Time to revoke: When honorary degrees bring dishonour

On 24 February, both McGill University in Montreal and Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, rescinded honorary doctorates that had been granted to Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

A lawyer and former law professor, Turpel-Lafond was thought to be the first ‘Treaty Indian’ to be appointed a judge in Saskatchewan when she was appointed as an administrative judge in 1998. She served as British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth from 2006 to 2015. Additionally, Turpel-Lafond has worked on land claims in both the United States and Canada.

Last October, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that its genealogical investigation into Turpel-Lafond’s ancestry, which had been questioned by some in the Indigenous community for decades, revealed that far from being a ‘Treaty Indian’, the term that denotes being a member of a First Nation recognised by the Canadian government, Turpel-Lafond’s ancestors were of European descent.

Since it came to light that Turpel-Lafond fabricated her Indigenous background and further investigations revealed she had made up part of her publishing record and some of her academic activities, she has joined a long list of luminaries in North America who have seen their honorary degrees revoked. They include Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Rudi Giuliani, former US president Donald J Trump and Ye, the American rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

For the many in Canada and especially for the Indigenous community, Turpel-Lafond did more than simply pad her résumé.

“I was angry, furious,” Michelle Good, a citizen of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and a lawyer, told University World News when asked about her reaction to Turpel-Lafond having faked her Indigeneity.

“This is so representative of colonial violence,” said Good, author of Five Little Indians (2020), which tells the story of survivors of Canada’s infamous residential school system, which for more than a century took Indigenous children away from their parents and raised them according to the precepts of the Catholic, Anglican and other Christian faiths. The conditions in many of these residential schools and treatment of the Indigenous children were so deplorable that thousands died while under government-sponsored care.

“Aside from assuming the identity, she [Turpel-Lafond] made claims about experiencing some of the horrendous social violence that Indigenous people have suffered, which she did not. She did not, but that is why she was held in such high esteem: the claims to have come from this hardscrabble life, [to have] suffered abuses, experienced addiction issues and abuses in her family, and nonetheless was able to graduate law school at an incredibly young age and go on to this sterling career.

“The harm she’s done far outweighs the work she’s done,” said Good, who herself is a survivor of the ‘Sixties Scoop’, a government programme that between 1961 and the early 1980s removed 20,000 Indigenous children from their homes, in most cases without the consent of either their families or their communities, to be raised by white families.

The problem of ‘ethnicity shopping’

CBC’s revelation that Turpel-Lafond had contrived her Indigeneity came as a number of Canadian universities have been dealing with cases of faculty falsely claiming to be Indigenous.

In June 2022, Carrie Bourassa, a health professor at the University of Saskatchewan (Saskatoon), resigned after her claim to being Indigenous was challenged. A year earlier, as University World News reported, faculty and staff members at Queen’s University (QU) in Kingston, Ontario were accused of fabricating their Indigenous identity.

At the centre of the controversy at QU was whether the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation (AAFN) to which Professor Robert Lovelace and another faculty member, and another individual involved with Indigenous issues, claimed membership, was in fact a First Nation, the term that replaced ‘Indian band’. Neither the Canadian federal government, the province of Ontario, nor the Canadian Supreme Court recognised the AAFN as a legitimate First Nation.

At the time, Lovelace did not respond to a University World News request for an interview and we were not able to verify the claims in the anonymous report. However, the “Investigation into false claims to Indigenous identity at Queen’s University” published on the internet in early June 2021 was widely reported across Canada.

According to the report, while Lovelace’s genealogy does not contain any Indigenous forebears, three professors the other individual named, who was also from Queen’s, could point to one or two Indigenous forebears – all of whom lived hundreds of years ago. In one case, this ancestor, an unnamed Nipissing woman (circa 1610) has more than a million descendants, including Canada’s two prime ministers Trudeau.

