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?