A group of 11 professors are calling St. Thomas University’s decision to award Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside an honourary degree unethical.
Ian Nicholson, a psychology professor at STU who signed a letter protesting the university’s decision, says the university shouldn’t be giving honourary degrees to sitting politicians.
“The degree is supposed to be about recognizing great accomplishments but when you give it to a sitting politician you politicize the process and create the appearance of pandering to power,” Nicholson said in an email.
“It also looks really crass for an institution to suck up to the powerful in such a public way. We all know that universities kiss the ass of politicians all the time, but at least they should have the class and dignity to do it in private.”
Woodside is set to receive the degree and offer the convocation address at Sunday’s ceremony.
Nicholson is boycotting the ceremony and says he’s received “many messages of support” from other faculty members.
“I have attended the ceremony in the past but I will not be there this year,” Nicholson said. “It is unfortunate but I don’t think I could stomach such a vulgar public display of sucking up.”
STU spokesman Jeffrey Carleton said universities don’t usually give honourary degrees to sitting politicians, but there have been numerous exceptions over the years.
Former premiers Louis J. Robichaud, Richard Hatfield and Frank McKenna and former Saint John Mayor Elsie Wayne all received honourary degrees from STU while in office, Carleton said.
Guidelines for honourary degree recipients found on the STU website only suggest the university not give honourary degrees to currently-sitting politicians on a regular basis.
“The criteria are very general, very broad on purpose,” Carleton said.
A honourary degree committee made up of five people – and chaired by STU president Dennis Cochrane – decides who receives the honourary degrees.
The committee felt Woodside’s contribution to Frederiction, including his work in the community with addicted youth, was worthy of the honour, Carleton said.
“It was a process and the process was followed.
“We’re looking forward to convocation on Sunday and hearing Brad Woodside’s personal story as part of the convocation address.”
And while Carleton says he understands not every faculty member will support every decision the university makes, he said Nicholson’s decision to not attend convocation is “disappointing.”
“Convocation is a gathering of the university, of all the different parts to celebrate the achievements of the graduates, to recognize that they have graduated and have met all the standards that we set.
“It’s always important that the faculty be there to recognize that and see the students one last time and meet their parents and join in on the celebration.”
Nicholson cited Woodside’s “past actions on matters of human rights pertaining to gays and lesbians” as another reason why the group is protesting the university’s decision. In 1998, Woodside refused to proclaim Gay Pride Week in Fredericton until the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission ordered him to do so.
“For many faculty [members], he remains a symbol of intolerance and bigotry. Many feel that it is quite grotesque to give someone with his background an honorary doctorate,” Nicholson said.
While only 11 faculty members signed the letter of protest, Nicholson says many more indicated they supported the letter but didn’t feel comfortable having their name attached to it.
“I have yet to meet a single professor who thinks Mr. Woodside is a worthy recipient. There may be a few out there but I think it fair to say that the overwhelming majority of the faculty are strongly opposed to Mr. Woodside¹s degree.”
Currently serving his seventh term, Woodside is Fredericton’s longest-serving mayor.
On the day the group of 11 professors released their letter of protest to the media, Woodside thanked his supporters for standing by him on his Twitter page.
“When things are great and your kicked in the gut, being loved and supported by so many can lift you to even greater heights. Thank you.”
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