L’ Affaire Potter (again).


As I write these lines, McGill University is reeling from the scrutiny that has been brought to bear upon it in the handling by its upper administration of what has come to be known as the “Potter Affair”. I think we could have come out of this crisis much better that we have done. I offer the following reflections, not because I think there is any way that the present situation can be made good – the well has been poisoned to far too great a degree for that – but in the hope that it might guide our institution, as well as others, through similar challenges.

First, let’s get a couple of matters out of the way. To begin with, yes, Andrew is a friend. He was my postdoctoral student many years ago at the Université de Montréal. Our life trajectories have not led to our having had that much contact since then, but we have been in regular touch. Andrew was for example the only newspaper editor in Canada to have had the guts to publish some of my own political writing during the Harper years. I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to work with him as a colleague. So I acknowledge my bias. Anyone who thinks it is sufficient to discount what I say below can stop reading here.

Further, I thought Andrew’s piece in Macleans was wretched. I told him so, as did many others, and he retracted the article and apologized for the offence it caused in a sincere manner hours after it was published. No part of this piece will consist in a defense of the argument he presented there, nor of the manner and tone that he employed to put it forward. Many others have pointed out publicly why Andrew’s piece was so wrong. They have noted, rightly and pointedly, for example, that to use rates of volunteerism or of charitable giving as indices of social capital is biased. Quebeckers pay high taxes because our social ethos is premised on the view that solidarity should primarily be organized by representative institutions, rather than through private charity. But note: that is what academics do. We argue and provide evidence and counter-arguments. When those arguments and evidence prove to be conclusive, as was the case here, intellectual honesty dictates that we recognize this, which is exactly what Andrew did in his retraction. And when such course correction is offered, we do not engage in banishment, exaction, or in public humiliation. That commitment is about as close as you can get to the core of the professional ethics of academics.

OK, now let’s get down to substance. Andrew is, quintessentially, a public intellectual. He has a PhD in Philosophy from the UofT, and has done echt academic work, most notably the critical edition of George Grant’s Lament for a Nation, which he prepared while he was a postdoc in the research center that I used to direct. But he has spent most of his life since then trying to get Canadians (and others) to think critically about their pieties and idées reçues, in often sharply penned op-eds, as well as in books such as The Authenticity Hoax, and Rebel Sell (co-authored with Joe Heath). Those writings often make for bracing reading. He has not, moreover, built his career around Quebec-bashing. Anyone who has followed his career knows how broad-ranging he has been in his targeting of such uncritically accepted pieties. (Patrick Lagacé, one of Quebec’s leading columnists, made that point in La Presse hours after Potter issued his apology). Sometimes they misfire badly, as was the case with the Macleans op-ed.

But here’s the crucial point. You don’t get one without the other. That is, if you want people who are going to shake up pieties and provoke thinking, rather than just repeating such pieties back to the chattering classes in order to make them feel good about themselves, you have to accept that they are sometimes going to hit one into the rough, as happened last week. You want someone who is never going to risk getting it wrong? Then by all means hire someone who never diverges from the straight and narrow, or who never takes a public stand at all. You want someone who is going to shake things up? You hire someone like Andrew, and you stick by him on the odd occasion when he gets it wrong (as he did, spectacularly, in the Macleans op ed). Or at the very least, you judge him on l’ensemble de l’oeuvre, rather than throwing him under the bus at the first misstep. “One strike, you’re out” seems a very severe rule to impose upon those of us who regularly occupy media space (as we are increasingly asked to do by the Administration). Nor should it be a rule that we impose among ourselves as academic colleagues. I have undoubtedly said some very stupid things in my public interventions over the years. I am very happy that that rule was never applied to me.

