Universities, Academic Freedom, and the Advertising Imperative: Thoughts on the Potter Case

The anniversary of my first post on this blog comes as friends and colleagues again debate the merits, costs and consequences of various forms of academic engagement with the public. This time the occasion is the forced resignation of Andrew Potter from the directorship of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, in the wake of local hostility to Potter’s intemperate article on Quebec society in Maclean’s. By all accounts, Potter’s was a weak piece; nor has anyone defended it, that I am aware of, as a specimen of scholarship. On the other hand, to be fired from a research centre directorship by one’s own university — or, at least, forced out with the university’s acquiescence and retrospective approval — seems like a steep price to pay for an op-ed. It also, inevitably and rightly (and whether or not this particular article qualifies as “academic”, for reasons I’ll come to), raises questions of academic freedom, its relationship to free speech, and McGill’s and other universities’ commitment to either one.

Let me say right now that the content of Potter’s piece does not concern me here. Despite the charge of Quebec-bashing, I haven’t heard any serious suggestion that the piece constitutes hate speech; if there’s any broad consensus on its failings, it is that they boil down to a derisory tone, leaps of logic, and overgeneralization on slender evidence — problems not altogether foreign either to op-eds or indeed to academic publication, however egregious in this instance. So one might start by asking what the penalty for these failings should be, and who should administer it. The initial response seems to take us some way towards an obvious answer: public criticism and even ridicule await the academic who argues poorly or preposterously in front of the public. Fair enough. Reaching out to an audience means exposure to criticism. Tellingly, such criticism — of Potter’s article — was about as far as the public response went. There were no calls for Potter himself to lose his job.

As far as that goes, it’s not clear why McGill should get involved at all — and certainly not to augment the censure Potter was already receiving with retribution of its own. But McGill (though a “public” university) is playing for different stakes than the public, as is clear both from Potter’s letter of resignation (which alleges the “credibility” of his Institute is at stake) and, especially, the McGill principal Suzanne Fortier’s subsequent defence of the proceedings: “If he had written this article as Andrew Potter [period], nothing would have happened. He wrote it as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.” As the institute “is there to promote discussions between people who come to the table with very different perspectives,” the directorship “is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion.” Or, more pointedly, “It is anybody’s judgment if after an article like that, politicians would be happy to come to an event [at McGill].” Potter failed to realize that he no longer acts as an academic but as an administrator; and “When you are an academic administrator, there are things you must be more prudent about doing.” In short, Potter’s opinionated public speech threatened McGill’s role as a safe space for politicians; and because Potter could be classified as an administrator, he could be removed without his academic freedom seeming to come up.

I am less interested in the rights and wrongs of firing administrators who say dumb things than in what the definition of Potter as an administrator portends — not so much for him as for faculty in general. As many observers have remarked — Jonathan Kay most tersely — Potter’s kind of engagement (and the resulting explosion) was the logical outcome of the university’s desire for the visibility journalism gives them minus the cost that that visibility usually brings. Though it may still be true that blogging doesn’t get you tenure, it is also true that universities have an interest in their faculty creating public profiles for themselves, both individually and more especially through the institutional medium of research centres or think tanks. These represent the ultimate in respectable product placement; they give exposure and a patina of public authority to the university brand. As Potter’s case highlights, however, this pursuit of exposure — which universities hope to leverage into closer associations with political and industry players — increases the potential public cost of faculty missteps at the same time that it turns faculty into administrators who are accountable for their speech in new ways. As Fortier all but says, Potter’s sin was to mistake a research centre directorship for an academic position rather than part of an advertising campaign.

The wider context for all this is the conversion of the university from a place where scholars undertake research and students learn to a platform for corporate and political networking. Whatever the role of research institutes might once have been (advancing research had something to do with it, one imagines), they are now promoted as vehicles for setting up partnerships that benefit the university as a corporate and fiscal entity rather than serving the organic needs of any particular area of research. The logical conclusion (or perhaps the reductio ad absurdum) of this process is to take research centres out of the hands of researchers altogether, and place them instead in the hands of non-academic paid networkers — which has happened at at least one such institute I can think of. At this point, the relationship between exposure and expertise presumed in the traditional call for public engagement is reversed. Instead of disseminating the results of scholarly research to wider publics, relentless brand placement creates an impression of expertise — a “reputational benefit” to the university — unsupported by any actual scholarship, and unburdened by adherence to academic norms. But at least administrators can be fired.

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