As a graduate of the University of Alberta, Faculty of Law, I have written the school’s senate and its president urging them to reverse the decision to award David Suzuki an honorary degree. I pointed out that the decision is contrary to the strategic plans of both the senate and the university. Here’s why:
The senate’s strategic plan provides for honorary degrees to be issued to individuals whose “extraordinary intellectual achievements, or significant service to society, set a standard of excellence and merit the University’s highest honour.” A corresponding duty is also placed on recipients to “honour the spirit of the University of Alberta.”
The university’s strategic plan was developed “to guide the overall decision-making and governance processes of the University.” It includes a commitment to “intellectual integrity, freedom of inquiry and expression, and the equality and dignity of all persons as the foundation of ethical conduct in research, teaching, learning and service.”
The plan recognizes the university as the “province’s leading educator, generator of new ideas and engine of social, cultural and economic prosperity” – a public university acting for the public good. Its objectives include “[continuing] to build and support an integrated approach to social, economic, and environmental sustainability. …”
Under Alberta’s Post-Secondary Learning Act, the ultimate responsibility for granting honorary degrees rests with the university chancellor. The chancellor is also responsible for “[representing] the public interest in the university.” The chancellor’s decisions must be guided by the university’s strategic plan.
Most people agree there is value in debating opposing viewpoints on controversial issues. However, Suzuki has made it his life’s work to publicly promote (to the detriment of Alberta in particular and Canada in general) his anti-fossil-fuel views. He has stated that “all fossil fuels are unethical” and that balancing economic interests against environmental interests is like arguing to perpetuate slavery. Recently, when speaking to a group of Calgary teachers, he said that upwards of 80 per cent of fossil fuels should be left in the ground, an action that would devastate the future economic prosperity of Alberta and Canada.
Honouring such views with a meritorious degree requires the abdication of the value system thoughtfully set out in the university’s strategic plan. This is not about freedom of speech. If the university accepts the “standard of excellence” set by Suzuki, it should immediately terminate its petroleum engineering program and refund all fees to current students (with an apology for offering such an unethical program), sever all ties with any person engaged in the fossil fuel industry and terminate all fossil-fuel-related research.
With views so antithetical to university’s value system, Suzuki is incapable of honouring the spirit of the university. Awarding this degree would suggest that the strategic plans so painstakingly developed by the senate and the university should be immediately repealed and replaced with a link to Suzuki’s foundation website.
Perhaps, the Faculty of Economics should also be shut down, because, as stated by one of its own professors of economics, Andrew Leach, Suzuki “refers to economics as brain damage.” Suzuki’s absolutism is contrary to an ethical approach to teaching and learning, which requires free and open inquiry and which the university claims to value.
For all of the above reasons, the chancellor should exercise his discretion, take guidance from the strategic plan and refuse to grant such a meritorious award to such an unworthy recipient. Likewise, the senate and the president of the university should provide all necessary support to the chancellor in making such a courageous decision.
Barb Johnston is a retired lawyer and chartered accountant who acted as counsel for Shell Canada from 1989 to 2002.
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