IN HIS 10-year term as president, Robert Prichard elevated the academic standing of the University of Toronto to the highest levels in North America. He also placed the institution on a sound financial footing with an unprecedented $1 billion fundraising drive in the midst of government cutbacks. But his cozying up to corporate interests raised rumblings among academics about the university selling its soul, as in honouring donor Peter Munk's pal George Bush.
So, it's good to see, in Prichard's final days in the job, the university conferring honourary doctorates on such anti-corporate crusaders as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Bob White, Noam Chomsky and Edward Said.
Prichard has little personal control over such decisions. They are the preserve of a committee that includes Chancellor Hal Jackman and Wendy Cecil-Cockwell, chair of the governing council.
But Prichard gets to preside over such high-profile convocations.
He did so with his usual panache in the last fortnight, smoothing over: a), the potential embarrassment of labour leader White expressing his solidarity with striking U of T bookstore workers before accepting his degree, and b), the low-grade grumblings that greeted the honours for Chomsky and Said, both implacable foes of Israel's expansionist policies and treatment of Palestinians.
The American academics were lauded not for their leftist politics but for exceptional scholarships challenging received truths in a range of disciplines far beyond their own. Aptly, both used the U of T platform to deliver strong words of agitation to stir the soul.
It was deliciously ironic to see Jackman, that lovable symbol of the establishment, and Prichard look on as Chomsky laced into neo-conservatives for undermining universities, even while benefiting from them:
"Virtually every dynamic component of the modern economy, from computers and the Internet to the biology-based industries, is to a considerable extent an outgrowth of university research, one of the many ways in which cost and risk are socialized in what is misleadingly described as a free-enterprise market economy.''
Chomsky was speaking at Convocation Hall, steps from Queen's Park, and sounded as though he were delivering a critique on the Mike Harris Tories. In decrying present-day propaganda for high productivity and profits with nary a thought for workers, he said:
"To ensure that decision-making is shifted even more into the hands of unaccountable private power, the public must be indoctrinated in the virtues of subordination and discipline, and taught to regard government as an enemy to be feared, not an instrument they might use for public purposes in a democratic community.
"An unspoken premise is that the role of government is not to be lessened, but rather shifted, away from public participation and service to public needs, toward private control and service to concentrated private power.''
A day later, Said (pronounced Sa-eed) lived up to his reputation as a trenchant critic of academic and media pundits, especially those peddling demonized portrayals of the people of the Orient and the Middle East, and doing so largely in the service of American foreign policy.
He said: "Just think how it is that experts of all sorts rule our world, in effect, indoctrinate us on subjects that affect us but on which we have been clubbed into submission . . .
"What appears real and objective from TV or the newspaper or the textbook is the result, we must keep reminding ourselves, of choices, of constructions, of a great deal of hiding of other realities . . .
"It is the role of the intellectual to challenge the framework of knowledge, to ask for whom is this knowledge useful and why is it set up this way; for whom does this objective news serve as reality; for what end, ethical or unethical, is a war declared, a missile deployed, a people - for example, the Iraqis suffering sanctions - punished; and so forth.''
He exhorted the students to "ask the embarrassing questions that will make you controversial, that one quality so many of us tend to shun like the plague. Controversy is what intellect is all about, since without that sort of energy, and stubborn questioning, and deeply moved humanism, there is really only a sort of death.''
Therefore, he said, "there can be no standing aside and refusing to enter a controversy just because one isn't an expert or directly involved. As searchers after truth, we must . . . raise questions when docility is often required, make trouble when submissiveness is expected, and express dissatisfaction when a sort of lobotomized passivity is aimed at.''
And, finally, a friendly warning to the students: "I'd be lying if I didn't also warn you that it means trouble, for you and those around you.''
Trouble he himself has had aplenty.
More on that Thursday.
Haroon Siddiqui is The Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears Thursday and Sunday.