Here’s the other thing. McGill hired Andrew eyes wide open. That is, they didn’t hire Andrew in spite of his often sharply worded public interventions. They hired him because of them. MISC has been blessed with a series of wonderful leaders, who have each left their mark on the Institute in different ways. The hiring of Andrew Potter evinced a wish on the part of McGill to make MISC more capable of reacting in real time to the important issues of the day. With a journalist’s instincts, impatient with the sometimes glacial rhythms of academic writing and publishing, Andrew did exactly that in the few months that he was allowed to put his considerable talents to the service of MISC. We co-organized a pair of events on electoral reform, which have given rise to a book, published a mere five months after the events were held, and timed to coincide with what was supposed to be a national debate on electoral reform. The book now exists, and it will hopefully serve to orient debate in the future, presumably under a Prime Minister who is more committed to his electoral promises than ours is. Andrew’s intellectual contribution to the framing of the events was decisive, as was his insistence that we publish in a manner likely to impact on social debates. He also organized a wildly successful and timely conference examining the extent to which Canada is immune from the nativism that is presently poisoning politics in the US, Europe, and beyond. Many McGill grandees walked up to me at the conference to tell me how well they thought Andrew was doing, how wise we had been in hiring him.

So Andrew was doing a fine job, exactly the kind of job he had been hired to do. And then he messed up, big time, in an ephemeral 800 word Macleans oped. Given the track record, and given the expectations placed on him by McGill, expectations that he was meeting and exceeding, what should have been done? Was it ok to relegate him without second thought to the ash heap of McGill’s history?  Well, let me tell you what I would have done. I would have refused his resignation. I would have said to Andrew: “OK, you are now on a very, very short leash. We are going to turn this into a teachable moment. You will commit yourself to filling the knowledge gaps that your op ed so woefully revealed. Your next big conference will be on measures of social capital and of social trust. You will invite leading experts both from Quebec and elsewhere, to engage in academic debate about the way measures of trust and social capital are designed, and how they apply, or fail to apply, to Quebec. You won’t have to reach very far for starters. We have leading international experts on the matter right here in our own institution. You will turn this loss into a win. You have a year, at which point we will reassess whether you have managed to rebuild trust”. I would have committed myself enthusiastically to working with Andrew to that end, for the sake of MISC, and for the sake of McGill’s reputation. An embarrassing stumble could have been transformed into an opportunity for dialogue, debate, and learning. You would have thought that that would be the first instinct of an institution of higher learning.

Instead, McGill’s leadership panicked. With the Premier and other politicians allowing themselves into the debate, Andrew was thrown under the bus. And with him went McGill’s reputation. In the light of the scathing rebukes of the way in which the situation was handled by  elected officials and by McGill’s upper administration, by commentators as diverse as Josée Legault and the Globe and Mail editorial team, I ask you: is McGill’s reputation doing better today, in the wake of the resignation, than it would have had our leadership taken something like the other, more courageous tack I have proposed? To ask the question is, as they say, to answer it.

Now, let’s move on to the question of the appearance of McGill having buckled to political pressure. I am operating on the assumption that no direct pressure was applied to McGill by elected officials. (Obviously, if evidence were to surface that that was not the case, this would be an entirely different discussion). But even on this assumption, it cannot be denied  — it is a matter of public record — that there sure was a lot of indirect pressure. I was travelling the week that the affaire broke, but even following it from a distance, I was able to catch quotes from Premier Couillard, federal Minister Joly, and provincial Minister Leitao. Now, Imagine that the higher ups in the McGill administration woke up on the morning of the publication of the op ed and thought “we have to fire that Potter guy”, or even “we sure hope that that Potter guy of his own accord reaches the conclusion that he cannot continue to lead MISC and tenders his resignation today”. (As I have argued just now, that would have been the wrong thought, but let’s let that pass for the sake of argument). One whiff of the political air should have given them pause. With politicians from all jurisdisctional levels inviting themselves into the debate, they should have backed away from this initial reaction. And they should have done so not just for the sake of the principle of academic freedom and of the University’s immunity from political pressure, (though they should have been motivated by that as well), but also for the good of McGill. As anyone who works on notions such as conflict of interest will tell you, the important thing is not just to avoid such conflicts, but to be seen to be avoiding them. The same goes for the independence of academic institutions from political pressure. It is important that our leaders stand up to such pressure. It is also important that they be seen to stand up to it. In circumstances where it was clear, given the public interventions by politicians, that people were going to be asking questions about whether or not calls were made or direct requests proffered, it would have been important for our institution to leave no possible doubt lingering in the air on that question. By acting as hastily as it did (both through the tweet through which it distanced itself from the op-ed — in and of itself a staggering act, but let’s let that pass — and through its immediate acceptance of Potter’s offer of resignation), it cannot be surprised if the question of McGill’s independence from political pressures continues to fester well into the future. It would not have done had something like the path that I just proposed above been adopted.

