Honorary degrees in the spotlight after Vic Toews fiasco at U of W

While fall convocations witness dozens of honorary degrees being awarded alongside diplomas at universities across the country, they have recently been in the spotlight after the University of Winnipeg decided to give Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews the distinction.

On Oct. 17, Toews was granted an honorary doctor of laws from the University of Winnipeg. Toews received his BA in history from the university in 1973.
“I am honored by this great distinction,” said Toews in a statement released through the University of Winnipeg,

“Throughout my life, the education I received at the University of Winnipeg has served me well in my private life and through my many years of public service. I couldn’t be more proud to be alumni of this great institution,” he said.

However, there was some controversy surrounding the university’s choice to grant Toews such a distinction.

Valedictorian Erin Larson chose to express her concerns in her speech during the convocation ceremony. Although many commended Larson’s courage, others, including U of W president Lloyd Axworthy, felt that it was not the place to make a political statement.

James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he thinks that the valedictorian displayed courage in questioning her university’s decision.

“I saw some media criticism of her for speaking out, but [ . . . ] if university isn’t a place where you can express different points then we might as well close our doors,” he said.

“No one assumes that valedictorians are somehow reflecting the views of the whole class, but rather they’re given a platform, because they’ve distinguished themselves, [ . . . ] to share their views and their thoughts with the graduating class and their families,” continued Turk.

Turk said he is unsure of the rationale behind granting Toews the distinction.

“This is a politician who is, shall we say at the least, controversial and so it’s not immediately obvious amongst all the politicians in Canada why one would choose him,” he said.

According to Dan Hurley, senior executive officer and advisor to the president of the U of W, the university’s senate is responsible for approving the granting of honorary degrees.

Hurley explained that anyone from the university community can put forward a nomination to the corporate secretary. It is then reviewed and recommended by the honorary degrees committee of senate and then brought forward to the senate for approval.

“In the case of Mr. Toews’ nomination, both the committee and the senate voted unanimously to grant the degree among several others at its January 2010 meeting,” said Hurley.

Turk explained that there is a broad range of categories under which someone could be considered for an honorary degree.

“There are people who have made, not academic, but by virtue of their life, a distinguished contribution to society,” explained Turk.

According to John Danakas, director of public affairs at the U of M, an honorary degree is the highest honor a university can bestow on an individual.

“The purpose of an honorary degree is to bring honor to the individual and to the university by being able to claim an association with distinguished individuals,” he said.

Danakas explained that the U of M senate has a careful process for reviewing nominations. In order to be eligible for an honorary degree, a nominee must receive over two thirds of the vote of senate members.

However, Turk notes that universities sometimes give honorary degrees to people who have made significant donations to or who have been prominent in the university community, such as loyal alumni.

“This is why people get angry when honorary degrees are given for other purposes, not because you have made significant contribution [ . . . ] but rather you give it to a politician and hope that they’ll give you more money,” said Turk.

“It’s those kinds of things that in some ways, cheapen that universities honorary degree,” he said.

The University of Manitoba honored Phil Fontaine and Bernard Weiner at fall convocation this year.