Is McGill failing crisis management 101?

A crisis-management expert says each of McGill’s recent crises is an opportunity to step up and define its core values.
Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette

The dust had barely settled on the Andrew Potter affair when McGill University found itself embroiled in a new controversy last week.

Chemical engineering student Kathryn Leci stepped forward to charge that the university had not done enough to support her after another student punched her outside a party in 2015, causing her to suffer a mild traumatic brain injury.

Conrad Gaysford, who will graduate from McGill next month, has pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm and will be sentenced in Municipal Court on May 26.

The university told Leci it could not take disciplinary action against Gaysford because the assault occurred off campus, according to the McGill Tribune, which broke the story.

The issue was just the latest event in what has been shaping up as McGill’s annus horribilis.

There was the 2015 hazing incident involving the varsity basketball team that came to light last month — despite McGill’s zero-tolerance policy on hazing.

There was the student who resigned from the executive of the Arts Undergraduate Society on March 8 after inciting people on Twitter to punch a Zionist.

There was the student politician who stepped down from the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) on Feb. 22 amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

There were the swastikas scrawled on desks in the Arts Building in February.

Vandalism found in room W-120 of McGill University’s Arts building on Monday, Feb. 20. (Handout)

And then there was the uproar over Potter’s resignation as head of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), after his infamous March 20 Maclean’s magazine article criticizing Quebec as “an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted.” The column, parts of which he later retracted, claimed that Quebec restaurants offer two bills to evade taxes, while bank machines in the province routinely spit out $50 bills instead of $20s.

While the article was widely panned, many academics and pundits decried his subsequent resignation as an attack on academic freedom.

McGill isn’t alone in facing controversies. Universities everywhere are grappling with issues from sexual assault to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

In 2015, a task force at Halifax’s Dalhousie University released a scathing report on sexism, homophobia and racism in the dentistry faculty, after male students posted sexist and sexually violent comments on Facebook. A sex scandal disgraced the University of Ottawa hockey team in 2014, while the University of British Columbia has come under fire for scandals including the firing of the head of its famed creative writing program for alleged sexual misconduct and harassment.

But critics say McGill has been particularly inept at handling recent storms, resulting in a deluge of bad press for the venerable institution some call Canada’s Harvard.

With campus controversies in the news more often than ever before, the need for universities to communicate effectively has never been greater, said Adam Galinksy, a crisis-management expert and professor at Columbia Business School in New York.

And as this week’s United Airlines fiasco showed, when organizations handle a crisis poorly, they pay a heavy price, as the airline did when CEO Oscar Munoz blamed passenger David Dao for being dragged off the plane on Sunday, Galinsky said. Outrage exploded on social media, sending United’s stock price into a nosedive.

It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Munoz issued a full apology, expressing shame for the “truly horrific” episode. 

Too often, officials issue a terse “no comment” or minimize the incident in the hope the storm will blow over, Galinsky said. But those reactions are usually a mistake.

“When something bad happens, the natural instinct for everyone is to want to make it to go away as quickly as possible,” said Galinsky, co-author, with Maurice Schweitzer, of Friend and Foe: When to Cooperate, When to Compete, and How to Succeed at Both (Crown Business, 2015).

But ducking questions, pooh-poohing the issue or attacking the source – another common ploy — are usually poor responses, he said.

“One of the things that I teach when I teach about crisis management is a concept that I call ‘principle over preferences,’ ” he said.

“I always tell people to take a step back and ask themselves, ‘What is the core value that we stand for?’

“Whatever our response is, it has to be articulated in the context of those values.”

While institutions routinely refuse to comment on cases before the courts, McGill should have addressed the assault that left Leci with post-concussion syndrome, causing her to take time off from her studies and undergo rehabilitation, he said.

“People were shocked to read our story, but they weren’t really surprised that that’s how the administration has been handling it,” said Julia Dick, editor-in-chief of the student weekly McGill Tribune and co-author, with Shrinkhala Dawadi, of the article on Leci’s plight.

“With regard to allegations of assault, whether sexual or physical, my sense as a member of the student media is that McGill is very reticent to talk about it at all,” Dawadi said.

Members of the McGill administration “were very reticent to speak with us and seemed like they were using avoidance tactics,” she said.

In a written response to questions from the Montreal Gazette last week, McGill said it could not discuss the matter because it was before the courts.

