University of Alberta defends controversial honorary degree

Canadian institution comes under fire over decision to hand award to David Suzuki, a critic of province’s energy industry

May 1, 2018
Edmonton, Alberta
Source: iStock

The president of the University of Alberta has defended the institution’s decision to give an honorary degree to an environmental activist after alumni and donors threatened to withdraw funding in protest against the award.

Last month, the Canadian university announced that David Suzuki, a science broadcaster and a vocal critic of Alberta’s energy industry, would be given an honorary degree in June.

But more than 19,000 people have signed a petition calling for the university to rescind the decision, claiming that it is an insult to those who work in the province’s oil and gas industry.

In a statement, David Turpin, president and vice-chancellor of the university, said that “many alumni, donors, and friends have asked me to reverse the decision. They have let me know that their financial gifts and partnerships with the university depend on it. Others have suggested the university’s very reputation rests on our doing so.”

However, he said that he would stand by the decision “because our reputation as a university  –  an institution founded on the principles of freedom of inquiry, academic integrity, and independence  –  depends on it”.

“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,” Professor Turpin said.

He added that universities “must give people the space and support they need to think independently without fear of external control or reprisal”, otherwise “our students will learn that conformity, rather than creativity and innovation, is the goal of learning and education”.

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