At a time when academic freedom and university integrity are under widespread attack, University of Alberta President David Turpin has courageously defended the university as an institution founded on the principles of freedom of inquiry, academic integrity, and independence.
His institution is under siege for deciding to offer an honorary degree to David Suzuki, the eminent Canadian geneticist, science broadcaster, environmental activist and human rights advocate.
Widely recognized for his work, Suzuki is the holder of 29 honorary degrees from universities across the world, including Canada; recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the University of British Columbia; a UNESCO prize for science and a United Nations Environment Program medal. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada.
But to partisans of the Alberta oil patch, Suzuki is an enemy. And so is the University of Alberta for planning to honour him. The Calgary-based law firm, Moodys Gartner, said in a letter to the University that it was cancelling its five-year, $100,000 funding commitment to the university’s law school. Businessman Dennis Erker said he has donated and helped with fundraising campaigns since the 1970s, but that will end if Suzuki’s doctorate isn’t rescinded. He added, ominously, “It will probably be the most expensive degree ever granted by the university when you consider the amount of money the university gets from people from the energy sector or related to the energy sector in our province.”
The chorus has been joined by some within the University. Dean of Engineering, Fraser Forbes: “It truly saddens me to know that many of you are, as am I, left feeling that one of Alberta’s most favoured children, the University of Alberta, has betrayed you by choosing to confer this honorary degree.”
Joseph Doucet, Dean of the School of Business, wrote to the business community, “I deeply regret the hurt, frustration and alienation that many of you feel…An honorary degree should unite, not divide… I apologize most deeply and sincerely to our alumni and supporters who understandably feel disappointed and betrayed by this situation.”
Economics professor Andrew Leach tweeted that he is glad his students won’t be convocating on the day Suzuki is scheduled to receive the award, “There’s no way I’d share a stage with David Suzuki as he receives an honorary degree. Not a chance.”
A daunting onslaught for any university president, David Turpin not only did not back off. To the contrary, he affirmed the decision and the principles that make the university a value to the community and society.
“We will stand by our decision because our reputation as a university…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.
“There are few, if any, organizations in society that can tolerate the discord that comes along with freedom of inquiry. That is the university’s special role. To preserve it, we must allow our people, and honour others, who pursue ideas that sometimes trouble us, shock our sense of the true and right, and even provoke our anger. The university must give people the space and support they need to think independently without fear of external control or reprisal. Otherwise the constraint on the imagination and the intelligence will slow the speed of change and innovation, if not suppress it altogether. Our students will learn that conformity, rather than creativity and innovation, is the goal of learning and education…
“The U of A is home to many such contradictory and conflicting modes of inquiry, research, and teaching. 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.”
Every friend of higher education should be proud of David Turpin at this moment. You might even take a moment to let him know.