Maclean’s editorial: What the Andrew Potter affair was really about

Maclean’s continues to believe in the vital importance of a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions—even if McGill University does not.


 
McGill University campus is seen Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Montreal. The author of a controversial article about Quebec that appeared in Maclean's magazine this week has stepped down from his post at McGill University.Andrew Potter said in a social media post Thursday his resignation as director of the Institute for the Study of Canada was effective immediately. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

McGill University campus is seen Tuesday, June 21, 2016 in Montreal. The author of a controversial article about Quebec that appeared in Maclean’s magazine this week has stepped down from his post at McGill University.Andrew Potter said in a social media post Thursday his resignation as director of the Institute for the Study of Canada was effective immediately. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Here’s a highly provocative thing to say at this juncture: Maclean’s and McGill University, not so different.

We’re both in the business of ideas. We both like to stock our ranks with extraordinarily smart people who have interesting theories, opinions, approaches and ways of looking at the world. We probe, we investigate, we accumulate knowledge and facts, all in the name of higher ideals. For McGill, those higher ideals are education, knowledge, excellence. For Maclean’s, they are journalism, democracy, civil engagement.

We’re both in the business of the passionate pursuit of truth. But last week McGill chose a different—and in our view deeply troubling—path.

The background here hardly needs repeating—it is on the front-page of your newspaper, in your Twitter feed and everywhere on Facebook. The initial opinion piece Mr. Potter wrote for Maclean’s magazine is here. There were two errors of fact in the piece, which were quickly corrected. Mr. Potter offered an immediate apology, saying “I regret the errors and exaggerations in what I wrote, and I’m very sorry for having caused significant offence.” Maclean’s magazine did not apologize. We restated our support for Mr. Potter and his work.

McGill, for its part, disavowed the piece early and often. The day after the piece was published online, McGill tweeted: “The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill.” The next day, Mr. Potter resigned. Sources tell us he was left with two options: resign or be fired. The use of the word ‘resignation’ here is spurious. If you are handed a revolver then you’re being fired, simple as that. In repeated public statements, McGill has maintained that Mr. Potter resigned of his own volition.

What McGill and Maclean’s both have going for us is the belief, within our walls, that the people who pursue truth for us, on behalf of us, will be protected by us. In our case at Maclean’s, that means our journalists and opinion writers can do their work because they know they are safe. They can be provocative. They can be controversial. They can reveal confidential information. They can say unpopular things. If they are doing their jobs as capable reporters and informed opinion writers, they know we will stand by them. It is our duty. Mr. Potter has a standing invitation to write for us again.

The safety that results from this knowledge is the underpinning of academic freedom, too. McGill itself re-iterated last week: “The university and its officers have a duty to protect the academic freedom of its scholarly community, both individually and collectively, from infringement and undue external influence as well as to maintain the university’s institutional autonomy.”

Indeed. And yet against the backdrop of an incredible wave of political comment–Mr. Potter’s column was decried by the premier of the province and the federal heritage minister, as well as Quebec’s finance minister, who called for Mr. Potter’s dismissal—the university chillingly opted not to protect Mr. Potter from “external influence.” And in heeding the clamour, McGill also failed to maintain the university’s “institutional autonomy.”

Many of us have bruises to show for the last week—none more unfairly so than Mr. Potter, who finds himself out of the directorship, a dream post for which he was uniquely qualified. Maclean’s has taken its knocks too. The article was flawed. Along with correcting the factual errors, we apologized to Mr. Potter for an editing process that fell short. And McGill is wounded, now at the wrong end of an investigation by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which pulls no punches when it says: “If the University did indeed cave in to external pressure and Professor Potter was pressured or coerced into resigning, this would represent one of the most significant academic freedom cases in recent decades. It is in everyone’s interest that all details surrounding Professor Potter’s resignation are revealed.”

McGill may do well to heed a journalistic credo: light is the best disinfectant.

Although critics have demanded we remove Mr. Potter’s article from our website, we will not. Maclean’s continues to believe in the vital importance of a free and open exchange of ideas and opinions—even when they offend, even when they are inconvenient, even when they are denounced. Even if the much-admired university at the centre of this case does not.

The rules may have changed at McGill, but they haven’t here.


