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A fine balance: deciding who deserves an honorary degree

And what happens when controversy arises.

By MICHAEL RANCIC | MAY 01 2019

At its 2018 spring convocation, Dalhousie University conferred a doctor of laws degree (honoris causa) on longtime advocate for Indigenous children’s rights, Cindy Blackstock. With a total of 18 honorary degrees to her name – including seven in 2018 alone – Dr. Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and a professor of social work at McGill University, says she approached the Dalhousie honour with the same seriousness and sense of responsibility she brought to all the others.

“I really acknowledge that all of the grads and their families are there because they want to create a better society,” says Dr. Blackstock, a member of the Gitxsan First Nation of British Columbia. “I want to honour that by giving them the information so that they can do the same for First Nations, Métis and Inuit children.” Accepting an honorary degree, whether it’s number one or 10, “provides me with an opportunity to not only celebrate the graduates, but also to educate people at convocation about the ongoing injustices and how they can all be a part of reconciliation going forward.”

Dr. Blackstock says she tailors her convocation addresses to each audience and, in the case of Dalhousie, detailed for graduating law students the ways in which the law can support and uplift reconciliation. She spoke about Jordan’s Principle, which seeks to ensure that First Nations children living on and off reserve have equitable access to all government-funded services. “The whole initiative is … one of love. And so I explained how, when the law is partnered with love, you have the possibility of justice.”

Cindy Blackstock is congratulated by University of Toronto president Meric Gertler after receiving an honorary degree from the university in June 2018. Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto.

A long-standing ritual

Honorary degrees have long been the highest honour conferred by universities, with the ritual dating all the way back to the 15th century. In Canada, the University of New Brunswick and McGill University were among the first to offer such awards, starting in 1828 and 1830, respectively. By acknowledging the accomplishments of public figures like Dr. Blackstock, honorary degrees are a way for universities to indicate to the broader community what their values are and what’s important to them, say those involved in the process. But as ceremonial as these degrees tend to be, they are nevertheless inherently political – and not always without controversy.

Though it varies somewhat from institution to institution, the process for naming honorary degree recipients is generally overseen by a university’s honorary degrees committee, which reports to the university senate or governing council. Each year the committee solicits nominations from members of the public and the academic community, who are asked to complete a nomination package, which usually includes a written statement and relevant supporting documents. The committee then measures each nominee against criteria established by, and unique to, each university – a months-long process.

The committee makes its recommendations, which are then approved by the governing council. Depending on the size of the university, it may confer a small handful to a dozen or more honorary degrees for both its spring and fall convocations. Successful nominees are deemed to embody the values and culture a university is looking to foster and uphold.

Chabriol Colebatch, as university secretary and general counsel at Brock University, steers the public nomination process for honorary degree candidates at her institution. A candidate needn’t have a direct link to the university, she explains, but must have made impressive contributions to society. “The university looks for those who have displayed outstanding achievement or service in any area of interest to the university, or whose ongoing high-quality scholarly or creative work is deemed to be of such significance that our recognition is deserved,” she says.

For Rummana Khan Hemani, registrar at Simon Fraser University (who also was recently appointed acting vice-provost and associate vice-president, students and international), the sanctity of the award rests with this process of candidate selection. Ms. Khan Hemani works closely with her senate committee, the senate itself, the president’s office, and the ceremonies and events office, to coordinate the yearly ritual. After receiving a nomination, she’s responsible for anonymizing information relating to the nominator, to ensure impartiality by the committee. As well, “the individual who submits the nomination is informed that they are to keep their nomination confidential,” she says. This is to avoid any embarrassment to candidates not chosen.

When screening candidates, Ms. Khan Hemani explains, the honorary degrees committee considers numerous factors, including the nominee’s overall career, their achievements, whether they’ve been recognized in their own field already, their connection to the university and how they measure up against the university’s past honourees, while also being sensitive to diversity and inclusion. “There is consideration for whether these individuals represent the student body,” she explains. “Are we signaling the right things with these recipients?”

Though the nomination packages contain endorsements and evidence supporting why a nominee should be honoured, each university performs its own research on candidates. By the time those candidates are delivered to the senate for approval, there’s no aspect about them that hasn’t already been examined. “By the time we’ve brought someone forward, we have vetted that person. So it’s highly unlikely that someone is going to bring something to our attention that we haven’t considered,” says Ms. Khan Hemani, adding that being a “controversial figure” is not reason enough to remove a candidate from consideration for an honorary degree.

