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Suzuki Backlash Shows Risks of Universities’ Dependence on Corporate Donors

University of Alberta’s honourary degree for anti-pipeline environmentalist brings threats of cash cuts.

By Mel Rothenburger 2 May 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Mel Rothenburger is a retired editor of the Daily News in Kamloops and former Kamloops mayor. He runs armchairmayor.ca. This column originally appeared there and on CFJC Today.

Some of our friends from next door should take a pill. They’re so overwrought they’re losing their focus, snapping like a blind dog without a bone.

Albertans are peeved over the Trans Mountain pipeline standoff, and that’s OK. But things got silly last week when a vocal number of them became all agitated over plans by the University of Alberta to give environmentalist David Suzuki an honourary doctorate.

Suzuki, of course, is a staunch and frequent critic of the Alberta tarsands and a strong advocate of alternative energy.

To listen to the outrage over there, you’d think he was an enemy of the people.

According to the U of A’s dean of engineering, Fraser Forbes, the Suzuki flap is “the worst crisis we’ve faced in more than three decades.”

Opposition leader Jason Kenney claimed Suzuki “makes millions defaming the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Albertans.”

I heard W. Brett Wilson, formerly of the Dragons’ Den, on CBC’s The Current a couple of days ago going on at length about what a bad guy Suzuki is.

Albertans, apparently, are feeling “hurt.” Letters to the editor talk of “a slap in the face.” Some corporate and personal donations to the university are being withdrawn. One paper, the Estevan Mercury in Saskatchewan, which supports Alberta on the pipeline, predicted “Hell will freeze over before any oilman makes a personal donation to the U of A after this fiasco.”

The university, however, is standing pat. “Universities must not be afraid of controversy. Instead, we must be its champion,” stated president David Turpin in an open letter.

This is really much ado about nothing. In the grand scheme of things, whether or not Suzuki gets another honourary doctorate is neither here nor there. He already has two dozen of them. He has the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and was once chosen as the greatest living Canadian in a poll conducted by the CBC.

One of his honourary degrees, by the way, came from the University of Calgary. Here at home, UBC and Simon Fraser have both given him one. Maybe Thompson Rivers University will be next.

Suzuki, to be sure, is not everybody’s favourite fellow. He’s opinionated. He’s strident. According to some, he can be arrogant and rude at times. Accusations are regularly made about his alleged real estate holdings (which he occasionally takes the time to refute). He gets lambasted for supposed hypocrisy because he flies to places on planes — which use a lot of fossil fuel — to criticize the fossil fuel industry. That’s not the point.

Neither is the fact he’s the most accomplished and recognized environmentalist in the country, nor that the energy sector isn’t his only target. (He also actively pursues issues relating to immigration policies, food security, safe water for First Nations, species at risk, the plastics problem, healthy living — the list goes on.)

The point is that universities have a right to hand fancy pieces of paper to anyone they want. They can also accept corporate donations until the sun goes down, all the while proclaiming academic freedom.

On the other hand, corporations also have the right to donate, or not to donate, to their universities of choice. If a university cheeses them off, it’s their business if they stop giving. It may be shortsighted, but it’s their money.

But good lord, if corporate donations are going to be clawed back over something as unimportant as an honourary doctorate to an unpopular environmentalist, what will happen when something really serious happens?

The Suzuki uproar demonstrates just how fragile the financing of universities is. So strapped are they for cash, so inadequate is their public funding, that they would close their doors without philanthropic and corporate money.

One need look no further than our own Thompson Rivers University for proof. Next time you’re on campus, count the number of plaques that name buildings, wings, theatres and classrooms after wealthy donors and corporations. You don’t get your name on something at TRU for volunteer work; you get it for being a good donor.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — corporations do a tremendous amount of good supporting various causes — but it sets up the potential for exactly what’s going on at the University of Alberta. Make your benefactors mad at your peril.

Suzuki’s honourary certificate isn’t important. The issue of reliance on corporate support by universities is the big issue here, and our arm-flapping Henny Penny friends over the Rockies are painting a clear picture of how tenuous a gossamer it really is.  [Tyee]

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