The Andrew Potter case at McGill University is indicative of the pressure universities are feeling across the country to kowtow to political correctness. It results in the erosion of academic freedom and also an erosion of free thought — in the one place that these values should be sacrosanct.
Mr. Potter was the director of the Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University in Montreal. He wrote a piece last Monday that appeared online for Maclean’s magazine. He suggested that 300 motorists being stranded overnight on a major Montreal highway following an epic snowstorm in mid-March demonstrated the cracks in the province’s civil society. He wrote that compared with the rest of the country, Quebec is an "almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society." His argument relied on statistics from Statistics Canada as well as his own personal anecdotes.
The response was quick. By Wednesday, Mr. Potter had resigned his position but is staying on as an associate professor for the remainder of this contract with the university. McGill University’s official Twitter account read: "The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill."
Quebec politicians condemned Mr. Potter’s opinions, including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who said it painted a "negative portrait" of the province "based on prejudices." Maclean’s sources say "McGill endured such intense backlash over Potter’s Maclean’s piece that the university left him only two choices: resign or be fired. Sources also say that numerous high-profile figures have contacted McGill since Monday to express their personal displeasure with the column."
So much for academic freedom. So much for free thought. So much for free speech.
But McGill is not the first university to pull this kind of stunt.
Recall the University of Calgary, which dumped longtime provocateur and libertarian Tom Flanagan in 2013 after he said that he has "no sympathy for child molesters, but I do have some grave doubts about putting people in jail because of their taste in pictures."
He went on to say that no one is harmed by child pornography. He was fired by the CBC and drummed out of the university.
There are other signs free speech is being hampered at universities. Wilfrid Laurier University criminology students invited one of Jian Ghomeshi’s lawyers, Danielle Robitaille, to speak about the role of the defence lawyers in the criminal justice system in mid-March. Students complained, saying Ms. Robitaille perpetuated stereotypes about sexual assault and her appearance would further harm victims. Ms. Robitaille cancelled. David Haskell, who teaches at Laurier, said: "When you shut down the ability of someone to come and give an idea that you may not be comfortable with, critical thinking can’t develop. I want people to ask her hard questions. But I want her to be able to respond."
The opportunity is now lost. What a failure.
This is the environment created when funding to universities either from private donors and parents or from the public purse becomes tenuous, and the chill created for academics diminishes us all.