The directors of 11 institutes at McGill University have sent a letter to McGill's principal questioning its support for academic freedom in the wake of last month's resignation of Andrew Potter, the former head of the Institute for the Study of Canada.
"The reasons and justifications that have been offered for the university's response may undermine academic freedom and may discourage faculty members from taking positions of responsibility, contributing to university service and entering into public debate," the letter states.
The letter was sent to McGill principal Suzanne Fortier in early April. In her response two weeks later, Dr. Fortier argues that senior administrators must protect academic freedom, but also "have an obligation to ensure that administrative responsibilities are discharged effectively to the highest institutional standards." When faculty members who also lead institutes or have other leadership roles no longer believe they can fulfill them, "it is reasonable for them to step down," she writes.
A meeting of the university's board of governors, the first since Dr. Potter's article was published, is scheduled for next week. With the exchange now public and the controversy reignited, the resignation is likely to come up for discussion.
A former editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen with a PhD in philosophy from the University of Toronto, Dr. Potter lost what he called his "dream job" after being roundly criticized for an op-ed he had written in Maclean's magazine. Quebec, he argued in the article, is "an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society." Academics and columnists took issue with the piece as a loose and partly inaccurate collection of anecdotes and inappropriate data. Politicians denounced it as biased, with Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard saying the article "aims to paint a negative portrait of Quebec, based on prejudices."
Debate over the merits of the article shifted to a national discussion on academic freedom after McGill University sent out a tweet saying that its professor's views "do not represent those of #McGill." Dr. Potter had a meeting with Dr. Fortier the next day and submitted his resignation not long after.
In a subsequent interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Fortier differentiated between the academic freedom enjoyed by professors and that of faculty, who also have administrative duties.
Those comments were troubling, the centre directors write in their letter.
When "faculty members serve the university in administrative capacities … they remain, first and foremost, faculty members, fully protected by academic freedom in their research, their teaching and their service to the broader community, including their contributions to public debate," the letter says. It goes on to ask if the university believes that taking on a senior post "changes [the] relationship to our academic appointments as to diminish the protection of academic freedom."
Dr. Fortier's letter does not help to allay the fears of some of the professors who signed the letter.
The response "does not, in my view, constitute an adequate defence of the academic freedom of academic leaders such as people who head research institutes at the university," said Daniel Weinstock, director of the Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP) and one of the signatories.
The job of research directors is to encourage vigorous public debate, and such efforts should not carry professional risks for organizers or participants, he said.
"We are organizing a summer school at the [IHSP] on marijuana reform," he said. "Is there a moment where I think there may be junior colleagues involved who don't have the protection that I do and who I may be leading down a path … that could [end with] trouble down the road? Of course that is a thought that has been introduced," Dr. Weinstock said.
Dr. Potter has not commented on the case since announcing his resignation on Facebook. He received a three-year contract as head of the institute and continues to be a professor at McGill University. The university has said it cannot confirm if he is teaching any classes this year or next.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has sent a letter to McGill asking it to clarify what happened. It has not yet received a response and will be discussing whether to launch an investigation soon.