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Newly appointed President of McGill University Suzanne Fortier pose for a photograph March 5, 2013 in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The principal of McGill University is strongly defending how the university has handled the resignation of a high-profile director of one of its institutes, arguing that the article he wrote was not protected by academic freedom.

"We have an institute that is there to promote discussions between people who come to the table with very different perspectives," Suzanne Fortier said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail. "It is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion."

Andrew Potter, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, stepped down from his job last Wednesday after writing a piece for Maclean's magazine arguing that Quebec was beset by low trust and alienation. Criticism of the article was swift, with politicians in Quebec, including Premier Philippe Couillard, describing it as a poor piece of work.

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"It was an unfortunate article," Dr. Fortier said. "It was perhaps a moment not remembering what his new role was and falling back on a previous role," she said.

"If he had written this article as Andrew Potter [period], nothing would have happened. He wrote it as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada."

Dr. Potter, who was editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen before his McGill job, apologized for the piece before resigning, but the controversy has continued to simmer.

Professors both at McGill and nationally have raised concerns that academic freedom may have been infringed, particularly if Dr. Potter was forced to resign. Others have questioned whether public criticism of the piece by politicians suggested that they had also applied political pressure on McGill.

While she had received many calls and complaints, there had been no contact between politicians at any level of government and McGill University, Dr. Fortier said.

"I did not receive a single call from government," Dr. Fortier said. "I did perhaps say [to the trustees of the institute] that it was unusual for politicians to talk about an issue like this."

At the same time, she suggested that the article could make it difficult for the institute to continue its role as a convener for politicians and academics to exchange ideas. The institute serves as a forum for discussions and a research centre on current political issues, and it has hosted conferences on Canada's global positioning and immigration among other topics.

"The institute has to maintain [an] environment which is not partisan. It is anybody's judgment if after an article like that, politicians would be happy to come to an event," Dr. Fortier said. "That's not pressure, that's just reality."

Dr. Potter, who will continue his three-year contract as a professor, handed in his resignation as institute director after asking to speak with her, Dr. Fortier said.

"We talked about his role as head of the institute and the fact that his own credibility as well as the credibility of the institute were deeply affected by this article," she said.

Trustees of the institute now want to have a fuller discussion of how the resignation came about and a meeting of trustees is being convened for this week.

The agenda for the meeting is still being decided, said Ann Dadson, the co-chair of the board of trustees.

Even if trustees wanted to see Dr. Potter reinstated, it is only the university administration that would have the power to do so, she said.

For her part, Dr. Fortier agreed with the resignation, she added.

"My view is that he probably came to the correct conclusion. With issues of credibility and trust and confidence, if you make a mistake you can recover from that, of course, but it is not instant."

The job of a university administrator has different responsibilities than that of a professor, she stressed repeatedly. While professors can and do write controversial essays, academic administrators must be much more careful in what they say and publish, she said.

"You have to remember what responsibilities come with new positions. When you are an academic administrator, there are things you must be more prudent about doing," Dr. Fortier said.

"I think he would be the first to admit that it is not a good piece of scholarship, which is important when you are director of an institute."

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