To whom is your allegiance, professors?

STU profs who plan to boycott convocation should be wary of the message they are sending their students

A group of professors at St. Thomas University are protesting the decision to award an honorary degree to Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside, and some have now threatened to boycott the graduation ceremonies.

In an open letter to the Daily Gleaner, the professors at the liberal arts university objected to the decision to award the degree to a “sitting politician,” as well as because of Woodside’s “record on the environment and by his unwillingness to recognize gay and lesbian citizens.”

Back in the 1990’s, Woodside refused to declare a Gay Pride weekend in Fredericton until he was ordered to do so by the Human Rights Commission. However, since taking office again in 2004, Woodside has declared Pride Week and even participated in some of the events.

But for other professors, their decision to boycott the ceremonies has more to do with the ethics of awarding an honorary degree to a politician who is still in office.  “There’s a general sense of unease about the kind of vulgarity and the crassness of that,” Ian Nicholson, an STU professor who signed the letter of objection told Global Saskatoon. “Of sorta paying up to power, of trying to buy favours from politicians by giving them one of these impressive sounding degrees.”

For these reasons, a group of STU professors may be absent at the convocation ceremonies of their students this weekend. And while I don’t agree with their position, it is understandable why they would choose to be so. The ethics of awarding an honorary degree to a sitting politician is undeniably complicated, and that decision is made even thornier when the recipient has held controversial opinions in the past, despite recent reforms.

But by boycotting the ceremonies, these professors are putting their own politics over their students. Which is fine, of course. But small liberal arts universities, unlike large, research-driven institutions, are driven by the reputation of having intimate classrooms and personal connections between students and professors. You go to the University of Toronto if you want to be lectured by a world-renowned theorist who probably doesn’t know your name, but you enroll in St. Thomas University if you want to develop a relationship with faculty and engage personally with your instructors. If these professors don’t show up to their students’ graduations, they will be inadvertently forfeiting one of the great merits of their institution.

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