Pressure is intensifying on McGill University to explain why a high-profile academic administrator stepped down after writing a controversial opinion piece, with the school releasing a statement on Thursday aiming to assure its community it upholds academic freedom.
Professors at McGill and elsewhere have said the university's handling of Andrew Potter's resignation as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada is making them question that commitment.
Dr. Potter resigned on Wednesday as director, but will continue his three-year contract as a professor.
The former journalist stepped down after extensive criticism of an opinion piece he wrote in Maclean's magazine from politicians and commentators in Quebec.
In the article, Dr. Potter argued the province was beset by low trust and alienation. He had apologized for the piece before resigning.
The controversy is the second issue to roil McGill this month.
Earlier in March, the university said it would bring forward a new hazing policy after it found that its varsity basketball team participated in a hazing ritual in 2015.
"I am not at all happy," said Desmond Morton, an eminent historian who was the founding director of the institute. "To accept somebody's resignation without further investigation is premature. It's a sad end to a promising candidate for the job."
McGill's statement said fears that academic freedom is threatened are unfounded.
"I want to assure members of the McGill community that academic freedom is a foundational principle of McGill University," principal Suzanne Fortier said in the statement.
At the same time, the statement said Dr. Potter "recognized that he had failed to uphold … [the institute's] mission and that the 'credibility of the Institute would be best served by his resignation.'" That mission, the statement explained, is partly to promote a better understanding of Canada and its heritage.
In response to questions, McGill said the office of Premier Philippe Couillard had not been in contact with the university. Mr. Couillard called Dr. Potter's commentary "an article of very poor quality" earlier this week.
Still, groups at McGill and nationally said they were concerned about why Dr. Potter resigned.
The McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), a faculty group to which about half of the school's professors belong, is asking the university if Dr. Potter decided to step down voluntarily.
"If you are fired for having an opinion, we will all have to think about how to frame our opinions," Terry Hébert, MAUT president, said. (Membership is voluntary, and Dr. Potter had not joined the group, Dr. Hébert added.)
The national academic organization representing professors said it too is asking questions.
"If there was external pressure for him to resign, McGill would have an obligation to protect his academic freedom," said David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).
This was to have been an important week for Dr. Potter's academic career. McGill-Queen's University Press has just published a book he co-edited on electoral reform in Canada. The volume of scholarly essays was part of his transformation from a prominent journalist – he was editor-in-chief of The Ottawa Citizen for five years and is the author of two non-fiction books – into an established academic.
His hiring at McGill was announced last spring and he began the job less than a year ago.
"It would defy the imagination that this would be a resignation," said Emmett Macfarlane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.
"This is an abject failure on the part of the administration," he said.
Dr. Macfarlane blasted McGill over the situation in a Maclean's article this week.
Shortly after Dr. Potter's article was published and as public criticism was increasing, the school sent out a tweet distancing itself from the piece.
The "views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @Macleansmag article do not represent those of #McGill," the tweet said.
The school could have handled the controversy and Dr. Potter's article in other ways, some professors at McGill said.
Rather than accept Dr. Potter's resignation, the university should have examined the facts in his article, said Dr. Morton, now a history professor at McGill. While Dr. Potter's claims were "inadequately proven by the standards of social science," he said, he believes the controversy raises free-speech issues.