Petitions and protests

And, to be sure, controversy can arise. The University of Alberta found that out last year after it announced that it was bestowing well-known academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist David Suzuki with an honorary degree, his 30th, at the university’s spring convocation. The move was heavily criticized by some students, alumni and professors – including the deans of the university’s business and engineering faculties – and made headlines across the country. Thousands of people signed a petition calling for the university to rescind the decision and at least one donor threatened to pull their funding.

Dr. Suzuki’s early career in the academy was as a geneticist, but most Canadians likely remember him as host of the long-running CBC television series The Nature of Things and through his climate-change activism. Now 83, Dr. Suzuki remains an outspoken critic of the fossil fuel industry, which was bound to ruffle some feathers in oil-rich Alberta. The harsh reaction to his honorary degree may also have been a case of bad timing. News of the award arrived at a tense time for the province as oil prices were stagnant and questions swirled around the future of a planned pipeline.

Nevertheless, the university held firm and Dr. Suzuki received his honorary degree as scheduled last June. Capitulating to the critics, argues U of A president David Turpin, would have undermined the process and eroded the university’s reputation within the academic community as an institution that isn’t governed by public opinion or “the political norms of the day.”

David Suzuki speaks at the University of British Columbia’s fall convocation in 2011 after receiving an honorary degree. Photo: Canadian Press/Eric Dredger.

“We acknowledged that Suzuki was a very controversial figure, but we didn’t defend him per se, we defended the important role the university had in providing a place for controversial ideas,” Dr. Turpin says. “That’s a principle that is fundamental. For me and for those of us that were managing the issue, that was an important distinction for us to make. We have a process, a system, it’s legislated, we have the policies and procedures in place to do it, and that’s what unfolded.”

The U of A controversy recalls a similar conflict at Western University almost 15 years earlier, in 2005, when the university conferred a degree upon controversial pro-choice advocate Henry Morgentaler. Dr. Morgentaler, a physician, ran a number of abortion clinics across the country in contravention of the laws at the time. His legal battles eventually wound their way to the Supreme Court, which sided with Dr. Morgentaler and struck down the existing restrictions on abortion.

David Estok, now vice-president, communications, at the University of Toronto, was vice-president, communications and public affairs, at Western at the time it conferred the honorary degree on Dr. Morgentaler. He was part of the team that dealt with the controversy over the six-month period between the initial announcement and the convocation ceremony.

Despite pressure from across the country, the religious community, and even from within the university’s own board of directors, Mr. Estok says that Western’s messaging remained consistent. “In a nutshell, we said we recognize that this is a controversial decision that people disagree with and we respect their right to disagree. We explained why the committee felt he should receive the honour. Then the third message was: we are not reversing the decision.” The university, he says, emphasized that Dr. Morgentaler was instrumental in changing Canadian laws around abortion and reducing barriers for women to access the procedure across the country.

Mr. Estok lauds then-university president Paul Davenport for holding firm in supporting the senate’s decision. “In terms of the university’s reputation, it was one of our finest days because, under the leadership of Paul Davenport, we’d stuck to our principles. We had told people why we’re doing this and were committed to doing it. It was a peaceful day and turned out to be one of the best days I had at Western.” Three years later, on July 1, 2008, Dr. Morgentaler was named a Member of the Order of Canada. He died in 2013.

Reversing a decision is one thing, but what about revoking a degree already conferred? Ms. Khan Hemani at SFU says the only situation she could see where this would happen is if “the whole basis for the honour is no longer valid, say in the case of academic fraud.” Brock’s Ms. Colebatch adds: “Under our act, the senate has the power to confer all honorary degrees so by extension it also has the power to revoke an honorary degree, though we have never had cause to do so.” A university spokesman at Dalhousie says, “It is highly unusual that an honorary degree would be revoked. … It would be a decision that would not be taken lightly and would depend on the details of the situation.”

The issue is not purely hypothetical. Last November, the senate at Queen’s University voted to revoke the honorary degree it awarded to Burmese/Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995. According to a press release, the vote was called “after careful review of evidence available to the university concerning the ongoing situation in Myanmar, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to live up to her commitment or avail herself of opportunities to speak in defense of the Rohingya people.” Queen’s, the release noted, had never before rescinded an honorary degree since it began awarding them 146 years ago.

