A professor gets fired, and shows how short-term thinking damages a brand

The university just wanted to solve the short-term brand headache of a faculty member’s controversial opinion, but it harms its brand in the long term.

Brands are a funny thing. Sometimes we do damage to their long-term value by focusing too narrowly on protecting them in the short run.

As many Canadian readers, at least, will know, McGill University professor Andrew Potter recently resigned from his post as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), in the wake of controversy over a short piece he published in Maclean’s magazine that was critical of Quebec society. McGill’s administration claims, unconvincingly, not to have exerted pressure, and (again, unconvincingly) that it believes fully in academic freedom. The problem, says McGill’s principal, Suzanne Fortier, is that the opinions Potter expressed, and the way he expressed them, are incompatible with the mission of MISC and the role its director needs to play. That, of course, is pure speculation on her part.

The Potter affair is personally troubling to me, in two ways. First — full disclosure — Andrew is a pal of mine. He’s the one who first introduced me to the then-editor of Canadian Business and got me this gig. He’s also one of the good guys. A sharp wit, a first-rate mind, and a decent human being.

The second reason why Potter’s troubles are troubling to me is that, well, you’re reading this. That is, I’m not just a professor — a philosopher teaching in a business school — and director of a research institute, but one who writes about issues of public significance in a very public way. I’ve been blogging for over a decade, and I appear pretty regularly on TV and radio to comment on controversial issues. So the fact that Potter got sacked, as director of a research institute, for saying something in public that roused critics, is immediately worrisome to me. I write about business ethics, which pretty often means being critical of businesses. And as you may have noticed, business corporations play a pretty significant role on university campuses these days, and especially at business schools. It would be very easy, on any given day, for my blogging to raise the ire of one or another corporate sponsor.

As it happens, I have a lot of faith in my dean and in my university’s president; I’ve worked closely with both, and I believe in them just as I hope they believe in me. (And no, I’m not sucking up — if I thought I needed to, this blog entry wouldn’t be sufficient.) But then, perhaps Andrew Potter had faith too, and if he did it didn’t work out well for him. But really, that’s beside the point, because I’m not supposed to need that faith. It’s not supposed to matter who is at the university’s helm. That’s not how trust in an institution is supposed to work.

As it happens, I’ve blogged a lot about trust. (See, for example, here and here.) My usual theme is the essential role that trust (and hence ethics) plays in commerce. And one of the key mechanisms used in the modern business world to generate trust is brand. You don’t need to put your faith in the Starbucks barista when she promises you a great latté, as long as you’ve got faith in the Starbucks brand. You don’t need to trust the Apple employee who sells you the laptop if you’ve got faith in Apple itself. You trust those reputations. Reputations build brand, and brands build trust.

But the bigger point isn’t about business, but about the role that trust plays in institutions of all kinds.

So, yes, I continue to blog, and write editorials, and get in front of TV news cameras, with considerable faith that my role as director of a research centre is secure. And that faith is grounded not in my faith in the folks who happen to lead the business school and university that employ me; it’s grounded in the brand. It’s grounded in my faith in an institution, and the culture it embodies and the way everyone knows it’s supposed to work. It’s grounded in my faith not just in Ryerson University, my employer, but my faith in the larger brand of which it is a part, namely the grand institution of academic freedom. This is a brand — or perhaps franchise — that universities across Canada proclaim themselves dedicated to protecting. So I get to go about my day knowing that even if the leaders of my university had less integrity than I know them to have, I’d be pretty safe, because they would be rationally committed to protecting the brand. They wouldn’t throw me under the bus for the academic equivalent of a short-term profit.

In this regard, the ‘brand’ of academic freedom in Canada is weaker today than it was before the Potter affair. And in particular, the McGill brand — dependent, as it is, in part, on McGill’s status as a franchisee of the academic freedom brand — is weaker today than it was two weeks ago. People — including, importantly, the university’s professors — can’t quite trust McGill the way they used to. And that loss sits not with a single professor who wrote something rash, but with the academic leaders who sought to protect the university’s name in the short run, without sufficient regard for what that would mean to the brand, in the longer run.

Chris MacDonald is director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre, at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Interim Director of the Ted Rogers MBA at Ryerson University, and founding co-editor of Business Ethics Highlights.

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