COMMENTARY || Suzuki controversy shows U of A champions freedom of thought

Take uncomfortable ideas, debate, and conflict out of the university and its fundamental role in society disappears, says U of A president.


David Suzuki is a controversial figure. A companion of the Order of Canada in recognition of his promotion of science literacy and education, he has been an inspiration to many around 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 David Suzuki at our spring convocation, that controversy has flared.

David 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 that 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 very reputation rests on our doing so.

Withdrawing David 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 and untimely 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 that 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 scepticism 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 Dr. 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 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 contradictory and 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 David 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.

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

This article also appears in the Edmonton Journal.