“One of the most important things, especially from a public opinion perspective, is this idea of showing care, compassion, a sense of social responsibility,” Galinsky said.

Universities are not only institutions of higher learning, but also act as surrogate parents to their students, he said.

“People are so concerned on the legal liability front that they sometimes blind themselves to what we might call the moral or just action,” he said.

The fact that the assault occurred off campus might let McGill off the hook legally, but it doesn’t absolve the university of the need to show concern for students’ physical and emotional safety, he said.

Dawadi said the story has touched a nerve on campus because of students’ expectation for university to be a safe place, where there are rules covering how students treat each other. Students don’t expect those rules to cease to apply the minute they step off university property, she said.

“There’s definitely a sense of disappointment and a fundamental surprise and disenchantment that McGill wasn’t able to provide them with that safety and McGill essentially didn’t have their back,” she said.

The university has said it is studying whether it is possible to amend the code of conduct to also apply to incidents that occur off campus. 

Last week, the SSMU passed a motion calling for changes to the code of conduct to prevent a similar situation and its aftermath.

Dawadi said universities need to change in response to evolving social mores, like the rise of movements against gendered violence.

“I think people are more willing to speak up about it and challenge the norms of being silent and not reporting. I think an area of tension is when universities are not as quick to adapt to these new conventions and to realize that perhaps the old norms and the old responses are not adequate anymore,” she said.

Once-common practices like hazing are now serious breaches, Galinsky said. “ ‘Boys will be boys’ is no longer an acceptable way of thinking about the world,” he said.

The “punch a Zionist” controversy is another example of an incident that called for McGill to affirm its values, Galinsky said.

“For example, we can say, ‘We stand for free speech,’ but we also acknowledge that free speech has limits. Free speech that articulates violence, punching a Zionist in the face, that is no longer protected speech because it violated one of our core principles, which is non-violence,” he said. 

Andrew Potter resigned as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

Wayne Cuddington /

Ottawa Citizen

The Potter case ignited a firestorm of criticism, particularly in English Canada, with the Canadian Association of University Teachers calling it “one of the most significant academic freedom cases in recent decades.”

McGill University and Potter both declined interviews about the situation.

A panel discussion on academic freedom organized by McGill’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship April 10 failed to settle the question of how far academic freedom extends in the light of the Potter case, with speakers coming down on both sides of the issue.

Galinsky said the Potter issue was a “right vs. right dilemma” — one that involves two valid but competing values. Examples are individual vs. community; truth vs. loyalty; short term vs. long term and justice vs. mercy.

The Potter case opposed an academic’s right to express his views to Quebecers’ right not to be negatively stereotyped.

In a right vs. right dilemma, it’s essential to present the issue thoughtfully and acknowledge the tension between the two values, Galinsky said. When right vs. right is presented as right vs. wrong, it can tear a community apart.

Could McGill have made the incident a teachable moment? Should Potter have been given a second chance? Arguments could be made for both sides, Galinsky said.

“What is the purpose of this particular institute? Can the person leading that institute fulfil those values and the mission of that institute? You can say, ‘Look, he has the right to free speech. He can still be a professor at this university. But I don’t think as a leader of this institute, he’s the right person,’ ” Galinsky said.

“The more context and the more explicitness you give about the dilemmas that you’re facing as a decision-maker, the more people understand why you made the choices that you did and the more likely they are to accept them,” he said.

McGill’s response to the Potter controversy — beginning with an unsigned tweet on the @mcgillu corporate account dissociating the university from the views expressed in the Maclean’s column  — lacked leadership and allowed the issue to spin out of control, Galinsky said.

A statement two days later by principal Suzanne Fortier, defending the university against the charge of infringing academic freedom, was too little, too late, Galinsky said.

“You need to get out there and be present in situations like that,” he said.

He pointed to former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who went out in front of the TV cameras to answer questions during 9/11.

“In Crisis Management 101, one of the core principles is you never wait for the next day to respond,” he said.

“When you don’t respond for a day you look weak. You look paralyzed. You look ineffectual. And then when you do respond, you just look reactive. The story’s controlled you rather than you controlled the story,” Galinsky said.

“When you act from your values and your principles, people admire that and they respect that. But we have to train ourselves because the natural instinct is to deny, minimize and attack rather than deal with it in a very constructive, straightforward way,” he said.

Twitter: JMarianScott