Monthly Archives: March 2017

 

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Quebec politics are brutal. I grew up there, cut my teeth on the Quebec media and the tumult of language debates, sovereignty movements, and the obsessive interest in professional sports teams. I get the passion urban Quebecers especially have for good food, late nights, and anything that promotes social cohesion. I also get the sensitivity to perceived threats to that cohesion. And so it is not that surprising to me that Andrew Potter stepped down as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada after writing an article for Maclean’s that accused Quebec of alienation, among other morale-challenging traits. He wrote the column in a fit of pique after a particularly brutal snow storm that left two people dead and hundreds of people stranded in their cars on a highway, not a snow plough in sight.

It may or may not soon become clear that Dr. Potter was actually asked to step down by the principal of McGill, Dr. Suzanne Fortier. The response to Dr. Potter’s resignation has generated a fair bit of outrage among the chattering class. How, one might ask, can a published opinion piece, even a grumpy, snarky one, justify an administrator resigning—or being encouraged to resign—from his position. The tipping point in this unraveling narrative was the (official) McGill tweet firmly stating that the “views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @Macleansmag article do not represent those of #McGill.” Ouch. One can only imagine the conversation among senior administrators and communications staff that led to that tweet—a seriously misguided gesture if ever there were one. Who honestly thought that was a good idea? How could anyone reading Dr. Potter’s Maclean’s piece honestly think it was a formal expression of McGill University? The McGill tweet betrays a defensiveness unbecoming the institution. That’s the sort of reaction a US president shamelessly demonstrates on his smart [sic] phone these days. It is not a big leap to see the McGill tweet not only as institutional distancing but also as censoring, a thinly veiled challenge to academic freedom itself.

I know of many journalists and colleagues of Dr. Potter across the country who are really distressed by this turn of events, and I should think we haven’t heard the last of it. It will be really interesting to see how the McGill board of trustees will be dealing with the matter—that is, if their deliberations ever lead to a public statement. It would be a pretty bold move for a board to question the head of the university, especially if she did, indeed, insist on Dr. Potter’s resignation.

This is the sort of event that sends chills up our spines. I have done my share of opinion pieces over several decades, not the least of which have appeared in this blogspace. Before I became an academic administrator, I published more than one brassy column about government, arts funding, social priorities, and so on. Not once did anyone at Memorial ever so much as suggest I should tone down the provocation. As a dean, I started a blog while entirely mindful that my voice was no longer fully my own, that my title now assumed a more institutional perspective, not just a personal one. Many people have asked me over the years about how I balance personal and professional voices. I do not have an easy answer, and I do not always manage that balance gracefully. I do know that now, as provost and VP, I censor myself a hell of a lot more than I’d like. But that’s the reality of any serious leadership position. I can’t be out here railing all the time against what bugs me. Some of it is just too personal or sensitive. Any writer might ask herself, how to be bold and provocative while being fair and honest? It’s delicate. Being too safe is dull and boring; being too loud brings on the backlash and the trolling. I respect but cannot abuse academic freedom.

In any event, if I ever thought this university would follow one of my columns with a tweet along the lines of “the views expressed by @ngolfman do not represent those of #Memorial” I’d have to think twice about the whole bloody works—about being in the job, about writing, about expressing myself—and I’d probably be looking for something else to do. Right now, Dr. Potter is probably asking himself, what next?

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It’s been a month since I visited this blogspace. Travel, work, weather, you name it: sometimes it’s just harder than I‘d like to find time for a thousand words in the right order.

It has occurred to me that almost all of my February activity has involved Talking to Americans. At the beginning of the month I was in California for board meetings, the only Canadian among American deans and vice presidents. I last saw this group before the US election, and the mood was decidedly different this time. Their President had just issued his odious travel ban and they were still reeling from the implications of the Executive Order. Some have estimated that US colleges will suffer upwards of about $156 million in lost revenues as a result of the ban. Before I left for the trip, Memorial had waived our application fees for applicants from those then seven affected countries, as well as from the US, and so by the time I got to the meeting I was able to report not only on our action but on the surge of interest it had generated in only a few days. I was treated around the board table as if I were a creature from another planet—a planet open to the big wide world and all its people. Our Prime Minister had quickly tweeted that Canadians welcomed immigrants and refugees, as refreshingly graceful a message-as-antidote as you could possibly want. Following his lead, Memorial decided to go there. In a few short days, applications started coming in. By my last count, we have waived about 200 applicants’ fees from travel-banned countries. More important is that our university took leadership quickly and, in turn, became identified as a welcoming destination. Some of those applicants will find themselves accepting our offers to study in our programs and they will be supported with a special scholarship for at least their first semester. We are working on the details and will have a better idea of the extent of the support once we know how many students will be accepted.

During the February break we took our annual vacation in the Caribbean, returning for the tenth year to the same island and the small hotel. Over the years, we have come to know many of the other returning guests, but this year our conversations took some unexpected turns among the palm trees. Politics was almost always the primary topic of conversation, as inevitable as a midday margarita. Unlike the members of the board I had conversed with in California, many of the Caribbean tourists turned out to be Trump voters. It was a little shocking to realize that the person you were talking to you knew was not at all who you had thought him/her to be. You had to reconcile your otherwise favourable impression of these people with the fact of their voting choice. Their hatred of Hilary Clinton was deep and palpable, and some would have happily voted for Bernie, or so they said. But their repulsion at Hilary’s perceived corrupt, Washington insider status was a bigger turn-off than the Zika virus. It was sobering, margaritas notwithstanding, to listen to their impassioned expressions of the need for change, and their admittedly qualified hope that Donald Trump would somehow lead them to a Greater America. My parting shot to them: let’s compare notes next year.

My third direct encounter with Americans happened only last weekend, when a bunch of us went down to NY City to see Come From Away in one of its last Broadway pre-opening premier performances. As you would now know from the largely favourable reviews, the musical is a big hit, and well deserving of the attention it is getting from here, there, and everywhere. Long may it prosper. It’s a bit surreal to be sitting on 44th street, smack in the most famous theatre district in the world, surrounded by cheering, bawling Americans who embraced the show with the same fervor and appreciation that we did. New York voted for Hilary, of course, and so the irony of the play’s message about a small town “in the middle of nowhere” opening up its rooms and hearts to thousands of stranded passengers was not lost on anyone, not while the White House is actively discouraging welcoming anyone except, possibly, Russians.

I love New York, and New Yorkers will surely love us after they see Come From Away. But what makes New York so refreshingly open and fearless is best demonstrated at the Museum of Modern Art, where the permanent collection (a fathomless collection of all the great 20th century painters and sculptors) now boasts the inclusion of artists from the seven countries banned in the original Executive Order. And so it is that in the same room housing Matisse you will find Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi; right beside Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” is a painting by Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect who died last year, and so on. MOMA was packed on the weekend afternoon, as always, but many New Yorkers had returned to the galleries just to see the newly hung works by artists who would no longer be admitted into their country. MOMA had responded quickly and deftly to the Executive Order with an elegant, eloquent protest. Not hard to feel enormous respect for the wise curators and the museum’s leadership. And by the way, the photo above shows you the message hanging beside each one of the freshly installed works. It moves you just to read it.

If you make a pilgrimage to see a play about Newfoundland welcoming strangers after 9/11, make it a point to drop in on the permanent collection at MOMA. Both experiences will nourish the soul.