U of A stands by Suzuki honorary degree as donors withdraw, Albertans protest

Backlash toward the University of Alberta is escalating, with donors pulling funding and rallies being planned in reaction to the university's decision to award David Suzuki an honorary degree.

Honorary degree for controversial environmentalist sparks mounting resistance from donors, students, faculty

Environmentalist David Suzuki, centre, is set to receive the 30th honorary degree of his life from the University of Alberta. But critics say the university's decision is an affront and some donors are pulling their funding. (The Canadian Press)

Backlash toward the University of Alberta is escalating, with donors pulling funding and rallies being planned, but the school's president says he won't compromise academic independence by reversing a decision to award David Suzuki an honorary degree.

Although some of the school's own faculty staff have spoken out against the decision, U of A president David Turpin confirmed Tuesday the university will go forward in awarding the controversial environmentalist an honorary doctor of science degree this spring. 

"Universities must not be afraid of controversy. Instead, we must be its champion," Turpin said in a statement posted on the university's website.

"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."

The controversy stems from Suzuki's track record of speaking in opposition to the fossil fuel industry.

In a letter published Monday on the engineering faculty's website, dean Fraser Forbes said "a single honorary degree" is the "worst crisis" the university has faced in over 30 years.

The letter, which shied away from specifically naming Suzuki, concludes with an apology from Forbes. "I am deeply sorry (ashamed, in fact) for the hurt that we at the university have caused Albertans in the last two weeks. It need not have happened. It should not have happened." 

Engineer and U of A alumnus Joshua Schmaltz received the letter from Forbes in his inbox. He found it "tone deaf" and said the letter made statements that not everyone would agree with.

"To me, it seems like we're making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill," engineer Joshua Schmaltz said of the controversy. (CBC)

He said he understands donor funding is important to the faculty, but wonders whether the letter is putting its financial needs first. 

"To me, it seems like we're making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill," Schmaltz said.

'An honorary degree should unite, not divide'

An industry advocacy group, Rally 4 Resources, has scheduled a protest at the university on June 7, the day Suzuki is to receive the honorary degree.

There are several petitions circulating online against the award, including one launched by the United Conservative Party. 

In a video released on Twitter, UCP Leader Jason Kenney said Suzuki "makes millions defaming the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Albertans. He said Suzuki's "extreme" views make the decision to honour him with the degree is an insult to Albertans and to U of A students and alumni.

Other university staff members have chimed in, including the dean of the Alberta School of Business. 
Greg Gartner, a founding partner of Moodys Gartner Tax Law, says his firm has withdrawn its commitment to fund $100,000 over five years to the U of A's faculty of law in response to the choice of honorary degree recipient. (CBC)

"The awarding of an honorary degree should be an occasion for celebration and pride," Joseph Doucet said in a statement on the faculty's website Tuesday.

"An honorary degree should unite, not divide."

Suzuki has received 29 honorary degrees in the past, including one from the University of Calgary in 1986. The U of A award will be his 30th. 

'Our little way of expressing our frustration'

Greg Gartner, a founding partner of Moodys Gartner Tax Law, says his firm has withdrawn its commitment to fund $100,000 over five years to the U of A's faculty of law in response to the choice of honorary degree recipient.

The firm has already funded three of those years. 

Gartner said his first reaction to the news was "extreme frustration."

"Our clientele is the oil and gas industry, agriculture et cetera. And we've been disproportionately taking the blame for societal ills," Gartner said. 

"This was our little way of expressing our frustration at what's going on between Kinder Morgan, the non-ability to get pipelines, attacks on agriculture."

Gartner said he takes it very seriously that his firm is withdrawing support for the student body, but that it will find other ways to support them.

"If they'd like to stick to their guns and confer the honorary degree, so be it," he said. "On the other side, we're under no obligation to fund that university through our donations.

"We're going to take our money and make it speak someplace else."

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian