A valedictory address that criticized the University of Winnipeg for bestowing an honorary degree on Manitoba Conservative MP Vic Toews has caused ripples in the community...
"I'm extremely honoured to be selected as the valedictorian [but] I have to admit I'm not proud to share the stage with everybody that is on it today," Larson said, as Toews, the federal public safety minister, sat nearby looking uncomfortable.
After the ceremony, U of W president Lloyd Axworthy said he was disappointed the valedictory address was used to make a political statement.
"The young woman who was the valedictorian wanted to use it as a platform for some political views — that's her right to use it in that way — but it put a little bit of a damper on the proceedings at the end, which is too bad," he said.
I hold a degree from the University of Winnipeg and am somewhat familiar with Lloyd Axworthy's role in that institution. He has done many good things for the University, taking significant steps to make the school a centre of excellence for the study of peace, democracy and human rights. He also has taken a particular interest in making the the university accessible to immigrant, refugee and Aboriginal communities in the city, being a particularly keen champion of Sudan's Lost Boys and Girls.
However, Axworthy is a star and holds considerable clout and influence. There is no one I'm aware of around the UW who can match his record and reputation. I was left with the distinct impression that he preached much more democracy than he practiced and the direction of the institution is due to his helmsmanship. If it were made known that the Axworthy wanted to give the degree to Toews, would the committee have felt they had a choice but to rubber stamp the president's wishes?
Thus, the awarding of an honourary degree to an individual so antithetical to University's bearing under Axworthy exposes a staggering degree of hypocrisy within the institution and ultimately his leadership. Further, contrary to Axworthy's view, "the young woman who was the valedictorian" (ouch!) did not make the award a political statement, the University did when it selected a serving hyperpartisan politician to receive it.
Erin Larson merely had the courage, temerity and integrity to point it out.
Update: Prof. Sampert agrees.
A political science professor at the university told CBC News on Monday that convocation is just the place to make political statements. Prof. Shannon Sampert said Larson should be applauded for what she did.
"I think, frankly, a student like that, who can stand up in the face of all this kind of authority and all this kind of pomp and circumstance and dignity and actually speak her mind, I think that we should be supporting the student," Sampert said.
Sampert said Larson made it clear before the convocation that she was going to make a statement against the honorary degree.
"If you do not want a political statement you should not be giving honorary degrees to controversial politicians," Sampert added.