The Latest Attack on Academic Freedom in Canada: McGill Turns Away from Controversy and Provocation


“While the Institute itself is non-partisan, MISC is no stranger to debate and controversy.”—

“It is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion.”—McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier as quoted in The Globe and Mail


McGill University Principal Suzanne Fortier has spoken out in defense of her actions in accepting the resignation of Andrew Potter from his post as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC). She emphasizes on the responsibility of the leaders of academic units to represent those units. In particular, she maintains that the Institute must be non-partisan. However, she finds that in writing the Maclean’s article as director of the Institute Potter violated non-partisanship and, thus, poorly represented the Institute. His op-ed was, she claims, provocative and would lead political leaders not to wish to come to Institute events. She also claims that the scholarship was shoddy and as Institute Director Potter had to avoid such shoddy work.


Here are some facts upon which we can agree. Potter wrote the Maclean’s essay while the Director of MISC.  He is also identified as the Director of MISC on the webpage of the article.  Let us suppose that this means he wrote is as the Director of the Institute.[1] Let’s also agree that the essay was shoddy—he had already apologized for it and retracted a portion of it before he resigned.[2]


Here is another fact: Potter wrote several other pieces for the popular press in which he criticized some political points of view and was identified as the Director of the Institute.[3] For example, in an essay he wrote in January in the Ottawa Citizen he  says things about Trump and Stephen Harper[4] that Harper’s supporters would surely find misleading (if unsurprising). He also likens the entire American political scene to “two troops of apes shrieking at one another across a great partisan divide.” Before Potter gets to American politics, he says something absurd about humanities disciplines and truth.[5]  The piece is a shoddy op-ed by any reasonable standard. There were no calls for Potter to resign after having written that essay, and he did not.


So, it took more than writing an op-ed exhibiting poor scholarship and taking a partisan stand for Potter to resign.  It took an essay with poor scholarship that took a partisan stand and that offended the powers that be in Quebec. Only after the appearance of such an op-ed did Fortier decide that Potter had misbehaved in office.


Here’s the problem: in so defending “non-partisanship” in light of the actual record of Potter’s popular writings as Director, Fortier is committed to this: the Institute Director may criticize some political viewpoints (for example, Harper and the whole of American politics) in op-eds while he may not so criticize other viewpoints. That is, in an effort to defend non-partisanship, Fortier has made the Institute partisan.  The whole point of academic freedom is to defend academics’ rights to criticize any and every point of view.  Only by insisting that all views may be criticized can the Institute make a credible case that it is non-partisan and has academic integrity.


Fortier has made an enormous misstep. The Institute now occupies a position in the political order and can no longer criticize positions in that order from anything other than a recognizably partisan point of view. The academic integrity of the Institute has been undermined.[6] There simply is no academic integrity available for any academic researcher (particularly those of us who wish to speak publicly about any aspect of the social or political order) unless we are granted unfettered academic freedom to criticize any position.


It is unclear that Fortier wants the Institute to have academic integrity. She seems to think it should be a place where the great and the good of Quebec  and Canada gather for a comfortable chat. This might well keep the funding gates open at McGill but at the cost of removing McGill from the critical role of a university in society.


[1] I don’t think that is an obvious conclusion, actually. I have been identified in various ways in essays I have written; not all of those ways specify the social role I was occupying in writing the essay.  But this is not my concern today.

[2] Just what the scholarly standards are for an op-ed in a popular newspaper are, even when those op-eds are written by academics is, of course, unclear.

[3] Several of these are linked to the MISC website.

[4] “Scientists have developed an annoying habit of pointing out the connection between the activities of a modern economy and the heating up of the planet, while social planners like to make use of stuff such as demographic data to suggest social policy. That’s why Donald Trump, like Stephen Harper before him, is muzzling the scientists and statisticians.”

[5] “For the better part of the past 30 years, the received view in most humanities departments has been that truth is at best the handmaiden of capitalism, at worst the whore of patriarchy. Either way, all a commitment to truth ever gave us was inequality, environmental destruction and the atomic bomb. To argue otherwise is to reveal yourself as a fascist or – perhaps worse – a liberal.”

[6] Moreover, as a matter of public discourse and as a practical matter at McGill, the directorship question is a red herring. This can be seen by the fact that Potter did not merely resign the directorship; he resigned from the Institute entirely.  The Institute has been insulated from his criticisms of Quebec society.




The Fall of the Faculty: A Case Study of University Governance at UBC

Piece of Mind

This post expands on a talk I gave at a Conference on University Governance in the 21st century, which was held in Vancouver on March 3-4. My session was concerned with: Duty to Whom? Institutional Loyalty and Collegial Governance, which will be the subject of my next post. In this first part, I show how university governance as practiced at UBC is used to marginalize the faculty. Almost a year has passed since 800 faculty members at UBC voted non-confidence in the actions of the Board of Governors. Reforms, promised then by the Chair of the Board, Stuart Belkin, are yet to be announced, let alone implemented. The Board secretariat remains unchanged, its controversial shadowy ways intact, resisting and stalling FOI requests by the Faculty Association and others. The Chancellor is still in place, unmoved by a humiliating vote of non-confidence in his chairing of the presidential search committee…

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