Still no decision on John O'Grady's honorary degree as Senate review enters fifth month

Content warning: This article references the Indian Residential School system.

Four months after announcing the “expedited” review of Bishop John O’Grady’s honorary degree, the UBC Senate still hasn’t reached a final decision on the matter.

In late May, UBC announced that it would review the honorary degree it gave to O’Grady, who was a former principal at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found on the school’s grounds.

The Senate Tributes Committee, which oversees the awarding of honorary degrees, released a statement soon after committing to reviewing the degree “as quickly as possible." Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, pointed to the Tributes Committee statement when contacted by The Ubyssey in August.

At the Senate’s September 22 meeting, senators discussed the review of O’Grady’s review and the broader question of whether honorary degrees should be rescinded, but fell short of making a final decision on the bishop’s award.

The governing body instead voted to halt the awarding of honorary degrees until the Tributes Committee had finished its review.

Student Senator-at-Large Eshana Bhangu told The Ubyssey in an interview that the Senate doesn’t typically meet over the summer, but that the Tributes Committee met under extraordinary circumstances. Still, she wished for greater urgency.

“I think it could be moving faster; it needs to be a top priority. This can't just be treated like any other committee business,” she said, adding that she expects the process to speed up with the start of term.

During the Senate’s discussion of O’Grady’s degree, UBC Chancellor Steven Point noted that the residential school system had done immense harm to his family and the broader Indigenous community, but called on the Tributes Committee to “walk lightly” in its investigation. Dr. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director at the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, made similar comments in an interview with The Ubyssey in June.

In a follow-up statement sent to The Ubyssey after the Senate’s September discussion, Bhangu said it was a “great step in what the community has been asking for” but that she still wanted to see a quicker action.

When asked about the importance of degree review in her interview, Bhangu said it was a necessary step towards reconciliation.

“First you need truth and then there is reconciliation. If we can’t face the truth and own up to the fact that our university gave these degrees to people they shouldn't have, and start reviewing that, we can't say that we care about truth and reconciliation,” she said.

There were calls for a broader review of all honorary degrees over the summer, but Bhangu said the Senate was still only looking at O’Grady’s.

She said the Student Senator Caucus would be writing a letter asking for more transparency in the review process and pushing for a review of all honorary degrees to make sure there is no other oversight.

“This is the highest academic honour given out by UBC, it's a big deal to receive a degree from UBC. So we should be very very careful about who we grant that honour to.”

— with files from Nathan Bawaan