity to criticism is not one of them. But ignore that for a moment, and suppose that all sorts of people got all upset. The Premier of the province denounced me, the Mayor took exception and accused me of “Toronto bashing.” That would be weird for several reasons – one of them being that everyone in the whole country engages in Toronto-bashing, and no one thinks twice about it. But there is another, less obvious point, which is that it’s not really Toronto-bashing if you live in Toronto. Then it’s called social criticism.

Andrew, by contrast, was accused of engaging in “Quebec-bashing,” which is a strange accusation, since according to René Lévesque’s definition Andrew is himself a Quebecer (i.e. he lives in Quebec). He has also lived in Quebec, off and on, for seven years of his life, his wife is a Montrealer born and raised, he is bilingual (he even taught for a semester at UQAM), and he left a high profile job as a newspaper editor to move his family to Montreal. He is, in other words, a well-integrated member of Quebec society with deep and extensive family roots in the province. Indeed, part of why he wrote such an incautious opinion piece was his failure to realize just how quickly he would be branded an outsider. (This is the same mistake that Jan Wong made, many years ago.)

In any case, suppose that this were all happening to me here in Toronto. I write my little opinion piece, making some incautious generalizations about Toronto. Everyone freaks out and claims that, having been born in Saskatchewan, I’m not a real Torontonian, and so my criticisms of the city are nothing but vile prejudices, by someone who has no idea what he is talking about, and so on. Some people get really upset, and so they call Meric Gertler, the University of Toronto President to complain. Meric then proceeds to have me fired…. Wait a minute. My story was already pretty crazy, but at the end there it veered over into totally inconceivable.

I hope this story helps to put l’affaire Potter into perspective, and will perhaps allow people who don’t quite get it yet to see why everyone in the infamous “rest of Canada” is reacting to the situation with incredulity and alarm. Frankly, I don’t see how McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier can keep her job after this, although the situation is rather fluid and so it’s difficult to predict the endgame. The media has, needless to say, been on the story, and it’s just a matter of time before all the details come out. Two somewhat general points, however, are worth making that have not been much discussed.

1. McGill’s defence. The official line coming from Fortier’s office is that Andrew only stepped down from his position as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, but that he will continue in his position as an associate professor at the university. Because he hasn’t been fired from his job, he only resigned his administrative post, there is no violation of academic freedom.

Here’s why no one buys this defence. Again, suppose that this were happening to me. I used to be the Director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto, so imagine that I said something super-unethical while occupying that position. (Suppose, for example, I pulled a Tom Flanagan, and pointed out in public that Canada’s child pornography laws criminalize certain forms of private, self-regarding behavior.) I can imagine someone arguing that, having lost all moral authority, I could no longer continue as the director of a Centre for Ethics. If I subsequently stepped down from that position, it would be no big deal. Why? Because I’m a tenured professor, so I just go back to living a quiet life, teaching my courses and doing my research.

The difference is that Andrew is not a tenured professor, and so there is no quiet life for him to return to. As of Thursday, he had to start looking for a new job. He is, I should note, an associate professor, not an assistant or an adjunct, but he is not tenure-stream. He was initially going to be hired to a 5-year position, but for administrative reasons that was reduced to a 3-year renewable contract. Up until this week, everyone’s expectation was that this contract would be renewed. The job was, in other words, not just a “stint” that he was doing at McGill, the understanding was that this was a permanent position. Now it is difficult to imagine circumstances under which McGill would renew his contract (he was hired, after all, in a search for the Director of the Institute, not in a general faculty search). So he is, in effect, being fired from his job, it is not just a matter of someone stepping down from an administrative position.

That’s the part that has academics really upset. There has been, as we all know, a huge move within universities away from hiring tenured faculty, and an increased dependence upon sessional and contract labour. For years now administrators have been assuring us that this is no problem, because they have such a strong and principled commitment to academic freedom that this move will not in any way affect the traditional mission of the university. But now, it turns out – at McGill of all places! – these contract faculty are disposable, and that you can get rid of them if they say something controversial, or something that offends the government of the day. This puts a huge chill on freedom of expression. It sets a precedent that absolutely cannot be allowed to stand.

