Commentary | Will we ever see Norman Cornett at McGill again?

The administration's unjust firing of the popular prof needs explanation and redress

Over three years ago, McGill dismissed without a word of explanation a knowledgeable and dedicated teacher, Norman. Nevertheless, his case has not been forgotten, because too many students still feel inspired by his creative methods. There has been a growing number of letters in The Daily (22) and the Tribune (16) demanding his return.

Thus far, McGill’s only response has been an open letter from Provost Anthony Masi published in Le Devoir (“McGill honore la liberté d’expression,” July 13). It must be recalled that the decision to fire Cornett was taken with undue haste – he was given only a half day’s notice to clear his office. This is chillingly reminiscent of the speed with which wartime executions are carried out for treasonous behaviour. Such worries were expressed by a former student: “Cornett’s story creates a climate of fear among university and college instructors.” Isn’t it time to ask which structures and mechanisms at McGill were involved in treating Cornett as the worst enemy?
At the lowest levels, some administrators might have become resentful after being overshadowed by Cornett’s growing popularity among students, top artists, politicians, and religious figures. His platform for transformative educational experiences connecting the most intriguing personalities with a young generation was working successfully and with great impact, but he arranged it without using McGill notables as interlocutors.

In doing so, he didn’t allow them to share the spotlight – especially when he invited such guests as a former prime minister or provincial premier. Instead of bruising their egos, he dared to outshine them from behind. Apparently, Cornett wasn’t aware of our administrators’ conversations at Senate and Board of Governors meetings about their personal chats with ministers or foreign eminences – or of their jealousy in such matters.

It is quite typical for go-getting people to boast about their strong networking. They simply feel less secure, and in McGill’s case, they try to develop closer links not only with superior institutions, but also with transnational corporations that are above politicians and governments. We can accept this approach; McGill might even profit from such individuals, if they are exceptional at lobbying for our school at higher levels. Unfortunately, such “achievements” are unstable and short-lived.

Similarly questionable are ineffective efforts to adopt corporate practices in running the university that usually disturb the work of more creative and independent members of our community. Their free spirits and nonconformity too often challenge McGill’s centralized power structures, composed of many well-connected but not necessarily competent administrators. This might explain the exodus of many autonomous thinkers and scientists over the last seven years, who went on to shine outside McGill’s walls. Unfortunately, among those eliminated was Cornett, who now organizes his amazing “dialogic” session in many places – but not at McGill.

So far, practically no one at McGill has addressed this problem, and only the francophone media have reported on how costly these departures have been. Now it’s time to correlate them – whether imposed or voluntary – with McGill’s significant drop in university rankings, revealed last week (though this trend was already noticeable in a smaller way since 2007). Our administration must learn to not control the community with structures – they must learn that by respecting and humbly serving the members of the McGill community, they will promote the key elements for potential improvements.

Allowing Cornett to return to McGill would represent a proper first move in the right direction of greater inclusiveness that can start healing many old wounds in our community.

Slawomir Poplawski is a technician in the Mining and Materials Engineering department. Contact him at