U of A stands be­hind de­ci­sion to hon­our Suzuki

Uni­ver­si­ties must be the cham­pi­ons of con­tro­versy, David Turpin says.

Edmonton Journal - - OPINION - David H. Turpin is pres­i­dent and vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Al­berta.

David Suzuki is a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure. A Com­pan­ion of the Or­der of Canada, his pro­mo­tion of science lit­er­acy and education has been an in­spi­ra­tion to many across the world and a force for ma­jor so­ci­etal change.

He has also at­tracted strong crit­i­cism for the po­si­tions he ad­vo­cates. Since the Univer­sity of Al­berta an­nounced we will con­fer an hon­orary de­gree on Suzuki at our spring con­vo­ca­tion, that con­tro­versy has flared.

Suzuki is a vo­cal critic of Al­berta’s en­ergy in­dus­try. I have heard from many Al­ber­tans who are dis­mayed by our de­ci­sion, es­pe­cially now that the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line project is under threat. I un­der­stand the im­por­tance of Al­berta’s en­ergy in­dus­try and we are proud of the role U of A re­searchers and alumni have played in its de­vel­op­ment since the 1920s.

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 rep­u­ta­tion rests on do­ing so.

With­draw­ing Suzuki’s hon­orary de­gree might seem an easy so­lu­tion to the con­tro­versy. So why would the

U of A con­tinue to sup­port such an un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sion?

We will stand by our de­ci­sion be­cause our rep­u­ta­tion as a univer­sity — an in­sti­tu­tion founded on the prin­ci­ples of free­dom of in­quiry, aca­demic in­tegrity, and in­de­pen­dence — de­pends on it.

Uni­ver­si­ties must not be afraid of con­tro­versy. In­stead, we must be its cham­pion. 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.

There are few, if any, or­ga­ni­za­tions in so­ci­ety that can tol­er­ate the dis­cord that comes along with free­dom of in­quiry. That is the univer­sity’s spe­cial role. To pre­serve it, we must al­low our peo­ple, and hon­our oth­ers, who pur­sue ideas that some­times trou­ble us, shock our sense of the true and right, and even pro­voke our anger.

The univer­sity must give peo­ple the space and sup­port they need to think in­de­pen­dently with­out fear of ex­ter­nal con­trol or reprisal. Oth­er­wise, the con­straint on the imag­i­na­tion and the in­tel­li­gence will slow the speed of change and in­no­va­tion, if not sup­press it al­to­gether. Our stu­dents will learn con­form­ity, rather than cre­ativ­ity and in­no­va­tion, is the goal of learn­ing and education.

In the early days of the

U of A, pres­i­dent Henry Mar­shall Tory toured Al­berta mak­ing the case for re­search. He was of­ten met with skep­ti­cism about its value be­cause peo­ple feared that it would chal­lenge con­ven­tional wis­dom. When Tory raised the pos­si­bil­ity of de­vel­op­ing the oil­sands, for ex­am­ple, one com­mu­nity leader re­sponded by say­ing: “God has been mix­ing those tars and sands for thou­sands of years and prob­a­bly knows more about it than the fel­lows at the Univer­sity.”

Tory was un­de­terred. He in­stead re­cruited Karl Clark, who went on to de­velop the first suc­cess­ful means of sep­a­rat­ing and re­fin­ing heavy oil from the oil­sands.

Al­berta’s en­ergy in­dus­try is what it is today pre­cisely be­cause sci­en­tists, thinkers, en­trepreneurs, and ed­u­ca­tors have had the in­de­pen­dence and abil­ity to pur­sue ideas that many thought were ab­surd, per­haps even dis­re­spect­ful.

Today, re­searchers con­tinue to ask dif­fi­cult ques­tions and they teach their stu­dents how to do the same. The

U of A sup­ports re­search that both strength­ens Al­berta’s en­ergy in­dus­try and ex­am­ines the en­vi­ron­men­tal ev­i­dence, holds the in­dus­try to ac­count, and leads to in­no­va­tions and pol­icy that make it more sus­tain­able.

The U of A is home to many such con­flict­ing modes of in­quiry, re­search, and teach­ing. Each year, that di­ver­sity is re­flected in the nom­i­na­tion and se­lec­tion of hon­orary de­gree re­cip­i­ents.

We rec­og­nize that for many Al­ber­tans, Suzuki is an un­pop­u­lar, un­timely choice but his very nom­i­na­tion is an in­di­ca­tion that for many oth­ers he is a wor­thy, timely choice. That con­tra­dic­tion and con­tro­versy is a sign that the U of A is what it should be: an in­de­pen­dent, au­ton­o­mous in­sti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing that cham­pi­ons free­dom of thought and aca­demic in­tegrity above all else.

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