 

Maclean’s editorial: What the Andrew Potter affair was really about

  1. I am late to the party on the issues raised in Potter’s original article and the reactions to it. As well, since I’ve been living offshore for more than sixteen years, I’m only just now catching up on Canadian affairs. I’m beginning to wonder how much I’ve missed.

    Have I missed what’s offensive in the article because I’m out of touch? What exactly is one not allowed to say when it comes to commenting on, and, yes, even criticizing, a community, a province or our country? I could find nothing hateful in the article, i.e., no hate speech, and the main thesis–that the province may be suffering from a lack of connections and involvement–seems to be supported by some of the statistics quoted, but tell me how all of Canada isn’t suffering, in varying degrees, from the same malaise.

    That Potter should be asked to resign (even if he retains his professorship) by the university is the far more appalling and dangerous crime.

    A healthy society demands that each of us be open to improvement and be involved in improving at least a part of our surroundings. It demands that we be free to express our opinions and free to enter into a dialogue where we can disagree without damning those whose opinions differ from ours, provided that we’re not promoting hate or violence.

    Shame on McGill University.

    And shame on those Quebecois who can’t take criticism.

    I wonder how people would have reacted had Potter written an article along Swift’s A MODEST PROPOSAL. Instead, he wrote an article that points out an opportunity for growth. Good for him!

    I suspect there’s more to the overall story here, e.g., is it possible that Mr. Potter inadvertently offended one of the university’s major donors?

    With all that’s going on south of the 49th parallel, surely Canadians can aspire to be better–and freer–than that.

    • “With all that’s going on south of the 49th parallel, surely Canadians can aspire to be better–and freer–than that.”

      Free speech wise we are actually just as bad if not worse than the US. We are showing the same patterns of censureship and Universities blocking speakers based on protests. This is preventing real discussion and creating division. I am a Millenial…but I am concerned the fresh batch of new graduates are losing their ability to critically think and debate controversial opinions. The rise of intersectionality, identity politics and safe spaces will take its toll. It is weird that as a classic liberal…I am today classified as a conservative….

    • What you missed is the relentless, non-stop Québec bashing and anglophone media.

      “And shame on those Quebecois who can’t take criticism.”

      You’re a pedophile. What? You don’t like it? Shame on you if you can’t take criticism.

      • in the anglophone media*

    • The problem with his article is that it was full of lies and extremely intellectually dishonest.

      “that the province may be suffering from a lack of connections and involvement–seems to be supported by some of the statistics quoted”

      Sure… the numbers support what he says assuming you are the kind of stupid person who takes numbers at face values. Couldn’t possibly be that say, francophone Québécois in their 50’s and above, which constitutes the largest demographic, were born into families of 8-12 children, which means that developing close friendships might not have been a priority. And this is exactly what the issue is with this article. It’s a steaming pile of intellectually dishonest and ignorant BS that completely ignores historical, sociological and political context. It is pure BS. Did I make it clear?

      Now explain to us lowly Québecois why we should accept a steaming pile of misplaced horse shit as criticism?

      The funniest thing is that you admit that you’ve been away and have no idea what the hell is going on AND YET, you allow yourself to judge us. If that’s not incredibly being idiotic, I don’t know what is.

  2. Bravo Maclean’s its too bad the rest of Canada can’t stop grovelling and stand up and tell Quebec what it can do with its petty, pathetic, undemocratic and corrupt Provincial and Municipal levels of government. Quebec is an embarrassment to the rest of the country.

    • Comment des gens qui ont voté pour Rob Ford peuvent-ils dire que le Québec est un embrasement ? Franchement regardez dans votre propre cours.

    • I think it’s time Québec stands up even more and tell the rest of Canada what it can do with its disgusting paternalistic, moralizing, supremacist and hypocritical attitude.

      This Québec is an embarrassment to the rest of the country? Gee, don’t look yourself in a mirror. You might realize that your history and continuous bullying toward Québec and other francophones outside Québec is plenty shameful

      • Think Québec is*

      • I’ve been having a blast exposing your hypocritical racism toward Québec to people elsewhere in the world by compiling and posting comments like yours.

  3. Keep up the great work, I read Maclean’s from cover to cover when it comes in the mail, still like getting it as a paper copy (no internet at cottage).

