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Why he must refuse his degree

June 20, 2012

Education is not preparation for life; education is life, said John Dewey

… and quite rightly so… making it important for us to see what are we getting educated into, question the basis, do the probing, and if necessary confront and challenge the pillars that hold the pious dome. No, not because we should be skeptical (about the unquestionable importance of the text doting the differences between Rabi and Kharif crop, 5 points on Rowlatt Act and much more), but because I believe questioning and probing the very fabric of life, education, and thereby understanding it is in itself an integral part of Education… which leads us to… if required we should put our foot down and confront it.

… and so Michael did. He probed, questioned and because his heart said so, he confronted – rejecting his hard earned degree from University of Toronto.

Rejection letter by Michael to his college

I, Michael Vipperman, intend to renounce the degree I am being offered from the University of Toronto on June 14, 2012, in protest over the ongoing commodification and bureaucratization of education at this University, best exemplified by the increasingly intimate relationship between the University and such venemous institutions as Barrick Gold and the World Bank.

Education is an ongoing process, not a product which can be sold or received. However, the degree I am being offered represents an expensive end goal, accessible only to an elite few, not on the basis of whatever academic merit we may possess, but on our access to wealth and on our willingness to play by the rules of bureaucracy. It is a symbol of the priorities and values of this University, which in recent years has increasingly sacrificed quality on the altar of efficiency, constricting the freedoms both of students and of faculty. Meanwhile, funding priorities have emphasised generating wealth for industry over providing a quality education. This is the norm whenever such commodification takes place. One simply needs to observe the classroom sizes on this campus, where now even some tutorials are held in Convocation Hall, to be convinced of the extent of the damage done to the educational experience.

I stand in solidarity with the courageous students of Québec, who have been mounting fierce resistance against such political/economic warfare. They are clearly cognizant of where this road leads. Knowing that it is possible for us to do better, I would like to call upon my peers, in Canada and globally, to oppose the neoliberal hegemony that continues to deny what is rightfully ours: barrier-free education.

By rejecting my degree I mean no personal offence to either my peers nor the faculty at the University. I have fond feelings and the highest of respect for many who remain at this institution, and hold no ill will towards those who do not refuse their degree. However, I cannot stay true to my personal values and at the same time accept a degree from an institution which also honours and supports Barrick Gold and the World Bank. The values of this university are clear, and they are not mine. As graduating students, whether this is our first, second or third degree, we are all getting burned.

While answering to someone, who questioned his motive, he says –

Let’s be clear on something here. The woman activist who was recently shot in Guatemala for protesting a Canadian mining company has made a sacrifice. I have not. If anything, I’ve made my CV far more interesting and memorable, and gotten a bunch of people to read my academic works who otherwise would not have. It’s very likely that I will be accepted to a graduate program somewhere, on the basis of my meritous papers, and that I’ll be much happier at an institution that considers academic merit to be more important than bureaucratic hoops.

Thank you.

A little on what he was saying about Barrick Gold and it’s founder Peter Munk –

Late in 2009, Peter Munk, chairman and founder of the world’s largest gold mining company (Barrick), made a ‘donation’ of $35 million – to be paid out over an extended period, provided he continues to approve of how it is spent – to support the expansion of the Munk School of Global Affairs, a semi-autonomous department of the University studying areas in which Munk has a clear conflict of interest. The agreement, made without consultation with the Governing Council, requires that the government and the University each provide an additional $25 million toward the Munk School, while other programs are being closed, undergraduate tuition is skyrocketing and research funding for graduate students is being cut. Part of the Munk School is a non-academic right wing think-tank. This is nothing short of a corporate takeover of the university.

Some human rights and environmental violations by Munk’s company:

  • Cyanide, mercury and other heavy metals contamination in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and elsewhere, leading to numerous deaths from poisoning
  • The burning of at least 130 houses and beating of residents in Papua New Guinea
  • Gang rape perpetrated by mine security staff, explained away by Peter Munk as a “cultural habit”
  • The massacre of unarmed villagers in Tanzania at a mine known to have poisoned at least 17 people, and which they believed had stolen from them.

Though he said it was, we know it is not easy. And yet today we see and hear of people challenging the system, not afraid of it, not terrified of what their life would become like, without the degree, the insurance, the bank balance… I do not want to judge their action, and yet just the glimpse of the courage it requires to say ‘No’ to something so coveted and desired by most of us, fills me with awe and yes, hope.

We all know stories of people who have stood against the tide… but talking specifically of degrees, I get reminded of one of my favorite poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau back in 1837 had refused to take his master’s degree from Harvard University. No, not because he too saw (if at all there was any at that time) the deviousness behind the University, as Michael did. He refused plainly because they asked him to pay $5 to take it and he did not feel the degree was worth that much. Degree from Harvard not worth $5 🙂 Again just the glimpse of his audacity makes me adore him…

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Rashmi permalink
    June 21, 2012 17:35

    And that’s why we love Thoreau 🙂 Yes we do, and I did not even know he had refused to pay $5 for a degree from Harvard. Amazing post! Thumbs up to Michael..


  2. Iguana permalink
    June 21, 2012 17:42

    Thanks man for sharing this. It made my day. Thumbs up to Michael indeed and again thanks a lot for the wonderful post. – I


  3. Pranoy permalink
    June 21, 2012 20:39

    That’s the case with most universities. I see people complaining about the research projects in universities. Most projects, phd or otherwise, that are there are the ones funded by corporations and aligned to their interests and not the interest of students. It is really nice to read about people like Michael who have to courage to stick it up. I wish I had it in me


    • June 22, 2012 00:25

      you talk as if you are done with life 🙂 why don’t you wish to have it in you.. ?


      • Pranoy permalink
        June 23, 2012 13:30

        🙂 if you say so. May be one day then, I might rise to my fears!


  4. Wanderer permalink
    June 23, 2012 14:04

    After Mark, Nipun and Laurie, Michael comes as another inspiring figure on your blog. May the listen continue to grow.!


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