University of Ottawa Indigenous Studies Professor Veldon Coburn, a citizen of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn First Nation located near Ottawa, told University World News: “Theirs is a community of the graveyard. Why is it that these people think that one magical ancestor hundreds of years ago gives you all the rights and privileges as [given to] those who have been living in communities and in ways of life for 6,000 years?”

It is worth noting that on 8 July 2022, QU released a report by the First Peoples Group, an Indigenous advisory firm. Referring to that report and the way forward, Queen’s Chancellor Murray Sinclair, a former judge who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Canada’s residential schools, said that, in part, the “creation of the Indigenous Oversight Council is a move towards a process of confirming Indigenous citizenship that no longer relies solely on self-identification”.

Sinclair said: “As I have noted before, self-declaration is an important part of Indigenous identity – but it has proved insufficient in creating a safe, respectful, and inclusive community for Indigenous faculty, staff, and students at Queen’s.

“At the same time, it is not the role of a colonial institution like Queen’s to determine who is or is not Indigenous. To that end, the Indigenous Oversight Council provides an avenue through which we can build an Indigenous-led approach to confirming the citizenship and identity of faculty and staff at Queen’s.”

Perhaps the most famous case of what Professor Pamela Palmater, chair in Indigenous governance at Toronto Metropolitan University, as well as being a lawyer and a citizen of the Mi’kmaq Nation at Ugpi’ganjig (Eel River Bar First Nation) in Northern New Brunswick, calls “ethnicity shopping” – an expression of white privilege co-opting Indigeneity – involved the Englishman Archibald Stansfield Belaney. He immigrated to Canada in 1906, served in the Canadian army during the First World War and in 1925, when he was 37-years-old, started calling himself Grey Owl.

Over the next decade, he traded on this ‘identity’, lecturing widely, writing numerous books, most with environmental themes. His 1935-36 speaking tour brought him to Britain where he wore Ojibwe clothing and was promoted as a ‘Modern Hiawatha’. In 1992, Richard Attenborough directed the fawning film, Grey Owl, starring Pierce Brosnan in the eponymous role.

Curious claims

In the months since the revelation of Turpel-Lafond’s masquerade, she has returned honorary degrees bestowed on her by Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo, British Columbia) and Royal Roads University (Vancouver Island).

In mid-February, the University of Regina (Saskatchewan) revoked the honorary degree it had granted her in 2009. The university announced the revocation with a statement that acknowledged Turpel-Lafond’s years as a child advocate and her work for Indigenous rights, but said, “her accomplishments are outweighed by the harm inflicted upon Indigenous academics, peoples and communities when non-Indigenous people misrepresent their Indigenous ancestry”.

Statements by both McGill University and Carleton University had similar themes, with the former noting that the ad hoc committee formed to consider the issue “found evidence calling into question the validity of information about academic credentials and accomplishments appearing on Ms Turpel-Lafond’s curriculum vitae. It also recognised that her claims about being a Treaty Indian were the subject of important questions”.

The questions concerning the “validity of information about [her] academic credentials and accomplishments” refer to Turpel-Lafond’s claim to having earned an MA in international law from the University of Cambridge when, in fact, she had earned a diploma; and having earned her PhD from Harvard in juridical science in 1990 when she did not earn the degree until 1997. Further, she claimed to have written a book about customs surrounding Indigenous adoption; no such book exists.

CBC reported that on her 2018 CV posted online, Turpel-Lafond claimed to have supervised Carol Aylward’s LLM in 1993 when Aylward was a graduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The now retired Aylward, who had directed the university’s Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq Initiative, told CBC, “I don’t know why she would put that claim [on her CV]. It makes no sense.”

Perhaps the most curious fabrication on Turpel-Lafond’s CV was her claim that she had been granted an honorary degree by First Nations University of Canada (Regina, Saskatchewan), as many in the Indigenous community would know that this university does not grant honorary degrees.

Celebrities who fell from grace

The Turpel-Lafond scandal has unfolded against the background of even more famous North Americans having their honorary degrees rescinded.

In early December, after a series of antisemitic statements, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago revoked Ye’s honorary degree.