    We have to stand up and have courage to speak out against anyone or any group or any ideology that wants to curtail our right to speak and voice our opinion no matter how much it may offend.

    • Pourquoi supporter des gens qui selon leur propre dire ont menti. Pourquoi McGill ou n’importe quelle autre université devrait appuyer des Fake news. Franchement, je pensais que les anglos avaient plus de moral que cela!

  4. Bottom line: “The article was flawed. Along with correcting the factual errors, we apologized to Mr. Potter for an editing process that fell short.”

    Don’t prop up your choice to publish sensationalist journalism with shaky free speech arguments. Journalist integrity and the truth should be your priorities. You admit yourself, you fell short.

  5. Your editorial got it wrong. This is not an issue of freedom of expression. Andrew Potter had to resign, not because he expressed himself freely, but rather because he was the Head of MISC, and as an administrator he had to act within the “devoir de réserve”. MISC is devoted to the research in Canadian studies. As such, its director is not supposed to indulge in Quebec bashing or to crack Newfie jokes. As a journalist, Mr. Potter would have been free to make a fool of himself, and make any comment about a province he knows little about. But as an administrator, he had to act in a reasonable fashion. In the same way, a diplomat is not supposed to say that the country where he has been dispatched is full of morons or that the food is awful. As a representative of Canada, he must observe the “devoir de réserve”. In that respect, Mr Potter has horribly failed, and so have you in confusing freedom of expression with job responsibility.

    • Michel Faure
      That makes sense. I wonder if anything has been published about that scenario, officially.

      I agree, in that position, he should not have divulged his own opinions about some part of Canada, since he was involved – as head – in the Study of Canada. I was thinking that separating journalism from academia (or publishing in a magazine vs publications of academic research) was the dividing line. But the problem was that he held that position and spoke recklessly.

      This appears to be more of an issue of the private and the public rather than free speech and academic freedom, or journlism vs academia.

  6. This is nothing more than someone trying to attack someone who is in a high position in society. Everybody likes seeing people fall in society and everybody is offended. Society likes to see people fall down.

    • Dough,

      In part, you may be right, except that in this case it was the university that decided to take action against Andrew Potter. Am I right, or did the public speak out against him and the university went along with that?

      What I was going to say, actually following through from what Michel Faure wrote, and my response to that, was that this may also be seen as a situation of the Public vs the Private. In public, while doing his job, Potter has to be objective and listen to all perspectives and give them the time and research required to be fair and to be seen as being fair. In private, however, Potter is permitted to do what he likes – to write his own perspective on the very issues he is doing academic research on. But because it is being done outside academia, then he legitimately has that right, one would think.

      In this case, however, the lines are not clear between the public and private. There is an overlap, due to his responsibilities as Head of the Study on Canada. Now, however, as simply a prof, one might assume he could speak out in public as well as doing more in depth research that can be viewed as legitimate.

  7. “What McGill and Maclean’s both have going for us is the belief, within our walls, that the people who pursue truth for us, on behalf of us, will be protected by us. In our case at Maclean’s, that means our journalists and opinion writers can do their work because they know they are safe. ”

    What is the purpose of Macleans stating this. It is quite obvious that their writers are not safe and cannot take for granted they are. It’s akin to the sisterhood of feminists. In the end, not all feminists are safe. Not all will be granted respect for their efforts. And feminists will not always be able or be willing to help all women who need their help.

    Similarly, this excerpt by the Editor about universities seems to be a bit off the mark:
    ““The university and its officers have a duty to protect the academic freedom of its scholarly community, both individually and collectively, from infringement and undue external influence as well as to maintain the university’s institutional autonomy.””

    Surely, the meaning of that statement is that academics will be protected by universities in the carrying out of their work, that their research will be protected and even defended if necessary. But that is not the problem with the Macleans piece by Andrew Potter. That was not an academic piece of work. Universities aren’t obliged to protect their researchers for errors made in off-campus pieces for magazines. Academics are on their own when they do that, surely. And isn’t that why when feminist controversy raises its head in magazines and newspapers that feminists rarely get involved?

    I can’t see that Macleans deciding to keep the Andrew Potter piece on its pages does much to protect him. Macleans and McGill are nothing alike.