McGill institute director resigns over magazine column

Andrew Potter's article lambasting Quebec's 'social malaise' was heavily criticised

March 27, 2017
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The director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada has resigned from his post after a magazine column he wrote about “social malaise” in Quebec came under heavy criticism, including from the province’s premier.

Announcing his resignation on social media, Andrew Potter, a former newspaper editor with a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto, cited “the ongoing negative reaction within the university community and the broader public to my column” as the reason. He has apologised for aspects of the column.

“This has been the dream job of a lifetime, but I have come to the conclusion that the credibility of the institute will be best served by my resignation,” Dr Potter wrote. He will continue in his position as an associate professor in the faculty of arts at McGill, one of Canada's leading universities.

News about Dr Potter's resignation immediately raised speculation about whether he was pushed out and concerns about academic freedom at McGill – concerns that the university's leader described as “unfounded”. The university was, however, quick to disassociate itself from Dr Potter's piece.

The Canadian news magazine Maclean’s, which published Potter's offending column, cited unnamed sources saying that “McGill endured such intense backlash over Potter’s Maclean’s piece that the university left him only two choices: resign or be fired”.

“If it is true that the McGill administration bowed to external pressure and forced Professor Potter to step down, then this would be one of the most serious violations of academic freedom in recent years,” David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said. “Universities have an absolute obligation to protect and defend the academic freedom of their faculty from outside influences.”

In a public message, McGill's principal and vice-chancellor, Suzanne Fortier, said the board of the institute accepted Potter's resignation "regretfully”. She wrote that Potter's "resignation provoked unfounded rumours and concerns regarding academic freedom”, which she described as a "foundational principle" for the university.

"The mission of [the institute] is to promote a better understanding of Canada through the study of our heritage and to support the study of Canada across the country and internationally," Fortier wrote. "Professor Potter recognised that he had failed to uphold this mission and that the 'credibility of the institute would be best served by his resignation’."

Potter's controversial Maclean's column, which was published on 20 March, offers a dim view of Quebec's society as lacking in social cohesion. Potter takes as his starting point for the piece the stranding of hundreds of cars on a Montreal highway during a snowstorm last week and argues that the stranding "reveals the essential malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society”.

In making the case that, compared with the rest of Canada, "Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted”, Potter cites statistics related to volunteerism rates, civic engagement and social isolation; discusses the scale of the province's underground, cash-only economy; and describes the lack of "proper" uniforms worn by protesting police officers and the "on strike" stickers plastered on Quebec's emergency response vehicles as having a corroding effect on public trust in institutions.

Potter has apologised for parts of the column, saying in his resignation statement that “I deeply regret many aspects” of it, including “its sloppy use of anecdotes, its tone and the way it comes across as deeply critical of the entire province”.

He previously issued an apology for what he described as “rhetorical flourishes that go beyond what is warranted by either the facts or my own beliefs”, according to the Montreal Gazette, which quoted from the earlier apology statement. Maclean's also issued two factual corrections.

This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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