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Why Andrew Potter lost his ‘dream job’ at McGill

High-profile writer forced out over a Maclean’s column in what’s being called an attack on academic freedom


 
McGill University Arts Building, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Oleksiy Maksymenko/Getty Images)

McGill University Arts Building, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Oleksiy Maksymenko/Getty Images)

Andrew Potter has resigned as director of McGill University’s Institute for the Study of Canada, two days after writing a controversial Maclean’s column that infuriated many Quebecers and triggered a heated debate over academic freedom.

In a brief interview Wednesday night, Potter confirmed that he submitted a letter of resignation earlier in the day to MISC’s board of directors and to the university’s dean of arts. On Thursday morning, he released a further statement on Facebook, saying he chose to step down from “the dream job of a lifetime” because of “the ongoing negative reaction within the university community and the broader public to my column.”

“I deeply regret many aspects of the column—its sloppy use of anecdotes, its tone, and the way it comes across as deeply critical of the entire province,” the statement says. “That wasn’t my intention, it doesn’t reflect my views of Quebec, and I am heartbroken that the situation has evolved the way it has.”

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.

Sources say McGill endured such intense backlash over Potter’s Maclean’s piece that the university left him only two choices: resign or be fired. Sources also say that numerous high-profile figures have contacted McGill since Monday to express their personal displeasure with the column, which lamented the social malaise “eating away at the foundations of Quebec society.”

Neither Potter nor the university will say whether he was forced to resign. Asked on Wednesday night whether he feels his academic freedom had been violated, Potter declined to comment. “I’m going to let that debate play out on its own,” he said.

Others were not so reticent after leaning that Potter had been forced to resign. “I think that’s a disgrace,” said Emmett Macfarlane, a political science professor at the University of Waterloo. “No one at McGill can feel safe that they enjoy academic freedom or freedom of expression. The community of McGill needs to seriously consider whether they are going to stand by and allow this to happen. This is absolutely unacceptable.”

In a press release jointly issued by McGill university and the McGill Institute, the MISC board of trustees confirmed it has accepted Potter’s resignation and thanked him for his “contribution” and “various achievements” during his seven-month stint as director. “MISC will make no further comment or release regarding the resignation of Mr. Potter,” the statement concluded.

On Monday, Maclean’s website published an opinion piece in which Potter suggested that a recent snowstorm-induced traffic jam in Montreal had exposed something much larger: that “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.”

The article sparked significant outrage in Quebec. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s an article of very poor quality,” Premier Philippe Couillard told reporters, according to the CBC. “It aims to paint a negative portrait of Quebec, based on prejudices.” Federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly reportedly described Potter’s article as “a shortcut that is totally absurd.”

By Tuesday afternoon Potter had issued a Facebook apology saying he regretted “some rhetorical flourishes that go beyond what is warranted by either the facts or my own beliefs.”

But McGill’s response to the article’s fallout was equally controversial. In a Tuesday Tweet from its official Twitter account, the university wrote: “The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill.”

Many criticized the university for what they regarded as a public rebuke, saying such a statement threatens academic freedom and undermines all scholars.

Other professors have joined Mcfarlane in expressing outrage over Potter’s dismissal.

Peter Loewen, director of the school of public policy and governance at the University of Toronto, says this issue extends well beyond one person and one magazine article. “If Andrew Potter has been made to resign from McGill, every professor at that institution should now ask themselves the following question: ‘Are they more or less secure now in their intellectual endeavours today than they were yesterday?’ ” he said. “It seems to me that they are less secure, because what you have now is this nagging sense that if you say something that steps over the line, your university will, as quickly as possible, cut you loose.”

Potter is a renowned author, political philosopher and former editor-in-chief of The Ottawa Citizen. Between 2007 and 2012, he was a regular columnist at Maclean’s.


 

Why Andrew Potter lost his ‘dream job’ at McGill

  1. [Pasted below is Andre Coyne’s tweet today re. this story]:
    QUOTE: “If McGill forced out Andrew Potter over a piece of social criticism bcs it upset some powerful people, we have a major scandal on our hands.” – @acoyne

    • Oops..typo…I intended to type ANDREW Coyne (not Andre).

  2. Proof again that Quebec is a distinct society.

  3. He lost his job because he grossly exagerated or plainly lied in this “article”. That’s it.

  4. Never liked him as the Editor of the Citizen; but this is clearly a case of political correctness run amok, and too bad he did not have the guts to stand by his article.

    • If he had said that about black people, would you have called it political correctness? No, of course not. Hypocrite.

