Premier Rachel Notley says she does not agree with the University of Alberta’s decision to grant an honorary degree to high-profile oilsands critic David Suzuki.
“Speaking personally as an alumni, I’m not a big fan of this decision,” she said on Wednesday. “If I’d been on the senate, I wouldn’t personally have voted for it.
“It struck me as being a bit tone deaf but academic independence, university independence, is important.”
Notley stressed the university is built on academic freedom and autonomy, and that must be respected.
“The integrity and the independence of academic institutions must be allowed to continue, regardless of any particular issue.
“It is absolutely the university’s right and obligation to make that decision. It is absolutely their right and obligation to defend that decision and I’m sure they will do so.”
Suzuki is to receive an honorary science degree on June 7, but the award has brought a flood of complaints to the university, along with critical public letters from its deans of business and
Suzuki, a longtime environmentalist and host of the Nature of Things television show, has called for Alberta’s oilsands to be shut down.
Notley avoided criticizing Suzuki directly, but says her government’s efforts to find a middle ground between economic progress and environmental sustainability are undermined when the
debate is polarized.
“Our government has worked very hard over the last three years to move away from this divisive approach to addressing environmental progress and economic sustainability,” Notley said on Wednesday.
“As long as you allow that debate to be polarized, you ensure the failure of both objectives.”
“Dealing with the environment and the economy as complimentary objectives as opposed to competing objectives is the better way to go,” the premier said. “On that particular matter I have to disagree with Dr. Suzuki.”
University president David Turpin says the school stands by the decision, noting that knowledge and progress are built on the free exchange of ideas, no matter how uncomfortable some of them may be.
The head of the U of A students’ union says she’s fielding a lot of calls from donors who want to their money to go to somewhere else in light of the Suzuki decision.
“There is also a large concern from students on the donations that are being pulled out. Donations sometimes directly impact the quality of education that students are able to receive and students are not a big part of the senate, which is the group that decides on honorary degrees,” SU president Marina Banister said.
She added some people have called her requesting their money be directed to the students’ union.
“If they’re wanting to make a statement against the university, I would encourage them not to pull their money out entirely, but instead to make sure the donation money they are giving is in fact going directly to students so it doesn’t harm the student education process despite what controversy may be occurring,” Banister said.
She said students are watching closely as this controversy develops.
“Students are very frustrated. It just seems to be one thing after the other with the University of Alberta.
“Budget costs, student cost increases, ignoring protests … privacy breaches, executive compensation review, you name it.”
Moodys Gartner Tax Law LLP suspended its financial support for the University of Alberta in light of the Suzuki controversy. However, the firm has offered to redirect the remainder of its gift to the university’s students’ union to show “unwavering support for students, while at the same time disagreeing with decisions made by the institution those students attend.”
“If you or your organization no longer wishes to support the University of Alberta but does not want to withdraw needed support from students – we encourage you to donate directly to students instead,” a joint news release from the students’ union and Moodys said. “The University of Alberta Students’ Union operates a charitable foundation, the Student Involvement Endowment Foundation (SIEF), to support student-run student services and provide scholarships.”
WATCH: Student Union president Marina Banister weighs in on the controversy.
In a statement on Thursday, the Association of Academic Staff at the University of Alberta said it supports honouring academic achievement, protecting the freedom of inquiry and diversity of opinion.
“The recent controversy surrounding the bestowing of an honorary degree on Dr. David Suzuki by the University of Alberta highlights the importance of the autonomy of the academy, academic freedom, the protection of free and critical thinking, and how the academy can inform opinion as well as educate by being a platform for public intellectualism,” president Heather Bruce said.
“The University of Alberta has a long history of protecting the rights of the academy to perform research and teaching without prescription and to disseminate research findings without hindrance. The decision by the University of Alberta to bestow Dr. Suzuki with an honorary degree despite the controversy emphasizes that the pursuit of knowledge and the provision of informed comment should not be influenced by government, the private sector, public opinion or financial implications.
“In bestowing such awards on Dr. David Suzuki and others like him, the University of Alberta celebrates the impact of such persons as thinkers, educators and provocateurs, and that they make us question, ponder and consider our own ways, our own lives, and our own world.”
The president of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Turpin on Wednesday, asking the U of A to withdraw the honorary degree.
“We have heard loud and clear that the business community does not support the U of A’s decision to grant an honorary degree to David Suzuki,” CEO Janet Riopel explained.
“At this critical moment, when our energy and resource sectors are being threatened, when pipelines are being blocked through unilateral and unconstitutional actions, and when the future of Alberta’s economy hangs in the balance, the Edmonton Chamber and the Edmonton Metropolitan Region business community stands firm in our support for responsible resource development.”
— With files from The Canadian Press