NORTH BAY, Ont. - Former Ontario premier Mike Harris, whose two terms as premier were marked by often bitter relations with teachers, is standing by his education legacy amid a renewed spat with their union.

Harris was in North Bay, Ont., to receive an honorary degree Friday from Nipissing University but that didn't sit well with a teachers' union.

The Ontario Teachers' Federation had suggested student teachers of the institution could be boycotted as they seek jobs if Harris receives the honorary doctorate of letters. They are also upset the university's new library could be named in honour of Harris.

Harris said he was disappointed at the opposition, but added "that's politics and that's life."

"I understand that when you have the highest office in the province (and when) you have a huge deficit you make controversial decisions," he said at a news conference before Nipissing's convocation.

"I did it with the greatest of integrity and the honest belief that I was doing the best for education, for health care, for natives, for the people of Ontario."

Harris, who was a teacher, school trustee and chairman of a school board before he entered politics, told the convocation audience he ushered in "the most significant and positive changes" to public education in Ontario.

"Of course, not everyone agreed with me. There was even the odd, isolated complaint and protest," he said to laughter from the crowd.

Shortly before Harris spoke the union pulled back on its threat, saying in a news release it had only alluded to a "possible" boycott.

"Our members, both active and retired, still hold strong memories of the bitter legacy left behind by Mr. Harris," Ken Coran, president of the federation said in the statement.

"However, they respect the right of an institution to confer an honorary degree on anyone they wish. (The federation) would never penalize any students for the decision made by the board of governors of the university."

Still, the initial opposition reignited old acrimony between Harris, who held back-to-back majorities from 1995 to 2002, and the teachers.

Ontario's deficit-fighting Tories cut $400 million from the budgets of Ontario's secondary and elementary schools in 1996 and years of strife between Harris and teachers followed.

Students in Ontario were kept out of their classrooms on several occasions during a turbulent period in education during Harris's time as premier.

Strikes, including one illegal two-week walkout, were held to protest cuts to education budgets, low wage increases and longer working hours for teachers.

Harris -- who grew up in North Bay -- spent one year at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier), then obtained a teaching certificate from North Bay Teachers College, which was the predecessor of Nipissing's teachers school.

His more academically inclined brother and sister would be "shocked" that he is getting a doctorate, he joked.

"This honour is especially meaningful to me as my early academic achievements were far less than stellar," he said in his convocation speech.

University president Lesley Lovett-Dous said Harris, who represented the riding of Nipissing, is being honoured for contributions to the North Bay area and to higher education.

"Premier Harris is recognized as someone who really and truly shortened the distance between Toronto and North Bay," she said, in reference to the Harris government's commitment to expanding the highway between the two cities.

"The significance is that effectively brought the near north a bit nearer to the Greater Toronto Area."