As the academic year ambles on, new students form impressions of McGill’s institutional culture. As one would expect, the upper-ranks of administration try to shape these impressions to their favour. Take Discover McGill, where Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier delivered a rosy speech to a crowd warmed up by student coordinators chanting her name. This is, of course, a façade; a dangerously effective one, however. Few freshmen recognize the name of Professor Andrew Potter, let alone know of his fate at McGill. This ignorance puts us on precarious footing. Fortier was cryptic and unforthcoming about the pressures placed on Potter to resign from his post as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC)—as McGill stakeholders, students must demand better. Moreover, students must condemn the administration’s willingness to silence inconvenient voices within the faculty—or risk being next in the dock.
In March 2017, while director of MISC, Potter wrote a column in Maclean’s magazine drawing a link between the feeble civic response to a Montreal blizzard and what he called Quebec’s “almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society.” This sparked a massive controversy, with McGill quickly dissociating itself from Potter via tweet, affirming that Potter’s views do not represent those of the school.
On March 22, two days after the article went to press, Potter resigned from his position as director of MISC, offering an apology and partial retraction.
Then came the Streisand effect. McGill’s tweet was criticized for violating the norm that universities themselves stay out of debates. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CUAT) began investigating a possible breach of academic freedom; in a phone call to The McGill Tribune, CUAT Director of Communications Valérie Dufort explained that its report will be made public in a few weeks. In May, former MISC board member Ken Whyte publicly alleged that Fortier pressured Potter’s resignation.
The necessity of an outside investigation is alarming in and of itself and demonstrates the administration’s blasé take on transparency. But there has been little concern paid so far to the affair’s implications for the student body, and even less outrage from McGill students. This is a grave error.
Potter’s plight is not just one of principles, but is directly related to students’ self-interest. Faculty members have real influence within McGill, as they are represented by the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT). Despite this, the administration felt bold enough to pressure a professor into resignation for taking an unpopular opinion. This bodes ill for students, especially those who are outspoken in ways the administration might find inconvenient. With Potter’s resignation, popular demand for reprisal against him—notably, criticism from Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard —rather than the principal of free expression, carried the day. This is the definition of a bipartisan concern. Student groups of all political stripes need the right to speak freely without fear of disciplinary reprisal. When this right is tempered by an administration concerned only with avoiding controversy, allegiance is irrelevant—the Quebec Public Interest Research Group and Liberty at McGill become strange cellmates.
Students are stakeholders in McGill: Our tuition payments keep the school’s finances afloat. But, unlike stakeholders in the corporate world, we have almost no avenues of influence in McGill’s governance. The few we do have—primarily Senate and the Board of Governors—must be confident that they can safely criticize the administration, without fear of being threatened by it. But, they also need a mandate from students: If students clearly don’t care about campus issues, their representatives cannot do anything to advocate for them.
As of now, there have been no repercussions for the administration’s treatment of Potter: No apologies, no condemnations from alumni, and no reinstatements. This is alarming because students are even more vulnerable than faculty. Unless we demand more transparency, the administration will be emboldened to take the same modus operandi with student representatives, leaders, and journalists. On this issue, students must write to SSMU, and write to Fortier, in order to tell them that we refuse to accept this shady behavior.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that McGill professors are unionized. The Tribune regrets this error.