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The chilling effect of a McGill University tweet on its scholars

University of Waterloo professor Emmett Macfarlane on why McGill’s public distancing of itself from a scholar is a problem


 
Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

Controversy erupted over an opinion piece authored by Andrew Potter, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, published on the Maclean’s website Monday. Potter connected a winter storm stranding hundreds of commuters on a Montreal highway to what he argued was the “almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society” in Quebec. The next day, Potter posted an apology on Facebook, stating that he went too far in some of his analysis and that he extrapolated too much from personal anecdotes with respect to some of his claims.

But the real scandal came at about the same time, in the form of a statement from McGill University’s official Twitter account that distanced the university from Potter’s op-ed. “The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill,” it read.

This may seem, on the surface, a relatively innocuous statement. But it is in fact a reprehensible attack on the core of the academic mission, and specifically on academic freedom.

Academic freedom ensures that scholars and researchers can teach and communicate ideas free from fear that they might face sanction from outside interests and, perhaps especially, their own institutions. The concept is only useful if it protects research and ideas that are controversial, obscure, or otherwise unpopular in order to guarantee the pursuit of curiosity-generated knowledge and learning, as well as bringing the benefits of novel (dare I say “innovative?”) thinking.

A university publicly disassociating itself from the specific ideas disseminated by one of its scholars may seem like a rote public relations maneuver. It is easy to see why McGill’s administration might adopt the politician-like tactic; Potter’s column was deemed insulting and offensive by some in Quebec, and the last thing the university needs in today’s climate is a dent in its alumni donations or, worse still, an excuse for hostility from the provincial government.

By thinking like a crisis management team instead of a university, however, McGill lost sight of the core principles by which it ought to be governed. It doesn’t matter whether Potter was wrong or “offensive”—indeed, getting things wrong is a key part of any meaningful scientific or knowledge-creating pursuit. Nor does it even matter that Potter issued an apology for parts of his piece. It is simply not the place of his university to issue a statement disavowing itself from his opinion.

Here’s the real problem: the statement creates a potential chilling effect for scholars at McGill, particularly pre-tenure, contract, or “sessional” researchers and instructors who do not enjoy the protections of tenure. They may now rightly fear that offending the wrong people via the pursuit of certain types of research or the dissemination of unpopular ideas will lead to a public slap on the wrist, or worse, negative consequences for tenure or promotion. The issue extends beyond Potter or this one op-ed.

In light of this, a number of important questions need to be considered. Who is responsible for the university’s statement about Potter’s op-ed? It is highly unlikely that this was a proactive tweet by the communications staff; it almost certainly came from someone in the senior administration. Was there any communication between anyone in McGill’s administration and Andrew Potter about the op-ed? If so, did that communication include censure or the threat of sanction? And was any pressure placed on Potter to issue the apology?

McGill University needs to reconsider and apologize for its statement, and issue a new statement reassuring McGill faculty and students, as well as the broader academic community, of its commitment to the basic principles of academic freedom. And if any administrator voiced displeasure to Potter or threatened to sanction him, that individual is simply not fit to have a role in university governance.

There will no doubt be readers who will argue this an overreaction to a simple tweet. These will tend to be people who see Potter’s op-ed as containing little to no value, or worse, to being an insult to Quebecers or even, as one person suggested to me on Twitter, racist hate speech.

But much like free speech, academic freedom is only meaningful if it protects ideas, arguments, or research that we don’t all agree with. Absent rare instances where research practices directly cause appreciable harm, universities exist to protect, not denigrate or even comment upon, the right of their scholars to voice their opinions in public forums or the classroom as they see fit. On this score, McGill’s failure should be seen for the very real danger it poses.

Emmett Macfarlane is a political science professor at the University of Waterloo. You can find him on Twitter @EmmMacfarlane


 

The chilling effect of a McGill University tweet on its scholars

  1. Mr MacFarlane, you should have done a little research before defending the academic freedom of Mr Potter. He had apparently left scholarly pursuits quite some time ago to pursue a journalistic career to become a managing editor (an ops job) at the Ottawa Citizen He is not a McGill professor, apparently does not teach or do research, does not supervise graduate students, and I’m really not quite sure what he actually does as the director of the MISC, which is a rather independent boutique showroom window for the university. He wrote that piece outside of the context of “scholarly” work, and McGill was perfectly justified in distancing themselves. His independent appointment is an embarrassment to the university, considering the eminence of past and current scholars associated with the institute.

    • ” He is not a McGill professor” – wrong – he has a three-year contract as an Associate professor

      • Further, a MIchael Friscolanti Macleans article stated, “Although Potter is out as MISC director, he will stay on as an associate professor in the faculty of arts. It is a three-year contract, part of his original appointment.”

    • Heh. Maybe YOU should do some research before writing a comment like this.

  2. Good article Professor Macfarlane. The larger implications of McGill’s stance and actions (if they indeed forced Potter’s resignation) are scarier than what Potter said in his original (since amended) article. Universities throughout Canada have, in recent years, become beholden to their “partners” (whether government or corporate) at the expense of academic independence. AS Macfarlane stated, “It doesn’t matter whether Potter was wrong or “offensive”—indeed, getting things wrong is a key part of any meaningful scientific or knowledge-creating pursuit. Nor does it even matter that Potter issued an apology for parts of his piece. It is simply not the place of his university to issue a statement disavowing itself from his opinion.” Bingo!