Carleton University did likewise several weeks earlier for the honorary degree it conferred on Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi in 2011. The university’s policy states: “In rare and exceptional circumstances, where the behaviour of an individual has caused significant concern, the honorary degrees committee has the right to review and recommend to senate the rescinding of an honorary degree.”

No quid pro quo

Another consideration when bestowing an honorary degree is avoiding the appearance that the honour is tied to a previous donation. “It undermines the integrity of the process, and the value of the honour,” says Ms. Khan Hemani. “When we announce, we want to feel good about the fact that the decision is independent of any financial contributions that the person has made to the community.”

Dr. Blackstock, who says she looks into a university’s record of previous recipients before accepting any honorary degree, agrees. “If a person happens to be wealthy and donated money to the university [but] can also demonstrate they’re qualified in other ways, fine. It shouldn’t be enough to donate a bucket of money.” She adds: “I just see so many caring people in society who have done different types of things, and who embody the best values of what knowledge really means and how to live your life with integrity that lifts up the whole society. Those are the kinds of people who deserve these honorary doctorates.”

To that end, Ms. Khan Hemani argues that the rigorous process that goes into finding and then vetting candidates works best when it remains independent within the university, free from the influence of other departments, money or outside interests. “Every single degree we award, we have to believe that we’re doing so with the greatest integrity,” she says.

Dr. Blackstock also believes that because the process of selecting honorary degree recipients is removed from the other academic branches of a university, it provides an opportunity to be a sort of corrective. Up until 1960, for an Indigenous person to attend university, “you had to renounce your First Nations status for you and all of your descendants, and only then you became a human being under law and could go to postsecondary school,” she says. “So there are knowledge keepers who have unbelievable wisdom and were never given the opportunity to get a postsecondary degree. So [conferring honorary degrees] is a way of being able to acknowledge those remarkable people. I think that’s really vital, especially in the spirit of reconciliation.”

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  1. Ross Paul / May 1, 2019 at 21:10

    Revoking honorary degrees has at least one memorable precedent in Canada. As recounted in my book, Leadership Under Fire, it happened to Alberta Premier Bill Aberhart in 1941:

    “One of my favourite all-time stories about honorary degrees involved the University of Alberta in 1941. The saga is well described in Walter Johns’s History of the University of Alberta. The distinguished selection committee, which included the chancellor, A.C. Rutherford, first premier of Alberta, proposed that the recipient that year be none other than the current premier, William Aberhart. As was the practice, the president of the university, William Kerr, contacted the premier in February to tell him of the award, noting that it was subject to the formality of approval by the university’s senate. The premier was delighted and spent a considerable amount of time writing his convocation speech.
    In those days, honorary degrees were officially confirmed the week before convocation by the senate following its annual dinner, and until then, this had been a mere formality. The senate met on 12 May 1941 to consider all the academic awards. Two Calgary lawyers who were opposed to the Aberhart award led a heated debate, and then there was, unusually, a secret ballot. The result of the vote was 17 for and 18 against. This was conveyed to the premier, who became very angry. Efforts were made to have the matter reconsidered that afternoon, but the result was a second negative vote, 15 to 16. The president and board chair resigned over the issue the next day, and a devastated Rutherford died less than a month later. In a way, history repeated itself almost fifty years later when the Oxford Union voted publicly against awarding an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of the country.”

    1. Johns 1981, 163–70.
    2. In Alberta, the senate is a community-based body not to be confused with the more academic senates in the other provinces

    This probably explains why most universities do not give honorary degrees to active politicians!

    Ross Paul, Vancouver.

  2. Baljit Singh / May 11, 2019 at 22:43

    The idea of conferring dozens of honorary degrees on the same individual for the same body of work borders on the ridiculous. There are always so many other equally deserving citizens/scholars in a particular discipline who could be honoured but somehow it is the same person over and over again. I would hope that the individual politely declines such multiple honorary degree for the same body of work and it will be an honourable thing to do to suggest another scholar in their particular area of work who may not have been recognized.

    Universities may defend or argue for their actions in many ways and that they don’t bow to the public pressure. This is the public that funds universities and i am not sure what does Dr Turpin mean by stating that UofA does not bow to public pressure! Would University of Alberta confer a degree on a vocal advocate of fossil fuels and fracking keeping in line with what President Turpin states “We acknowledged that Suzuki was a very controversial figure, but we didn’t defend him per se, we defended the important role the university had in providing a place for controversial ideas,” And, is Dr. Suzuki muzzled every where else and he has no forum other than then one provided by UofA in granting him a honorary degree!

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