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Globe editorial: Why did McGill fail to defend Andrew Potter’s academic freedom?

McGill University's decision to accept the resignation of a staff member whose published opinion displeased Quebec's political and chattering classes is extremely troubling. It is only made worse by the university's refusal to explain itself properly.

Suzanne Fortier, principal and vice-chancellor, says the school accepted Andrew Potter's resignation as director of McGill's Institute for the Study of Canada on the grounds that he failed to uphold MISC's vague mission "to promote a better understanding of Canada." That is unconvincing, to say the least.

Did Mr. Potter, a professor of philosophy and former newspaper editor, truly resign voluntarily from his "dream job," as he described it? Or did someone inside or outside the school apply undue pressure? Why didn't the university defend his academic freedom?

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We need to know. The right of university professors to speak their minds without fear of sanction is critical in a free society.

Related: McGill under fire after Andrew Potter resigns over Quebec column flap

It matters not a whit that the online Maclean's column that got Mr. Potter in trouble was poorly thought out – something he acknowledged when he apologized for its content this week.

Mr. Potter tried to argue that a breakdown in communications that left hundreds of people stranded overnight in their cars on a highway during a snowstorm was connected to an "essential malaise" in Quebec. "It is close to inconceivable that this could happen anywhere else in the country," he wrote.

Politicians and commentators denounced his contention. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said it was "based on prejudices." Mr. Potter apologized. It should have ended there. But suddenly, on Thursday, he resigned as director of MISC, while staying on as a contract professor.

Let's be perfectly clear: In a liberal democracy, the writing of an ill-considered magazine column is a trifling concern compared to the possible sanctioning of a university professor for writing the column in question.

Unless McGill offers a viable explanation, or Mr. Potter himself clears the air, the logical conclusion is uncomfortable: McGill professors can write whatever they want, as long as their views are palatable to Quebec's establishment. There can be no harsher condemnation of a university. Or of a society, for that matter.

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