The University of Alberta has ignited a firestorm by making a formal offer of an honourary doctorate degree (he already has 29!) to Dr. David Suzuki. Conservatives like Jason Kenny, the leader of the provincial hybrid Rose-Progressive Conservatives) are threatening to withdraw public funds from the university, should he become premier (heaven forbid!) Fat-pocket donors from the oil patch are threatening to cease writing cheques to the university.
All hell is breaking out, simply because this honourable, authentic, decent, articulate, courageous and yet extremely humble scholar (of biology) has spent his life exposing the dangers, both current and future, of continuing obsessive dependence on fossil fuels. Even Rachel Notley, the NDP Premier of Alberta, says she “regrets” the decision of the university, while acknowledging their right to make it. Of course, Notley’s government is enmeshed with British Columbia over the proposed Kinder-Morgan pipeline that purports to increase the flow of bitumen (in tar sands oil) seven times, from Alberta through British Columbia. B.C., meanwhile, has submitted their “right” to restrict such a flow to the courts, under the cloud that the federal government has already given approval for the project.
So, the Suzuki doctorate has become another ignited “match” in an already crowded “room” of competing, and previously ignited ideologies and political actors, threatening what some are calling a potential constitutional crisis. Trudeau’s latest “dramatic” attempt to pour some water on the potential flame, by returning from Peru last Sunday, to meet with both Notley and Morgan (B.C. N.D.P. premier, strangled to a Green Party contract that demands opposition to the Kinder-Morgan pipeline), went nowhere. Environment and Global Warming Minister, Catherine McKenna, is left trying to be heard on the fed’s commitment to pour millions into shoreline protections, in the event of a tanker spill off B.C.’s coast, following completing of the pipeline.
One engineering professor at U. of Alberta has gone so far to exclaim that this crisis, over the proposal of granting the degree to Suzuki, is the most significant crisis to have confronted the university in his lifetime. Oh, really! (Perhaps only in HIS mind, buried as it obviously is in some alternative universe that seeks to overlook the damage of dependence on fossil fuels on people and the planet on which we depend for our survival.)
A crisis, also incubated in a Canadian university, this time Laurier University in Waterloo, has erupted over the issue of how to manage the new world of guest lecturers, symbols for the human civil right to free speech. Starting with the disciplining of a professor who supported the University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson, (he of the defiant refusal to address members of the LGBTQ community by the preferred personal pronoun selected by each respective individual). After her dressing down, followed by her exoneration and an apology from the university, this female professor birthed the LSOI, the Laurier Society for Open Inquiry, as a further attempt to incubate the free exchange of ideas, including an active Q & A after each guest lecturer. However, upon applying for “space” to host an alt-right speaker from the U.S. who holds strong anti-immigrant views, the LSOI was faced with delays, related primarily to the cost of “security” in the event that protesters (naturally expected) generated more than vocal protests at and near the event. Attempting to move the proposal “off-campus” to the neighbouring University of Waterloo, the LSOI was met with similar “rent” costs, jumping from an initial $1400 to a whopping $28.000, after consulting with the Waterloo Police Department.
Of course, Laurier, in the dust-up, has attempted to draft a “free speech” declaration, based on the principle of inclusive voices, but circumscribed by so many restricting caveats that one would have to find an Oxford-trained constitutional lawyer to navigate a pathway through the cautions in order to bring the declaration into real effect. Words, expressing a principle, countered by caveats that effectively deny that very principle, are in a word, merely “hollow”.
And it is this hollowness, this scrupulosity, this tempest in a tea-pot, linked umbilically to the corporate universities’ absolute need for a perfect public image, that is becoming the defining trait of higher learning. As one observer put it, this conflict is at root the pursuit of dollars, on behalf of a corporate university, such a pursuit dependent as it is on the demonstration that there is no political “dirt” or “cloud” hanging over the institution.
Any policy statement that purports to advocate for “inclusive” voices, at a university, under the historical and traditional rubric of promoting all ideas, in order to provide a laboratory for students to use to form their own preferred positions, (Hegel’s thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis comes to mind) that then demands no difference of opinion with a range of specific marginal groups or identities allegedly in an attempt to protect those minorities, in order to preclude and thereby avoid the spectre of real protests, sabotages itself. It also sabotages the very administration responsible for writing the policy in the first place.
Open dialogue, under the over-riding clause that differences can and will be voiced respectfully, articulately, and without personal attacks either verbal or physical, has been a cornerstone of the academic community for centuries. And while that tradition of civility is at risk, in the current climate of intolerance and brutal contempt of anything and anyone with whom we disagree, there is a public expectation that the university will uphold its long-standing tradition of free and open, honourable and respectful, debate of competing ideas. And this tradition, especially when academic dependency on private capital has grown exponentially, can only be sustained by those making decisions for the universities, by their conscientious and deliberate lowering the rank of cash-collection to a secondary place on the university’s value priorities.
Jason Kenny’s suggestion, should he become premier, of withholding public funds from U. of Alberta, to ‘punish’ the university for the decision to award the Suzuki honourary doctorate, is a dangerous and ominous portend for the academic freedom of the public university. If a political actor is to be offered the levers of rewards and punishment (the bare bones of classical conditioning) over the academic and administrative decisions of that university, then the core identity of that institution is to be threatened. And such a suggestion warrants a public push-back from the electorate, dependent obviously, on the degree to which the public is prepared to fight for a completely independent academic community.
The issue here also opens the question of the need for more and detailed public disclosure of all private donations to public academic institutions, and the strings attached to those cheques, that might impact the academic independence of the recipient institution. Even the hiring policies, as well, merit a close scrutiny, through the lens of whether or not specific academic departments are tilted toward the for-profit corporate ideology. A preponderance of right-wing ideologues, or left-wing ideologues, will have the unwanted impact of social engineering among its students, whether blatant and overt, or subversive and covert.
And back to the issue of public relations/micro-management trumping the macro-long-term social engagement of the academic institution, it would seem that the micro-side of these arguments is in the ascendancy….as another “power-surge” threatening how we frame and then resolve public issues, both inside and outside academia.
Temple University’s* withdrawal of Cosby’s honourary degree, following his conviction on three counts of sexual assault, however, provides legitimate counterpoint to this argument, as the recipient no longer warrants the award.
*a public university in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania