One of Canada's most prominent universities is denying that it is suppressing academic freedom after the public outcry over a "sloppy" and erroneous column about Quebec society drove a professor and former newspaper editor to resign.

Andrew Potter resigned as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada Wednesday, the same week Maclean’s magazine published a piece he wrote on the response to a snowstorm that stranded over 300 people on a highway in Montreal.

Commentators criticized the dramatic turn of events on Thursday, suggesting “political pressure” was being brought to bear on Potter, who said he would leave what he described as a "dream job" at the institute, but still continue his current academic position as a McGill professor.

McGill University's principal and vice-chancellor Suzanne Fortier responded to the criticism with a message to the entire McGill community on Thursday evening. She defended the university's commitment to its own principles and said concerns about academic freedom were "unfounded."

"I want to assure members of the McGill community that academic freedom is a foundational principle of McGill University," wrote Fortier in the message, published on the university's website at 6:05 p.m., local time.

But she also acknowledged in her statement that Potter's column had placed him in a conflict with the institute's mandate "to promote a better understanding of Canada through the study of our heritage and to support the study of Canada across the country and internationally."

"Professor Potter recognized that he had failed to uphold this mission and that the 'credibility of the Institute would be best served by his resignation,'" Fortier wrote in her message.

"Andrew Potter remains a professor and a valued member of the McGill community. We are committed to offering him our support as he transitions from the director position."

On Tuesday, McGill took to Twitter to distance itself from Potter

In his Maclean's piece, Potter called the response to the recent Quebec snowstorm—which has provoked apologies from Transport Quebec and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard—an example of the "malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society.”

The province was an "almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society,” Potter wrote, “deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted.”

The column reminded some of a fiercely controversial 2010 Maclean's cover story that branded the province as "the most corrupt."

But Potter’s column also contained two “errors of fact,” according to an edit made after it was originally published. His statements and the subsequent corrections have helped fuel a week-long vortex of criticism, including from Couillard himself.

McGill University distanced itself from the column Tuesday with a message on Twitter, and by Thursday the institute’s board of trustees had announced that it had accepted Potter’s resignation.

"For once, Mr. Potter was able to show some judgment when he resigned after his inflammatory and contemptuous remarks," said Bloc Québécois MP Monique Pauzé in an emailed comment to National Observer. Pauzé had criticized Potter’s article in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“We do not accept contempt for others any more than we accept Quebec bashing,” said Pauzé. “This is not the first time that such statements have been published, and this must be stopped."

“This is truly a scandal"

Researchers and scholars need the freedom to be wrong, said Emmett Macfarlane, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

“This is truly a scandal and a black stain on McGill’s reputation,” he said in an interview. "Mistakes should be corrected in the course of scholarly or public debate about an issue.”

He said the university was responding to “political pressure." A subsequent Maclean's piece published Thursday cited anonymous sources indicating Potter was “forced out” and that “numerous high-profile figures” had contacted the university to express displeasure.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the university has an obligation "to protect and defend the academic freedom of all members of their community, of all members of their staff, and particularly from outside pressure."

McGill’s tweet, which stated that the views expressed by Potter in Maclean’s did not “represent those of McGill,” was “true but not necessary,” said Robinson. “It may have had an initial kind of chilling effect, and that’s something we’ll have to think about.”

Aside from Fortier's statement, McGill University spokesman Vincent Allaire said that neither the institute nor the university would be giving any further comment on the issue at the moment. Calls and emails to both Potter and the institute were not returned Thursday.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. CAUT Photo

"The dream job of a lifetime"

For its part, Maclean’s said it stands behind both Potter and his writing.

"Andrew Potter is a superb journalist and thinker,” wrote editor-in-chief Alison Uncles in an email. “While his opinion piece was controversial, it was legitimate commentary expressing a well-argued point of view." The statement was sent to National Observer by Rogers Media senior director of communications Andrea Goldstein.

Potter, a former editor at the Ottawa Citizen, was appointed director of the institute in August last year, originally for a three-year term. The McGill institute studies Canadian heritage including its “pluralistic society.”

At the time, a professor lauded Potter's reputation as a "public intellectual in Canada" in a press release, hailing his "unusual combination of academic credentials," with a University of Toronto PhD and a postdoctoral fellowship at the Université de Montréal.

Potter said in a Facebook post that he had resigned “in light of the ongoing negative reaction within the university community and the broader public” to his column, and to protect the “credibility of the institute.”

Calling the directorship “the dream job of a lifetime,” Potter said he deeply regretted many aspects of the column: “its sloppy use of anecdotes, its tone, and the way it comes across as deeply critical of the entire province.”

“That wasn’t my intention,” he said, adding “it doesn’t reflect my views of Quebec, and I am heartbroken that the situation has evolved the way it has.”

The institute said Potter would pursue academic work as an associate professor in the university's Faculty of Arts. The institute’s statement recognized his “contribution” and “various achievements,” but didn’t include any other information about Potter, and said it will make no further comment.

On Tuesday, Potter had also written a note on Facebook saying he was "very sorry for having caused significant offence" and that he "regret the errors and exaggerations" in his writing.

"I generalized from a few minor personal anecdotes about the underground economy in Montreal to portray entire industries in a bad light," he wrote. "I also went too far in my description of Quebec society as alienated."

His intention wasn't to insult Quebec or Quebecers, Potter wrote.

"As naive as this sounds, it came out of a good-faith attempt to understand what happened with the closure of Highway 13 during the snowstorm, and to find that understanding in some statistics on social capital in the province and compared to other parts of Canada."

I was confused how the Quebec snowstorm, pile-up caused people to stay overnight in their vehicles without being rescued. I appreciated Potter's column as the perspective was unknown to me. It helped me make sense of what happened.

It is sad that highlighting the possibility that attitude - lack of trust even indifference - resulted in this tragedy did not spur introspection. Instead it spurred retaliation. As Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them." It is a brave and caring friend that will tell you the truth. At a university level one would think such a statement would be valued for its courage even while making the principal and vice-chancellor uncomfortable in responding to pressure from high places.

Maybe, not a university from which research results could be valued, if whatever is found must comply with what is already known and accepted.

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