A final point. I am, at present, the Director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy. The Institute’s mandate leads it to wade into policy issues about which powerful people feel quite passionately. For example, we are holding a summer school this year on the challenges surrounding the decriminalization of marijuana. I have personally spent years taking controversial stands on issues such as medical assistance in dying, and have been critical of both the provincial and federal government’s stands on this issue. Researchers at the Institute similarly take on hosts of controversial issues. Now, I am a full professor with a named Chair, protected (I hope) by the institution of tenure. Do the events of the last days make me a little bit more reticent to chart a course for the Institute into troubled and controversial policy arenas, ones about which politicians may feel equally strongly as they did about the Potter op ed, knowing that in so doing, I may be jeopardizing the careers of my untenured charges, and perhaps even my own? You bet it does. Will it make me more likely to discourage my young colleagues from taking bold public stands, even when they risk offending powerful people? You bet it will. Does it make me less enthusiastic about continuing to carry out my leadership functions in the present, chilly climate? You bet it does. Multiply that new reticence across the range of McGill research units similarly mandated, and you have a real problem. At the end of the day, our fonds de commerce as academics is that our institutions are bastions for free and unfettered critical thought. I hate the fact that this element of doubt has been introduced into my decision-making process, both as a director and as a researcher, by the events of the last few days. That doubt – the thought that in making use of that freedom, and in occasionally stumbling badly, our institution will not have our backs – threatens the very raison d’être of academic institutions. Or to make the point in terms that might resonate with the currently fashionable tendency to evaluate universities in terms of productive efficiency: it is a very inefficient use of resources to breed caution and fear into the minds of young researchers in whom we have made such a great social investment.

Can anything be done to salvage this sorry mess? Unfortunately, as I said above, the well has been poisoned to too great a degree to salvage Andrew Potter’s career at McGill. It didn’t need to be that way. Indeed, the claim made by McGill’s administration that his resignation was accepted in virtue of his inability to lead MISC effectively going forward is just as unsupported by evidence as was Andrew’s op ed. To make that claim, one would have needed to have given him a chance to try. It was in present circumstances only true in virtue of the decision by the administration and perhaps by others in the McGill community precisely not to give him another chance, not to meet the proffered hand of apology and of a commitment to right the course. Many have sought to minimize the impact of this for Andrew by claiming that he is not being fired. Rather, the claim goes, he is simply being relieved of his administrative functions. That claim is nonsense. Andrew was hired to lead MISC, rather than hired into a Department, and then given his responsibilities as a Director subsequently. He is not tenured, nor is he in a tenure-track position. He has a three-year position, one that is in principle renewable. In this context, it stretches the bounds of credulity to think that he might be renewed when his contract is up in a couple of years. I am sure that some other institution, academic or not, will before long snap him up. That will be a loss for McGill. And as much as many of those reading this piece will be inclined not to believe it in the light on the Macleans piece, it would be a loss for Quebec were events to lead him to leave the province.

MISC will need a new Director. In the light of recent events, it is imperative that that person be assured by McGill that they are unfettered by the institution in the way that they carry out their mandate. Not just that they dispose of full academic freedom as professors, but also that a single misstep not be viewed by the McGill administration as compromising their ability to continue carrying out the role of Director. As an Institute director myself, I await a much more full-throated affirmation than we have received thus far of the institution’s commitment to academic freedom, and to our institution’s resolve in safeguarding our independence from the humors of the political class.

(Oh and by the way, in case it wasn’t clear, this piece does not reflect the views of the Institute for Health and Social Policy or of McGill University as a whole. One needs to be careful, these days).

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