  5. What a great way to distract people from demanding government accountability for that disaster on Highway 13. It’s ridiculous that people were more incensed over a bad article than 300 cars being stuck for half a day, and people with health conditions having to abandon their cars when they realized no one was coming.
    People who were publicly calling this article “hate-mongering” are now saying “well, I didn’t ask for him to get fired”. Seriously? The government quickly seized on the Twitter hysterics to deflect. This action reflects so much more badly on McGill than anything Mr. Potter wrote.

    • Except the part about “demanding government accountability for that disaster on Highway 13” makes up perhaps a quarter or a third of Potter’s article. The other 66%-75% of the article was spent trying to paint Quebec as a province of apathetic sociopaths. What does this have to do with demanding accountability?

  6. Academic freedom is for teachers. Here, mr Potter has resigned (or so) as head of the Canadian studies. This is an executive job and it suffers interventions from higher management or the the board. In this position, you can’t express such biases that you could as a teacher.

    • Perhaps, he should have, firstly, presented the article to the Dean for comment.

  7. Andrew Potter “blasphemed” Liberal Quebec, by exhibiting QuebecoisPhobia. The same people who believe M-103 is a good idea (basically) wanted Potter’s head on a stake. Free speech is a mental disorder, a phobia, to them.

    • Oh ffs, M103 will not affect your right to criticize anything. It’s a motion; it carries no legal power and cannot become a bill.

  8. I haven’t commented on anything here in years, but I’m sure if I were to do a little bit of digging I could find ~10 year old comments of mine lighting Mr. Potter up for bad writing; he’s my least favourite columnist in the country, by far. The article he wrote exhibits all of the fingerprints of the things that annoy me about his writing: he’s really, really good at making leaps that aren’t fully supported by evidence he cites while coming across as a know-it-all asshole in the process.

    While I don’t think he deserves what he’s gotten with this, it’s somewhat ironic he didn’t see it coming considering his time and Maclean’s and the whole debacle where the House ended up censuring the magazine over that corruption article.

  9. Shame on McGill’s. Potter’s piece was what I would consider to be a dubious, poorly written, factually incorrect (in which Montreal restaurant do you get two bills? I have lived a decade in Quebec city and have never been offered this. Now, I live in Ottawa, and two different phone repairmen have offered me “a discount” if I paid cash) and offensive rag that used the snow storm as a cheap excuse to push his ideology. That said, in a society that values free speech, he should have been able to publish this article in any publication that would accept it. This same free speech allowed me to express my point of view. That said, McGill’s should not have condemn Potter’s comments since they were related to his field of research.

  10. How sorry are you, Macleans? You printed that tripe.

  11. So, guy whose job description could easily be summed up as “professional social observer” pens a social observation, and the tax-funded organization he works for punts him for making an uncomfortable social observation? Seems to me there’s a bit of a dichotomy here. If it’s social observation they want, maybe they need to try allowing some of it when it occurs.
    On the other hand, it’s really, really hard to have any kind of concern when one of our Laurentian elites gets eaten by the very system he’s spent a whole life championing. There’s a bit of delicious irony here.

  12. How interesting that the only opinions of academics cited here come from outside Québec. How interesting, as well, that the talk is all of academic freedom of opinion, but not of academic freedom to blatantly invent supposed evidence for your arguments or tendentiously extrapolate from cherry-picked stats… oh yeah, silly me! That latter one doesn’t exist.

  13. What a sad story. Poor self important Quebec yes men! their sensitivities bruised by that nasty Anglo. I remember when McGill used to be a university of integrity, academic and scientific excellence as well as a dental and medical school that would make any country proud. Of course it was maudit anglais then. I guess now it is just another front for bruised. As for his column, Mr. Porter hit it right on! Sad that the family glue which was once so powerful in Quebecois society has lost its stickiness.

  14. Like a few remarked before, he didn’t lose his job. That would indeed have been a violation of his academic freedom. He had / was convinced to resign from an administrative position, which is completely different. He still has the right to say whatever he wants about Quebec (or McGill), without risking his job.

    The real question here is: was someone who expressed in a widely read magazine blatantly unfounded opinions on Quebec society (he acknowledged no less) the right person to head McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada, whose mission includes “promoting a better understanding of Canada” and “enhancing informed discussion of public policy”?

    In my opinion, he lost (or didn’t have) the standing and credibility expected from someone holding such a position. I hope that, in the future, he will use his academic freedom in a more responsible way. Academic freedom is a privilege, granted to few people in the society (and no one in others), that comes with a responsibility: to use it in a rigorous and honest way, like everything that is part of what we call scholarship.

  15. Guess you have self filter criticisms/opinions unless you’re a senator.:)

    I love articles which provoke thought and discussion. Potter did that. Did he go over the top? lol Have you eaten in a restaurant in Montreal lately?

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