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Hey U of A, stick to your guns and welcome David Suzuki to Edmonton

David Suzuki. Image: David J. Climenhaga

The University of Alberta's dean of engineering believes his faculty faces "the worst crisis, a crisis of trust, that we've faced in more than three decades."

The immediate cause of this perceived looming disaster for the U of A's most favoured faculty? "The conferral of a single honorary degree," wrote Dr. Fraser Forbes Tuesday in an extraordinary open letter to what he terms "our Engineering Community."

That is to say, the honorary degree that is still scheduled to be awarded to Dr. David Suzuki by the U of A on June 7. While Forbes did not mention Suzuki by name, it is pretty clear whom he has in mind, since the decision to award the honorary Doctorate of Science appears by now to have convulsed the entire political and business establishment of Alberta with outrage.

Forbes, to his credit, adopts a more moderate tone than the hysterics who are vowing to withdraw their donations to the university. As such, his remarks deserve a serious response. Nevertheless, his conclusions are troubling.

The degree promised to Suzuki, he argues, has made it "pointedly clear that the problem runs much deeper." To wit: "Just how deeply Albertans feel that we have, without fairness or justification, been made climate change pariahs by much of the world, as well as being vilified by our fellow Canadians."

An argument could be made, I suppose, about who has been vilifying whom the most these days, when the state of discourse in this province has fallen to the point peaceful environmentalists are routinely referred to as "eco-terrorists" by respectable people like a former minister of energy. Nevertheless, Forbes has a point that Albertans are being made to feel like "climate change pariahs."

This kind of rhetoric by opponents of bitumen development is not particularly helpful, but it is the undoubted byproduct of a political culture in this province that routinely engages in climate change denial and over-the-top attacks on critics. It is also a toxic byproduct of a fossil fuel industry that approaches carbon reduction measures the world needs, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman put it in the New York Times last week, intending "to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments."

The hostility on our part is a natural reaction by citizens of countries and regions -- Russia and Alberta are both examples -- who see the secret to their recent economic success threatened by change driven by new technology, climate change and a retreating fossil fuel industry.

Anger will not change the trend line, though. Forbes may be right when he says the problem runs deeper. But I very much doubt that has much to do with the fundamental values of the engineering community being questioned. On the contrary, who do you think is designing all those ways to extract energy from renewable sources? Highly educated engineers, for the most part, some of them no doubt trained at the University of Alberta.

The fundamental problem this situation suggests is not any distrust of engineers or engineering -- there's very little evidence for that. It's the complete corporate capture by the oil industry of the government of Alberta and its institutions -- including the University of Alberta. This has been chronicled persuasively by author Kevin Taft, a veteran of both the Alberta Legislature and the faculty of the University of Alberta.

Corporate domination of the academy is one of the tragedies of our era. It is a threat to intellectual inquiry, and that includes inquiry in the sciences, and to our democracy itself.

In most universities, forestry is treated as a branch of engineering, and it sounds very much to me as if in this case, the dean of engineering can't see the forest for the trees. His solution, at any rate, would be worse than the problem presented by Suzuki's honour -- which, in reality, is not very outrageous, notwithstanding the heat being generated nowadays in some of the darker corners of the Internet.

Forbes argues: "It is critically important that our voice -- the Engineering voice, the voice of Alberta's industrial sectors, including energy and natural resources -- is given a place at the table of the key decision-making bodies of our university." That is to say, the University Senate, which Forbes complains is the sole selector of honorary degree recipients.

This sounds to me as if he is suggesting that the engineering faculty, and the corporations that hire its graduates, be given a veto over who gets honorary degrees.

The only saving grace of such a scheme is that it would never work in practice, because the Senate would assign the job to a committee, just as it does now, which now and then would make controversial choices, just as it did this time.

I suppose we can be thankful at least it wasn't a right-wing intellectual arousing outrage in the academy, or we'd never hear the end of it in the pages of the National Post and The Globe and Mail. Still, the U of A ought not to let itself be pushed down that dangerous path.

Forbes concludes his cri de coeur with the avowal he is deeply sorry, ashamed even, "for the hurt that we at the University have caused Albertans in the last two weeks."

Well, it's a free country. He can be sorry if he wishes. Me, I'm proud of the University of Alberta for valuing more than one point of view, and for honouring a recipient of the Order of Canada who has done so much to popularize scientific inquiry, even when its results are politically inconvenient.

And so I have some advice for Forbes, even though I'm not a part of the engineering community, whose thinking and advice he solicited.

Upset as you are about this honour, Dr. Forbes, don't let your friends try to roll it back by withdrawing their donations to your faculty or other departments at the University of Alberta.

If they succeed, it will be a black mark on the intellectual reputation of the U of A, a great university, and it will be a great victory for those who would, "without fairness or justification," turn all Albertans into climate change pariahs.

Do not imagine even for an instant such a foolish decision would not be create a real crisis of trust for the University of Alberta.

For that reason alone, if there was ever a time for the U of A Senate to stick to its guns and welcome Suzuki to Edmonton in June, this is it!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: David Climenhaga

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