The petition that called on the school’s president Elissa Tenny to revoke the degree said: “This award bestows the legitimacy of the School on a figure who has in recent months made repeated public statements expressing and justifying antisemitism. Regardless of his contribution [to music] prior to the receipt of this award, it is harmful to allow Ye, as he is presently known, to continue to use the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to help legitimise hatred and violence.”

By late October 2015, after more than 50 women came forward and accused Bill Cosby of drugging and raping them, more than 15 of the 60 colleges and universities, including Yale University, had revoked the comedian and actor’s honorary degrees, Inside Higher Education reported. At the time Cosby was often called “America’s Dad” for the avuncular Dr Cliff Huxtable whom he played in the long-running situation comedy, The Cosby Show.

The following year, State University of New York at Buffalo revoked the Doctorate of Humane Letters bestowed on Harvey Weinstein, who had taken his BA in English at the university, after the movie mogul was charged with sexual assaults spanning three decades.

Within days of the 6 January 2021 insurrection during which the Capitol in Washington DC was occupied, all but one of the five universities that had awarded honorary degrees to Trump before he became president, revoked them.

On 8 January 2021, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, revoked the Honorary Doctor of Laws it had bestowed on Trump in 1988; the link between the then real estate developer and the small private school being the fact that Trump’s elder brother, who died in 1981, was an alumnus. The next day, Wagner College on Staten Island, New York tweeted: “The Wagner College Board of Trustees met in special session to review the honorary degree granted to Donald J Trump in 2004. Today the board voted to rescind that degree.”

Liberty University (LU) in Lynchburg, Virginia, founded by the right-wing, evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell Sr in 1971, has not revoked the former president’s degree and refused to comment on the decision. However, on 12 January 2021, Jerry Falwell Jr, who resigned from LU’s board under a cloud in 2020, told WSLS-TV (Roanoke Virginia), “I’d give him another degree if I was still at LU. He’s done nothing wrong but had an election stolen from him by thugs. He said nothing to incite violence at that rally. And he fulfilled his campaign promises as president. That almost never happened before.”

Rudi Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer during those tumultuous days, whose law licence has been suspended in New York and Washington DC, and is the subject of a federal criminal probe, has been stripped of seven of the dozen honorary degrees awarded to the former mayor of New York City who became famous for rallying New Yorkers following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Among the institutions of higher education that have not revoked Giuliani’s degrees are St John Fisher College (SJFC) and Syracuse University (SU), both in upstate New York, and Loyola University Maryland. Sydney Brooke, a third-year political science student at Loyola, told the Business Insider (BI), “It is difficult to look at an institution that is supposed to be justice oriented and truth seeking to be OK with Giuliani holding this honorary degree from our university.”

Even though in 2015, Legal Studies Professor James Bowers introduced Giuliani at the SJFC convocation at which he was awarded his degree, Bowers told BI that failing to revoke the degree was “the epitome of academic cowardice”.

By contrast, according to the BI, while SU is considering revoking its degree and would have student support to do so, there are faculty, including Law Professor Gregory Germain, who oppose the idea. “This whole thing strikes me as political correctness run amok,” he told the BI. “If you have independent thoughts and you don’t agree with the prevailing view, you’re cancelled.”

Previous revocations in Canada

Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degrees are not the only ones Canadian universities have revoked or are considering revoking. In August 2022, three months before the CBC report about Turpel-Lafond’s ancestry, the University of British Columbia revoked the honorary degree it granted the late Catholic bishop John Fergus O’Grady, who had been principal at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, where in 2021 the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced it had identified more than 200 suspected unmarked graves.

On 19 January 2022, students at the University of Toronto submitted a petition calling for the university to revoke the honorary doctorate granted to Duncan Campbell Scott in 1922.

