‘Universities must not be afraid of controversy’: U of A president on Suzuki degree

Click to play video: 'University of Alberta defends decision to give honourary degree to David Suzuki'
University of Alberta defends decision to give honourary degree to David Suzuki
WATCH ABOVE: Philanthropists are now pulling donations from the University of Alberta, protesting the university's decision to bestow an honourary degree on David Suzuki. However, the university is standing behind its decision despite the backlash. Fletcher Kent reports – Apr 24, 2018

As more voices join the opposition to the University of Alberta’s decision to give David Suzuki an honorary degree, the university president is once again standing behind its choice.

Criticism has come from individuals in many different fields, including Andrew Leach from the economics side and engineering dean Fraser Forbes.

In a scathing open letter posted Monday, Forbes wrote he feels “betrayed” by the decision.

“I am writing you about what I believe is a direct and alarming threat to our Faculty of Engineering and the worst crisis, a crisis of trust, that we’ve faced in more than three decades.”

Forbes added that Suzuki’s actions have made Alberta, without fairness or justification, “climate-change pariahs.”

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The protests are growing exponentially.

An email campaign started by Calgary lawyer Robert Iverach seven days ago, suggests a letter-writing campaign might get the attention of U of A president David Turpin and chancellor Doug Stollery.

“It’s starting to become a campaign where Alberta industry and the oil patch are maybe going to start to fight back against the slander that we’ve received from what I’ll call the environmental terrorists for the last number of years,” Iverach said in an interview.

“It’s surprising that the government has allowed a few protesters to take over the whole conduct of commerce in Canada. It’s unbelievable.”

Iverach wouldn’t give the name of one particular campaigner but said he’s aware of a $2-million funding project that was terminated in Edmonton. He added he saw about 580 names on a petition site late last week. That number has grown to over 4,500.

Kim Moody, of the Calgary-based tax law firm Moodys Gartner Tax Law LLP, said he’s aware of Iverach’s campaign but isn’t directly part of it.

LISTEN: Kim Moody speaks with 630 CHED’s Ryan Jespersen

However, a $100,000 donation to the Law Faculty has been suspended, costing the U of A $40,000.

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Moody said the firm’s decision won’t make a difference.

“My sense is, based on everything I’m reading and hearing, that the U of A is rather tone deaf on this issue.”

In a message posted on Twitter Monday, Roy Coulthard said: “As a former Governor and Senator of @UAlberta I feel betrayed that Dean Forbes has disrespected our community in this very public way. Agree or not, the decision was made appropriately.”

“Some have expressed displeasure … that Dr. David Suzuki is one of those recipients,” the university said in a statement posted on its website April 13.

The post-secondary institution explained that honorary degrees are given to people “who represent diverse backgrounds and fields of endeavour” and “honours the contributions and full body of work.”

In a new statement posted on Tuesday, April 24, the university president wrote, in part:

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“David Suzuki is a controversial figure,” Turpin wrote.

“Suzuki is a vocal critic of Alberta’s energy industry. I have heard from many Albertans who are dismayed by our decision, especially now that the Trans Mountain pipeline project is under threat. I understand the importance of Alberta’s energy industry, and we are proud of the role that U of A researchers and alumni have played in its development since the 1920s.

“Many alumni, donors, and friends have asked me to reverse the decision. They have let me know that their financial gifts and partnerships with the university depend on it. Others have suggested the university’s very reputation rests on our doing so.

“Withdrawing David Suzuki’s honorary degree might seem an easy solution to the controversy. So why would the U of A continue to support such an unpopular and untimely decision?

“We will stand by our decision because our reputation as a university-an institution founded on the principles of freedom of inquiry, academic integrity, and independence-depends on it.

“Universities must not be afraid of controversy. Instead, we must be its champion. Stifle controversy and you also stifle the pursuit of knowledge, the generation of ideas, and the discovery of new truths. Take uncomfortable ideas, debate, and conflict out of the university and its fundamental role in society disappears.

“The U of A is home to many such contradictory and conflicting modes of inquiry, research, and teaching.

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“Each year, that diversity is reflected in the nomination and selection of honorary degree recipients. We recognize that for many Albertans David Suzuki is an unpopular, untimely choice, but his very nomination is an indication that for many others he is a worthy, timely choice. That contradiction and controversy is a sign that the U of A is what it should be: an independent, autonomous institution of higher learning that champions freedom of thought and academic integrity above all else,” Turpin wrote.

Forbes said the problem stems from the decision-making of the senate and that it had no input from the engineering faculty.

A spokesperson for the school insisted Monday that Forbes would not be made available elaborate on his post.

Suzuki is set to receive an honorary doctorate of science during spring convocation June 7.

— With files from Emily Mertz, Global News


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