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After Potter: Media pool or knowledge institution? Universities can’t be both

Éric Montpetit is a professor in the department of political science at the Université de Montréal

Most universities seek to increase their presence in the media, but doing so comes with a risk, as McGill found out last week. About a year ago, McGill hired Andrew Potter to head its Institute for the Study of Canada. Prof. Potter had spent most of his career in the media, an experience that weighted in McGill's decision. Unlike hiring an academic who had followed a more conventional career path, hiring Prof. Potter came with the promise to make McGill visible in the country's media. Visibility would, in turn, fend off criticism that the university hires only professors whose research have little social relevance, even in the humanities and social sciences. To my knowledge, few Canadian universities pushed this reasoning as far as McGill did, but most (including my own) took steps of one sort or another to ascertain their presence in the media.

After Prof. Potter published a controversial article last week on how the state of social capital in Quebec interfered in the management of a snow storm, McGill discovered that an increased media presence is not always a good thing. The institution became the target of both Prof. Potter's detractors in Quebec and – after his resignation – his supporters, mostly outside Quebec. Beyond this particular controversy, the push within universities for more visibility in the media undermines their credibility, a cost that has so far been overlooked in the coverage of the Potter affair.

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Prof. Potter uses strong language to make unsubstantiated sensationalist affirmations in his article, a fact to which he admitted later. Nevertheless, the article does not square with the mission of universities to produce and transmit valid knowledge. Testing ideas is not something that universities have taken lightly in the history of modern society.

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They have built their reputation as knowledge institutions by recruiting highly qualified professors devoted to advancing knowledge through research and exchange of ideas. Promotion and honours within the university system have gone to professors whose ideas have survived methodical testing. The importance that universities have granted to merit when it came to knowledge and ideas has earned them an enviable status. They have become institutions trusted to discriminate between knowledge worthy of attention and knowledge that warrants various doses of caution. Today, all sorts of professionals, including policy-makers and journalists, turn to university professors to validate their ideas.

In this post-truth period, in which falsities have become alternative facts in some circles, universities have a particular duty to protect their status as institutions that produce valid knowledge.

The push to increase a university's media presence does not always go hand-in-hand with this duty. Prof. Potter obviously knows how to write an article that will find its way in the media and captivate large numbers of readers. Unfortunately, he knows less about social capital in Canada. Equally unfortunate, professors who conduct research on social capital in the country might not have his talent to write opinion pieces. This does not make their research any less relevant.

Relevance is not the same as media presence. And when too much pressure is placed on university professors to inform current affairs, they quickly drift away toward topics on which they have no expertise. The news rhythm is simply faster than the pace of research.

Universities cannot have their cake and eat it, too. They often have to choose between ascertaining their presence in the media and protecting their status as knowledge institutions. If they do not make the former choice an absolute priority, Canadians may rightfully ask why their taxes fund universities, especially in the social sciences and humanities.

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The content of Prof. Potter's article might raise questions worth addressing in Quebec –although I doubt it – but the knowledge it presented was not validated in any way by university research. University professors should sign provocative articles only to the extent that research comes to provocative conclusions. Otherwise, prudence is warranted, even if it rarely makes for articles entertaining enough to increase the visibility of a university in the media.

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