Cindy Blackstock, a citizen of the Gitksan First Nation (Northwestern British Columbia) and a professor in McGill’s School of Social Work as well as executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, supports the petition. Known to generations of Canadian school children as one of the ‘Confederation Poets’ whose works extolled the creation of Canada in 1867, between 1879 and 1931 Scott worked at the Department of Indian Affairs.

In the early years of the 20th century, Scott was deputy superintendent general of the department.

Blackstock explained that Scott, despite having lost his own daughter to scarlet fever a year earlier, ignored a 1907 report written by Dr Peter Bryce, the department’s chief medical officer, that documented that Indigenous children in the residential schools were malnourished and were dying from tuberculosis, pneumonia and influenza because of overcrowded and poorly ventilated buildings.

Scott also ignored pleas from the dioceses of Saskatchewan and the bishop of Moosonee, Saskatchewan, who wrote of the “appalling death-rate amongst the children”, and headlines from 1908 that castigated the government for “absolute inattention to the bare necessities and health”, and another that bluntly stated: “Children [are] dying like flies.”

To those who ask, “Is it worth the time to convince the University of Toronto to revoke a century-old degree?”, Blackstock cites Scott himself for why doing so is necessary. The same year (1922) he received his honorary degree, in his presidential address to the Royal Society of Canada, he said that history was no longer the province of “storytelling . . . the endless reweaving of that tissue of tradition”. Further, “the partisan historian fortified with bigotry and blind to all the evidence uncongenial to his preconceptions is an extinct being”. Rather, the historian has the “obligation to accept no statement without the support of documentary evidence”.

Blackstock’s gloss was simple: history is not propaganda, even that which Duncan Campbell Scott would have liked.

“Canada would have done just fine without his poetry,” Blackstock said. “We are still living. And some of us sadly died with his legacy of residential schools because at the time he was confronted with the opportunity to save the children’s lives by his own chief medical officer of health (Bryce) and he chose not to do it. And he knew that children would be dying as a result, and for that he deserves the responsibility and not an honorary degree from the University of Toronto.”

As of this writing, the university has not announced a decision about revoking the honorary degree awarded to Scott who had a Grade 12 education.

A chequered history

Not every prestigious university grants honorary degrees. Among those that do not are UCLA, Cornell, and the University of Virginia, Stanford. According to the MIT News, William Barton Rogers, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which also does not grant honorary degrees, called them “literary almsgiving . . . of spurious merit and noisy popularity”.

The chequered history of honorary degrees begins in 1478 or 1479 when the University of Oxford bestowed one on Lionel Woodville, dean of Exeter and King Edward IV’s brother-in-law. In 1642 at the start of the English Civil War, at Charles I’s behest, Oxford granted 350 honorary degrees; after routing the parliamentary forces in late October 1642, the town of Oxford became the king’s military base.

North America’s first honorary degree was granted by Harvard in 1692 – in the midst of the Salem witch trials – to the Puritan divine, Increase Mather, who defended the trials.

Still, many of the people I interviewed for this article believe that there is a place for honorary degrees, though universities are going to have to vet people being considered for them much more carefully, said Professor Sarah E Eaton, who is based in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary (Alberta) and is co-editor of Fake Degrees and Fraudulent Credentials in Higher Education (Springer, 2023).

Both Blackstock and Murphy echoed what Eaton told me about universities recognising achievements from beyond their campus gates.

“I think it is something we should be doing because it’s an acknowledgement of persons who have dedicated themselves to public service and the furtherance of knowledge outside of academia,” said Blackstock.

Margaret Murphy, associate vice president for external affairs at St Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, presented two main reasons why universities should continue granting honorary degrees, many of which the university grants to individuals of merit from Atlantic Canada.

The first is the opportunity that students gain from meeting and networking with the men and women who come to St Mary’s campus to receive their degrees; some recipients return to the campus to lecture or work in the school’s entrepreneurship centre.

The second reason is that it helps break down the wall between the university and the community. Honorary degrees “shine a light on people whose work might not otherwise garner other marks of success or have a light shined upon them”. By way of example, she pointed to Bernie Francis, a linguist who has been working to revive the Mi’kmaw language, who was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in May 2019.

