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President’s message / The boundary work of Twitter

May 2017
by James Compton

I’m not much of a Twitter user. To be honest, I find the medium to be a promotional distraction. But a recent tweet did manage to grab my full attention. No, I don’t mean one of Donald Trump’s early morning “alternative facts.” It was a tweet sent from the account of McGill University. Bulletin readers will most likely already be familiar with it: “The views expressed by @JAndrewPotter in the @MacleansMag article do not represent those of #McGill.”

          The tweet refers to an opinion piece in MacLean’s in which Dr. Andrew Potter associated response to a devastating winter snow storm in Montreal with what he alleged to be the “almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society” in Quebec. He later issued an apology that said the article contained “assertions that I wish to retract” and “rhetorical flourishes that go beyond what is warranted by either the facts or my own beliefs, for which I wish to apologize.” Days later he resigned from his position as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. He will continue his three-year contract as a professor.

          His resignation sparked a storm of controversy with supporters alleging Dr. Potter’s academic freedom had been compromised. The quality of his journalism is not relevant here. Even Dr. Potter’s staunch supporters admit he made a logical leap that wasn’t supported by the facts. But if evidence surfaces that Dr. Potter was asked to resign because of political pressure from government, as has been suggested in some reporting, this would most certainly be an egregious breach of academic freedom. We’ll have to wait and see. Nonetheless, for the moment, I would like to return to the McGill tweet.

          Setting aside the usual strangeness of Twitter’s syntax, what caught my attention was the assertion that the opinions expressed in the “article do not represent those of” McGill University. Hold the phone! There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s begin with the first embedded assumption and ask ourselves whose opinions are being compared to Dr. Potter’s? It appears that the university administration is deploying a form of the “Royal we” to claim that they speak for the entire university community. Is that warranted? The short answer is no.

          What is a university? It is an institution of higher learning with the authority to grant degrees. This is perhaps the most common use of the term. When introducing myself to a new acquaintance, for instance, I will often say that I teach at the University of Western Ontario. This is, of course, uncontroversial. But the tweet in question presumed much more. It claimed the right to speak on behalf of the universitas magis­trorum et scholarium, the old Latin term meaning community of masters and scholars. This use, I submit, is out of bounds. First, as anyone who has attended a departmental faculty meeting knows only too well, there is no one opinion or position held by professors. Nor should there be. A diversity of views, theories and methods is at the core of any university worth the name. Administrators cannot speak for the collegium. Its diversity makes this an impossibility. And yet this is precisely what the McGill tweet presumed.

          “We have an institute that is there to promote discussions between people who come to the table with very different perspectives,” McGill principal Suzanne For­tier told The Globe and Mail. “It is not a role to provoke, but to promote good discussion.”

          In making these comments in the wake of the controversy surrounding the Mac­lean’s article Dr. Fortier claimed the right to decide what constitutes “good” or “bad” discussion. This too is out of bounds. I would wager there are plenty of McGill professors who see it as their duty to challenge their students with new and uncomfortable material — dare I say, to “provoke” them with the goal of encouraging sharp-er and more incisive debate. This is how learning occurs.

          As former CAUT president Dr. Wayne Peters wrote several years back, it is a dangerous mistake to conflate academic freedom with institutional autonomy. “While we must maintain institutional independence, this position completely discounts the very real, and all too common, threats to academic freedom from within our institutions.”

          The #McGill tweet is a reminder that we must not allow the voice of the university community to be reduced to an institutional party line, let alone 140 characters.