Furthermore, I can imagine that every university president or principal in the country is deeply disturbed by this incident. The move toward staffing universities with contract faculty is one that has been producing serious anxiety among the professoriate. Administrators have been pushing it mainly for economic reasons, in the face of significant internal resistance, much of it focused on the concern about academic freedom. This incident shows that all of these fears were completely justified.

2. The plight of the public intellectual. There has also been a huge push, in the past decade, on the part of both Canadian universities and granting agencies for increased “public engagement” from faculty. Professors are being pushed and prodded and cajoled to get out of their ivory towers and get involved with the public issues of the day, to communicate the results of their research the broader public. This is what universities claim that they want. I myself have long had doubts about whether universities actually want this, or if they know what they are getting when they ask for this. Part of the evidence is that Canadian universities have an abysmal track record, when it comes to dealing with one of the natural consequences of this sort of public engagement, which is that their faculty sometimes get embroiled in controversy, and public debate has a rough-and-tumble quality that academics are often unprepared for.

In the case of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, the university was absolutely emphatic that what it wanted in a director was someone who was going to get McGill’s name in the media, who would raise the profile of the university with the broader Canadian public. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Turns out that what they really wanted was someone who would be out there in public, but never saying anything that offends anyone. In any case, it is important to recognize that when Andrew wrote this Maclean’s column, it was not a recreational activity or a private pursuit, he was doing something that was explicitly part of his job.

The basic problem, as far as I can see, is that the desire for increased public engagement is not driven by any real concern over the quality of public discourse. University administrators want faculty to have a higher public profile because they know which side their bread is buttered on, and they understand the need to justify their budgets. Politicians and the public look at the research being done in universities and easily conclude that it is all useless. If, however, the university can point to a faculty member who is on television, or who wrote an op-ed, it allows them to say “look, we’re making a contribution to society” (with the subtext, “you should keep funding us”). Basically, we provide air cover so that the troops on the ground (i.e. the rank and file faculty) can get the job done that matters (i.e. producing the research that will increase the status of the university among peer institutions). Because this is the university’s motivation, what they really want is professors who will go out and make the chattering classes feel good about themselves, by repeating back to them things that they already believe, in slightly uplifting language.

Faculty, on the other hand, might not leap at such an opportunity, and there is actually little to be gained, career-wise, from being a “public intellectual.” It is therefore important for universities to recognize how deeply undermining it is, to their public outreach efforts, when they instantly disown any professor who gets into any sort of public controversy. Take this blog, for instance, or the various trade books that I have written. People often ask me whether this has helped or hurt my academic career, and how the university feels about it. My answer is that it has probably hurt more than it has helped, and that the attitude of the university has been one of almost complete indifference to the actual work, combined however with a very abstract recognition, at the higher levels of the administration, that it is in general good for the university for people like me to be going on television or radio every so often, because it helps them to justify their budgets.

University of Toronto is too big for anyone here to care what I do – unless I get into trouble! – but I had an interesting run-in once with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSRHC) that illustrated the basic dilemma. During the early years of the Harper government, SSHRC were really worried about their budget, and I had recently published a best-selling book. As a result, they brought me to Ottawa to give a presentation, in a public lecture series that they invite all MPs to attend. They also came to my office in Toronto to shoot some video of me, for inclusion in a promotional video for the agency. They gave me a nice coffee cup with the new SSHRC logo, and so on. That same year, however, my application for a SSHRC grant was turned down. One of the referees zeroed out the evaluation of my proposal, claiming that I was misusing my grants, by spending too much time and energy on public communication and non-refereed work. So there I was, literally the poster boy for SSHRC, being denied a SSHRC grant, by a SSHRC committee, on the grounds that I was spending too much time posing for posters.

My response to this was, basically, that SSHRC needed to figure out what they wanted, and that once they figured that out, they needed to pursue that goal with some consistency. Most obviously, if you want public engagement, then you cannot penalize people for engaging with the public. The same thing applies to McGill. Their message to faculty right now is basically: “we want you to get out there and be thought-provoking, but don’t be controversial, and don’t make any mistakes, because if you do we’ll throw you under a bus.” The overwhelming majority of academics are both introverted and risk-averse. They scare easily. So if you want them to get out there and be bold, it’s really important not to do things like threaten their job security.

Again, it is worth emphasizing how disturbing this incident is, not just for McGill, but for all universities in Canada. It plants a seed of doubt that erodes all of the efforts that have been made, over the past few decades, to promote greater public engagement by academics.

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