A University of Alberta decision to award David Suzuki an honourary degree during a fever-pitched national debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has struck an angry chord with the province’s land-locked energy industry and has spurred a counter-debate about academic freedom.
The university has been flooded with complaints about the tribute planned for the outspoken Canadian scientist and environmentalist. University alumni – many of whom work as engineers, lawyers or accountants in downtown Calgary – say they will consider pulling any donations to the school. The deans of both the engineering and business schools are apologizing to alumni this week for the university’s actions.
The author and activist and long-time host of The Nature of Things TV show told a Calgary audience just two months ago that “the tar sands have to be shut down.” In choosing him as an honourary degree recipient, the University of Alberta said “he is the face of environmental consciousness to generations of Canadians.” Steve Cornish, chief executive of the David Suzuki Foundation, said “this degree is not a blind endorsement of Dr. Suzuki’s perspectives on any given issue – it’s a tribute to Dr. Suzuki’s incredible career.”
But Calgary lawyer Robert Iverach, who has been one of the forces behind a letter-writing campaign to see the university withdraw its plans, said the honourary degree “has become a rallying point now for the Alberta oil industry.”
“The university might be standing on principle on this – but if they keep it going the way it is, there are a lot of alum donors, and companies, that are going to reconsider that funding. They have principles as well.”
The acrimony aimed at the awarding of the honourary degree has stirred up a corresponding backlash, with some arguing on social media that while well-heeled alumni might disagree with the decision, academic freedom is at stake. University president David Turpin said on Tuesday the university won’t back down.
“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,” Dr. Turpin said in a letter to media outlets.
“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.”
The controversy started two weeks ago, when it was announced Dr. Suzuki will be awarded an honorary doctor of science degree and will give an address, during a June 7 convocation ceremony.
The university senate’s honourary degrees committee chooses candidates and the decision may include input from the president, professors, the support staff, the alumni association, the Students’ Union, the Graduate Students’ Association, as well as the larger community. University spokeswoman Kiann McNeill said Dr. Suzuki’s nomination was approved in March, 2017, but he wasn’t available until this year. She said the timing of the honoury degree is a “coincidence.”
Dr. Suzuki is viewed as a particularly cold and condescending figure to Alberta workers who have seen other oil-producing jurisdictions such as Texas flourish with the recent crude-price rebound, while the province has continued to struggle with economic growth and investment. Increasing uncertainty about whether Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – or any new oil pipeline project – will ever be built has added to the unrest. Without a new pipeline to a coast, Alberta, and Canada, has only one export outlet for its heavily discounted product: An already well-supplied American market.
This week, Moodys Gartner Tax Law LLP said it would terminate early a five-year, $100,000 commitment to the university’s law school, saying Dr. Suzuki “has inappropriately used this platform to attack the very foundation of our province’s success without engaging in rational discourse and debate.”
Joseph Doucet, the dean of the university’s school of business, said the honourary degree is made worse “given the political and social climate.” Dr. Doucet said he has spent recent days speaking with dozens of unhappy business alumni and decided to post a letter outlining his own concerns on Tuesday – joining the dean of the engineering school, Fraser Forbes, in apologizing to those who he said feel betrayed.
Dr. Doucet added the university’s decision casts a pall over the convocation ceremonies. “It is not positively enhancing the university’s reputation.”
In a letter posted on the engineering school’s webpage, Dr. Forbes wrote he is only now understanding “how deeply Albertans feel that we have, without fairness or justification, been made climate-change pariahs by much of the world, as well as being vilified by our fellow Canadians.”
Jeff Lawson of the boutique energy investment bank Peters & Co. Ltd. was one of the first alumni to complain to the university about the honourary degree, but said it’s not about a single pipeline project.
“We’ve gone through three, four years now of really tough, tough times. People are out of work,” Mr. Lawson said on Tuesday. “The whole industry is under siege.”