Speaking out

It seems I am writing a lot about Alberta lately. First, it was a tit-for-tat between the province and the University of Alberta. Now, it’s…the University of Alberta against itself.

The Nature of The Issue

The university recently announced, and was forced to defend, its decision to grant an honorary degree to David Suzuki.

Arguments against the recognition for Suzuki included his anti-oil stance, and some claiming that the guy is just not all that likable.

Arguments for Suzuki’s degree included the fact that the institution did not necessarily have to agree with his opinions to acknowledge his many accomplishments. That, and I am sure there’s a donor piece in there somewhere.

The backlash has come from donors, MPs, the public, and, most notably, from inside the institution. The university’s engineering dean has made several critical remarks about the decision, saying the institution has ‘betrayed’ Albertans and become ‘disconnected’ from the people it is meant to serve. The dean of business had a more measured response, acknowledging the discord that this announcement has caused.

Force of Nature

The part that particularly troubled me about this situation, and always troubles me when these controversies occur,  is the need for some academics to take the opportunity to dunk on their employer. Rather than raise their concerns in a private setting with the president or the head of fundraising and alumni relations, they take their opinion public by reaching out to media, posting their opinion on social media or the university’s website, or emailing staff and faculty.

While faculty are paid to have opinions, there is no requirement they voice that opinion publicly at every possible juncture – especially when it might negatively impact the institution and its ability to recruit students, fundraise, or present a positive public image. Having an opinion on Suzuki’s honorary degree is to be expected – but feeling the need to grab a bullhorn and shout it from the rooftops is another matter.

This is especially problematic when the academic in question is a dean – a senior leader of the institution. Dean Forbes of the faculty of engineering is paid over $300,000 a year by the University of Alberta but, clearly, he feels he owes them no debt of loyalty during times of trouble. In any other institution – public or private sector – such an outburst would probably earn someone a dismissal or punishment.

Wild Academia

This idea of academic freedom is a controversial one which is not widely understood by the public – or by academics. It centres on the idea that inquiry is essential to being an academic, and so academics should be able to question just about anything. But there are some important limitations to keep in mind.

The first is that academics are generally advised to keep their comments limited to their area of expertise – hard to argue that awarding honorary degrees is an engineering discipline!

The second point is that academics, when offering their opinions, are to be clear that their opinion is just that – it does not reflect the institution. Yet, particularly when one is a senior leader, it is difficult to distinguish the two, especially when you are using official letterhead with your title on it!

Thirdly, though academics should not feel threatened when offering their opinions, it is hard to argue that an employee should have free reign to bash their employer – particularly when that employer belongs to the public, the public pays their salary, and to damage the institution’s reputation is to damage something which belongs to the public.

If the media is seeking punditry to analyze the Suzuki honorary degree announcement, there is no shortage between ‘experts’ at the other Alberta universities, the PR firms (hello!), and the various other outraged members of the public who have chimed in or could chime in on this issue.

Finally, it is important to remember that just because you can offer an opinion doesn’t mean you have to (this is just generally good advice!). Remember I said this when I inevitably take this column down next week.

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