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Canada Universities must be free to make autonomous decisions, UAlberta president says amid David Suzuki controversy

A controversy over the University of Alberta's decision to award David Suzuki an honorary degree is growing in the province.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Public criticism of the University of Alberta’s decision to award an honorary degree to broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki, and government questions about its budget are challenging the university’s autonomy and show the need to protect the independence of universities nationally, the school’s leaders say.

“These two challenges we’re facing … these are flip-sides of the same coin,” said David Turpin, the president of the University of Alberta. Universities “are the only institutions in society that are out there courting controversy, encouraging students and faculty to challenge the status quo … and that’s why they need to be defended.”

For the past two weeks, the university has been under attack, including from its deans of engineering and business, for the decision to award Dr. Suzuki his 30th honorary degree at a ceremony on June 7. Honouring an activist who has said one of the province’s economic engines must be shut down is an insult to the many people who rely on the oil industry for their livelihoods, donors say.

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These attempts to use donations to force the university to change its mind “look like attempts to hem in the autonomy that makes universities the kind of places they are,” said Michael Phair, the chair of the board of governors.

On Wednesday, Premier Rachel Notley defended the university’s right to decide whom to honour, but called the degree “a bit tone deaf.”

Dr. Turpin said he wished more critics shared the Premier’s view.

“That is exactly the position any funder of the university should take – feel free to disagree, but to recognize that universities have to be left to stand alone,” he said.

Dr. Turpin said he is trying to convince donors that recognizing Dr. Suzuki does not signal that the university is out of touch with the lives of Albertans.

“There are a lot of people in Alberta who are hurting,” Dr. Turpin said. “I have spent a lot of time on the phone acknowledging that and … I’ve also indicated to them how important it is to support the next generation of students.”

University of Alberta president David Turpin on the school's Edmonton campus in 2015.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

A committee that is partly made up of community representatives decides on each year’s recipients, he explained. Among this year’s 13 honorees are human rights lawyer David Matas, farmer and feminist Nettie Wiebe and mental-health advocate Louise Bradley.

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The controversy over the honorary degree for Dr. Suzuki comes only weeks after Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt criticized the university’s board of governors for hiking tuition and residence fees but not cutting executive pay.

Dr. Turpin “goes rummaging in the pockets of students and doesn’t reach into his own pocket,” Mr. Schmidt told the CBC. The minister followed the comments by introducing a new pay grid for presidents of colleges and universities that will reduce the pay of Dr. Turpin and other presidents in the province over the next two years.

The public admonishment from the minister was unnecessary, Mr. Phair said. Fifteen of 21 members of the board are government appointees, and many channels are available to raise issues before the budget is passed.

“I was completely blindsided, the board was completely blindsided,” said Mr. Phair, a long-time Edmonton city councillor before becoming chair two years ago. “There is a sense that the board is not appreciated for the work that it can do to ensure that we have a first-class university.”

The board of governors continues to support Dr. Turpin’s leadership, Mr. Phair added. His latest evaluation by the board was completed a month ago. “With no exceptions, it was very good to excellent in all areas, particularly in his leadership,” he said.

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