State of the Profession: Stripping Academic Freedom from Administrators

By James L. Turk

Little did Andrew Potter, former director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, know that academic administrators were on the front line of the attack on academic freedom in Canada.

Potter is a public intellectual, with a PhD from the University of Toronto, who, in August 2016, left his job as editor in chief of the Ottawa Citizen to take up a three-year appointment as an associate professor and director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill. The university’s prize catch was gone eight months later following a firestorm over a March 2017 opinion column in Maclean’s magazine in which he criticized the “malaise” of Quebec society.

Quebec’s premier angrily denounced Potter’s column, as did the leader of the opposition. The province’s most respected French-language newspaper published a letter from a retired Quebec judge comparing Potter’s column to the kind of provocation that led to the Rwandan massacre.

Apparently surprised at the outrage over a column, Potter posted an apology on Facebook, unaware that his troubles at the university were only beginning.

Doing its own damage control, the university tweeted a disavowal of Potter: “The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill.” Who knew that McGill University had institutional “views” on Quebec society? To the surprise of university administrators, the tweet generated a good deal of outrage over its chilling effect on academic freedom.

The next day Potter met with Suzanne Fortier, the university’s principal, after which he tendered his resignation on social media. Many believed that he had been given the choice of resigning his directorship or being fired that day. The university began receiving more angry communications about its failure to defend academic freedom. Canada’s most prestigious newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, published an editorial highly critical of McGill’s failure to defend Potter’s academic freedom.

Quickly, the university issued a press release followed by a personal communiqué from Fortier indicating Potter had resigned and acknowledging “his courage in making this very difficult and painful decision.” She appended the university’s “Statement on Academic Freedom.”

This action seemed only to fuel concern about what had really happened. The president of McGill’s faculty association wrote to Fortier expressing concern, as did the Canadian Association of University Teachers—the AAUP’s Canadian counterpart—a few days later.

Under mounting pressure, Fortier agreed to her first media interview since the crisis began. In the subsequent article, aspects of the real story began to come out. Initially, in a somewhat oblique way, Fortier expressed her view that academic administrators did not really have academic freedom: “We have an institute that is there to promote discussions between people who come to the table with very different perspectives. It is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion. . . . It was an unfortunate article. It was perhaps a moment not remembering what his new role was.”

McGill’s dean of arts, in refusing to participate in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation panel discussing what happened, wrote the producer: “Everyone is allowed to criticize anything, but there are degrees of freedom that matter. Evidence matters. And so do job descriptions: belonging to an academy of scholars; having distinct administrative responsibilities.”

Troubled by the administration’s response, directors of eleven McGill institutes and centers wrote to Fortier expressing concern about her lack of support for academic freedom.

At the McGill board of governors meeting in late April, Fortier was pressed about Potter. She made clearer why Potter was gone: While “there is no restriction on academic freedom as faculty members,” she suggested the situation is different for academic administrators. According to Fortier, faculty members “will choose not to occupy administrative positions” so they can be provocative if they wish.

Fortier’s view that academic administrative leadership and provocative intellectualism shouldn’t mix is becoming more common among university presidents. Apparently, they feel that allowing academic administrators the freedom to also be engaged academics could taint the brand and offend important people. If that view is allowed to prevail, the university will be taking one more step down the traditional corporate road, with the academic community and the public it serves being the losers.

James L. Turk is director of the Centre for Free Expression and distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University. As executive director of CAUT, he served as a visitor and subsequently as a consultant on the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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