  3. I’m sorry. McGill will not be apologizing for its tweet. McGill university and its administration do not make mistakes. They never make mistakes! Do you understand?

    • Got it. That makes two of them. McGill and The Donald.

  4. I would agree with MacFarlane that today’s Universities are far too politically sensitive, and as PGB states above, this is due to the significant funding provided by “partners” who themselves are highly sensitive to possible criticism. Universities today are really not the same beasts they once were, and the result is definitely the erosion of free speech. By rights, institutes calling themselves Universities should be required by law to support freedom of speech with specific clauses outlining the exact nature of the freedom of speech afforded to its members and when and where they are protected. For example, outlining the protections afforded when a professor speaks out in a University publication, including it’s internet pages, whether that freedom of speech extends to cover them when they speak out in media outside of the University, whether they are protected when making academic or non-academic statements, etc. It seems to me that academic speech should be protected at least to the extent that journalistic freedom of speech is protected. Further, University “partners” should also have to sign statements before they become “partners” to University life, and obtaining the benefits of such relationships, requiring them to acknowledge the possible down-side to University relationships that academic freedom of speech might entail. Of course, partner interference is a hard thing to police, but a serious institution would make it difficult to the point of impracticality for partners to apply pressure underneath the table through informal means, and being warned legally up front about academic freedom would be enough for most partners to only grit their teeth and respond that the ‘opinions of the University and it’s academics do not…..bla bla bla”. For partners, that sort of political cowardice I think would be permissible and harmless, but not for the University itself, and definitely not for the University to force, or accept the resignation of any of its academics due to public pressure not supported by proof of illegal behavour. The issue of eroding academic freedom extends across the country and beyond of course.

    As an aside, I’m surprised Potter didn’t use the example of Montreal cabbies instead of restaurants in his diatribe about the underground Quebec economy. More than once I’ve been caught with having to try and get Montreal cabbies to accept credit cards, often resulting in long disagreeable arguments at the destination, the longest of which was over 30 minutes. I now demand up-front before I get in whether they will accept a credit card or not, indicating I’ll go to the next cab if not, and have often had to do just that when I don’t get a clear “oui”. Nowhere else have I had an experience even remotely like that. I don’t agree with Potter about Quebec being “pathologically alienated….” Really, I find people living in Quebec just as po’d with their inadequate infrastructure as I am with ours. Personally, I hope Quebecers rake their political and institutional leadership over the coals but good. That’s where the resignations and firing should happen, not at McGill. So, why didn’t they call in the army? Oops, …..it was Montreal not Toronto….forgot that for a second…sorry, wash my mouth out… not enough okay, I resign….still not enough, I fall on my mouse…and my cursor, the opinions of commentors do not necessarily reflect those of Macleans and those of Rogers Media which……. oh forget it.

  5. For journalists and professors this article struck a spark to light up, once again, the ongoing debate between Freedom of Speech and Responsible Journalism.

    Mr. McFarlane has denounced the action of McGill University as self-serving and against the primary principles of Freedom of Speech.
    I firmly believe McGill was correct in distancing itself. It was an “opinion” piece filled with unscholarly inaccuracies for which Mr. Potter later apologized. His opinions were given additional weight when he was identified as “the Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.” Financial reasons or not, it was within the right of the university to remind readers that Mr. Potter did not represent McGill university when he wrote the article.

    McFarlane notes, “It doesn’t matter whether Potter was wrong or “offensive”—indeed, getting things wrong is a key part of any meaningful scientific or knowledge-creating pursuit.”

    This, in my opinion, is the fundamental issue at hand. I would argue that Mr. McFarlane’s views are dangerously out of date—Today’s news is an unstoppable flow of information that sits in our hands 24-7, a highly lucrative and profitable market, ready for immediate consumption. We are no longer readers but consumers, and many media have adapted an aggressive sales pitch mentality toward streams of communication that favours voicing opinions louder than facts.

    For instance, if Mr. Potter had written a fact-based, unbiased article to support his theory, would Maclean’s Magazine have enjoyed such famed attention? Is there not a financial benefit to “stir the pot”? Surely its’ editors must have known that bank machines in Quebec do not spit out only $50 bills, and visitors to our province should be made aware that jaywalking is, in fact, illegal and actively ticketed.

    The public at large still want to trust what they read. They want journalists and scholars to honour their role as gatekeepers of information. The American election scandals currently under investigation shine a gigantic magnifying glass on how easily this trust can be used for political gain.

    So yes, Mr. McFarlane, It does matter—it matters a lot—that those in a position of authority manage their flow of communications responsibly and accurately; that they put their best foot forward to avoid being “wrong” or “offensive”.

    Bending statistical data to fit a theory, adding conjecture and exaggerations that are completely false, insulting a population of people, and then adding a scholarly signature to legitimize the content before sending it out to millions of people, is not just irresponsible, it is downright dangerous.

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