Gordon Campbell one of seven honorary degree recipients

Gordon Campbell set off a small explosion for show at the 2008 groundbreaking for the House of Learning. Image courtesy TRU

Gordon Campbell set off a small explosion for show at the 2008 groundbreaking for the House of Learning. Image courtesy TRU

TRU has announced its honorary doctorate recipients. Craig Kielburger, Samantha Nutt, Evan Adams, Kim Collier, Ron Fawcett, Lance Finch and Gordon Campbell will receive their degrees at spring convocation.

The university calls honorary degrees the “highest form of recognition” the university can award for “excellence in the fields of public affairs, the sciences, arts, humanities, business and philanthropy.”

Reading through the list of recipients is inspiring. As the university calls them, they are indeed all “difference makers.”

But one name among them may not be so unanimously well-received: Gordon Campbell. Maybe there’s peril in awarding an honorary degree to any politician – few have escaped their tenures without creating a long list of enemies. And because Campbell served as B.C.’s premier for nearly 10 years, he is no exception.

Most recent in people’s memories is likely Campbell’s opposition garnered during the rocky and abrupt introduction of the later-repealed harmonized sales tax (HST). But perhaps his most controversial actions were in education.

In August 2001, Campbell’s government declared education an essential service and it would henceforth be illegal for teachers to strike. Despite that fact, teachers organized under the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) illegally walked off the job in 2005, calling it an act of civil disobedience.

When Campbell resigned as premier in November 2010, UBC called upon its education faculty to comment on what sort of legacy Campbell might leave.

“While the provincial government retains its authority over public education, it no longer undertakes the responsibility of assuring the educational well-being of the public. Instead, this responsibility is devolved to individual school boards that are underfunded and told to focus on ‘cost containment’ rather meeting their educational responsibilities,” said Wayne Ross, member of the UBC faculty of education.

In a 2005 BCTF news magazine article, Ken Novakowski wrote that “Ever since the election of the Campbell government in 2001, bargaining rights have been under attack. Collective agreements have been ripped up. Terms and conditions of employment have been arbitrarily and unilaterally imposed by legislative fiat. Public-sector mandates set by government have become sacrosanct. Collective bargaining in B.C., at least in the public sector, has become a sham.”

Campbell is noted by TRU for creating B.C.’s “largest expansion of post-secondary education since 1965” and mentions his part in the creation of TRU’s law school. Among his other achievements making the list on TRU’s brief acknowledgement is what the former premier did to secure the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Not all of Campbell’s changes to post-secondary education were positive, however. In an April 2009 Georgia Straight commentary by Kwantlen Student Association chair and director of academic affairs Ashley Fehr, the premier was called out for quietly making $16 million in last-minute cuts to StudentAid BC. Among the cuts were grants and bursaries to health care-based education like nursing and home support.

“The need for nurses, residential-care workers, and home-support workers is on the rise. These positions aren’t particularly well paid, and many students are unable to afford the education required without taking out student loans,” Fehr wrote.

The worries of B.C. post-secondary education underfunding are real, but they existed long before Campbell took the premiership. In 1979, government funding made up nearly 90 per cent of university operating revenue and it has since decreased by approximately 10 percentage points each year, comprising just under 60 per cent in 2009, according to a January 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

When considering Campbell’s worthiness of honours from TRU, what’s probably most important is Campbell’s direct relationship with the university. Campbell was premier when in 2004, it was announced that the University College of the Cariboo would become Thompson Rivers University. The change to university status meant more money: more than $20 million from the government would follow the announcement.

In 2006, Campbell officially opened the Residence and Conference Centre, and in 2008 he broke ground for the House of Learning, to which his government gave $18 million – more than half of the $32-million construction cost.

In 2008, the provincial government boasted that since 2001 (the same year Campbell began serving as premier) it had opened six new universities, added 32,000 seats for students and bumped operating funding to post-secondary institutions by 40 per cent.

Despite the ongoing decrease in government grants, it’s difficult to attribute the problems with B.C. post-secondary education to Campbell, especially when some of the results of his tenure are standing on our own campus.