Vetting the candidates

Mitigating the risk to a university’s reputation by more closely vetting candidates for honorary degrees will not be simple.

As Good explained with reference to candidates for professorships established for Indigenous scholars (who are vastly underrepresented in the academe), self-identification of Indigeneity is not sufficient because these professors are hired “to create a deeper understanding of Indigenous epistemology, of Indigenous peoples, and they can’t do it [if] they’re not Indigenous. This has a profound impact on the information that is perpetuated throughout the system. And so that for me, this justifies a deeper inquiry, some form of proof that a person is, in fact, Indigenous”. A requirement she admits is “odious”.

“What’s most challenging about that is, through colonial instruments, there are so many Indigenous people who have lost the thread of their ancestry. They know they are Indigenous but they’re not sure how, either because they’ve been taken into the child welfare system or residential schools and lost touch with their families.

“Nonetheless, I believe there is a halfway house where you can respect that these are Indigenous people that have lost the trail but they can still provide some information in terms of their ancestry, some paper documentation [to show] that they are, in fact, Indigenous.”

Eaton flagged a different set of legal questions. Speaking about a committee she was on, she said: “There were questions about whether we do a social media audit of these individuals. Who is authorised to do that? Is it HR (human resources)? Is it a private investigator?”

Further, she noted, if the prospective recipient lives in the United States, for example, his or her consent is required. Getting consent “to do a social media check on someone for the purpose of conferring an award, when the person doesn’t even know they’re being considered for the award, is a little tricky”.

Each of the experts I interviewed stressed that universities must have policies in place for revoking degrees.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby (suburban Vancouver) is one that does not, which means it was caught flat-footed after the revelations about Turpel-Lafond led to the university being requested to revoke her degree. A month ago, the university’s senate approved a policy and procedures that are now guiding the “requests to review Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s honorary degree”, SFU wrote in an email to University World News on 28 February.

The two reasons for revoking a degree, listed in the policy, are that ‘Action or conduct of the recipient undermines the credibility or integrity of the honorary degree’, and that ‘The original grounds for conferring the degree are determined to be unfounded’, both of which appear relevant in this case.

For her part, Good, who had said before knowing that the policy and procedures had been established, that she would return her doctorate in protest if Turpel-Lafond’s degree was not revoked, is hopeful that SFU will revoke it.

“When I said that I would return my degree in protest,” Good told me, “it was not an ultimatum. I don’t function that way. It was just my statement about my position, my moral compass. I won’t stand shoulder to shoulder with someone who has perpetrated this kind of identity fraud.”

St Mary’s has had policies and procedures for revoking an honorary degree for years. And although Murphy was not at liberty to reveal details of the administration’s deliberations, they were used in 2019 to revoke the honorary degree St Mary’s had conferred on Yahya Jammeh, who in 2017 was forced from power in Gambia.

Jammeh had been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture and the forced disappearance of political opponents and journalists. In a statement the university indicated that the degree was revoked because of the serious allegations and the university’s need to uphold its values of social justice, human rights and the dignity of all persons.

Honorary degrees come with a responsibility

Towards the end of our discussion, Blackstock suggested what amounts to a reimagining of the recipients of honorary degrees. They would still be awarded degrees for achievements, but they would also have a responsibility going forward. She used the model of employment contracts which hold that “if you’ve done something that creates an indignity to the institution or to society that calls the institution into disrepute, either in your professional or private behaviour”, that would warrant revoking the honorary degree.

Instead of the conversation between the president or chancellor being essentially a congratulatory call, she suggests that the conversation be focused on what accepting the degree means from the university’s point of view and what responsibilities the awardee undertakes by accepting the degree.

Central to this last point is the students.

“There should be some kind of contract that you agree to conduct your behaviour in such a manner that brings honour to the students and to the knowledge holders that will follow in your footsteps and hold the same degree that is being awarded,” Blackstock said.