Thursday, February 23, 2012

Broken Virtues: University of Alberta

My letter on this topic has been published in the Edmonton Journal. It prompted and email to me from Dr. Frank Robinson, Vice-Provost and Dean of Students at the U of A explaining, in short, that the students and police were to blame for the events of February 1. The students for not asking for permission beforehand and the police for the overkill of force. I've since responded advising the administration to quit with the finger-pointing, take responsibility and issue an apology. He wrote nothing about my concern regarding Brabeck-Letmathe’s honorary degree.

Strange things have been happening at the University of Alberta. It began February 1st when a police helicopter suddenly appeared at the window of my graduate seminar. My first thought was of terrorism. I soon discovered that the only threat was coming from my fellow students and other concerned citizens who (god forbid!) were engaging in a peaceful protest against education cut backs on a designated National Student Day of Action.

It turned out that the administration, led by U of A president Indira Samarasekera, thought it appropriate to disrupt classes and inflame resentment by ordering over 20 officers in seven squad cars and an Air-1 police helicopter to subdue the demonstration. I was certain this overreaction would be regretted and that a full explanation and public apology would be forthcoming. No such luck.

Now Samarasekera is defending the university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, because, as she said, "This guy is an intellectual. We give honorary degrees to intellectuals of distinction, controversial or not." Controversy? Gandhi was “controversial.” The decision is a disgrace and a betrayal of the U of A’s motto, Quaecumque vera, ("Whatsoever things are true") from the Epistle of St. Paul:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and there be any praise, think on these things.“
Brabeck-Letmathe has long been a vocal advocate for privatizing fresh water, while dismissing free public access as “an extreme” human right. During Brabeck-Letmathe’s tenure as Nestlé's CEO from 1997-2008 the company was accused of engaging in child slavery in the Ivory Coast. More recently Nestlé has again become the target of a boycott over its reckless marketing of baby formula in Armenia and Laos, where, according to Mike Brady of the non-profit organization Baby Milk Action, it has put “company profits before the health of infants and rights of mothers.”

Indira Samarasekera needs to reflect on whether there be any virtue in such positions. A world-class university does not turn police on peaceful protesters nor honor someone who advocates privatizing fresh water supplies while subjecting people to destructive economic practices. We can and should do better. Much better.

No comments:

Post a Comment