University Debased

"Whatsoever things make money"

By James Turk

University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon seemed troubled in 2012 at delays in implementing her school’s new collaboration with Enbridge. A year had passed since the energy giant had pledged $2.25-million over 10 years for the university’s new Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability. Cannon wrote to the dean of the business school: “[Enbridge] are not seeing your leadership on this file and are feeling that once the funding was committed, the interest from you was lost. This is not good for you or the university.”

Although Cannon was focusing on the dean, the problems delaying the new Enbridge Centre were fundamental and not unique to the University of Calgary. University–industry partnerships such as Calgary’s with Enbridge have become increasingly attractive for post-secondary administrators, offering new revenue and sending a signal to industry and governments that participating universities are corporate-friendly—something government funders like to hear in our market-dominant era.

But corporate partnerships also reawaken conflict about the purpose and nature of the university and about how to manage the necessarily uneasy relationship between universities and powerful interests in society. Recent research into the terms of corporate partnerships with universities in Canada and the US reveals the schools’ willingness to compromise academic integrity. Such a concern lay at the heart of the delays about which Cannon was complaining.

The traditional mission of the university in a democratic society can be disquieting to the status quo. The University of Toronto’s statement of purpose says the advancement of knowledge entails “the right to raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself. It is this human right to radical, critical teaching and research with which the University has a duty above all to be concerned; for there is no one else, no other institution and no other office, in our modern liberal democracy, which is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit.”

Although that is great rhetoric, it is problematic for people who don’t want deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges raised about their cherished beliefs. The history of universities is a history of struggle over whether the university and its academic staff are to be free to engage in critical teaching and research or are to serve the interests of the dominant economic, political and cultural powers in their society. Precisely that struggle was playing out at the U of C as it tried to consummate its partnership with Enbridge.

Historically the conflict has taken a stark form. Universities whose academics offended vested interests were simply told to get rid of the offenders. One of the early cases in North America was that of E.A. Ross, a Stanford sociologist at the turn of the last century, who ran afoul of Mrs. Jane Lathrop Stanford, the university’s chief benefactor and after whose husband the university was named. Ross’s crime was to condemn the use of cheap immigrant labour by US industry; the Stanford fortune had been made on the basis of cheap immigrant labour. Mrs. Stanford directed the university president to fire Ross, which he did. Colleagues who protested Ross’s firing were also dismissed.

Scott Nearing, a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania, suffered a similar fate in 1915 when his criticism of industrial capitalism, including child labour, angered Penn alumni, as well as the university’s board of trustees, who ordered him fired.

Such actions were so prevalent in the US at the time that P.P. Claxton, the US Commissioner of Education, wrote in his 1915 annual report: “Within the past two or three years… there have been so many recurrences of disciplinary action directed by trustees and presidents of prominent institutions against professors reputed to hold unorthodox political, economic or religious views, that the question of academic freedom has become temporarily one of the foremost issues in university administration… instructors in the field of economics and political science are at the present time especially in danger.”

The advancement of knowledge entails the right to raise disturbing questions and challenges to the cherished beliefs of society.

These heavy-handed violations of the free discourse supposed to be at the heart of the university caused academics to react. In 1915 leading US academics including John Dewey and Arthur O. Lovejoy formed the American Association of University Professors and helped draft the “1915 Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.” The AAUP dedicated itself to the promotion of academic freedom as a foundation of the university. Thirty-six years later, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) was formed. The organization proved vital in 1958 when it challenged the firing of historian Harry Crowe by United College (now the University of Winnipeg). Crowe had been dismissed for writing a letter to a colleague that both criticized the institution’s president for trying to raise funds for the church sponsoring the college and lamented the possibility that Diefenbaker’s Conservatives would win the next federal election.

The counter-offensive led by AAUP and CAUT helped restore the notion that university teaching and research should never be beholden to powerful interests—that professors and researchers must instead be free to pursue truth and knowledge wherever that quest may lead. The underlying tension, however, remained.

Matters intensified with the dramatic growth of higher education after the Second World War. In 1951 in Canada only about 4 per cent of people aged 18–24 went to university. The participation rate tripled to 12.5 per cent by 1975. Older universities, such as Alberta, expanded, and many new ones, including Calgary, Lethbridge, Simon Fraser, York and Carleton, were established.

Post-secondary has continued to grow as universities moved from educating the society’s elite to becoming institutions of mass education. At the same time, Canadian universities expanded their graduate programs and faculty complements, developing into the research powerhouses they have become over the past several decades. Today some 40 per cent of all research and development in Canada is done in universities.

Their growing size and complexity opened the door to significant changes to the core of the university, a shift described as “corporatization.” This includes changes to the university’s traditional governance model in which management jobs were a revolving door, filled by academics who took time out from their teaching and research and returned when their administrative term was over. Such an approach has been increasingly replaced by management practices and an administrative ethos more akin to large private-sector companies. Academics continue to fill most of the administrative positions but their mindset (and compensation) is often more that of a corporate manager than an academic taking a brief turn doing necessary managerial work.

With masses of students and inadequate public funding, another aspect of university corporatization is students coming to be viewed not as partners with their teachers in learning, but as customers who should pick up an increasing portion of the cost. Students are to be pleased, not challenged, and their education is primarily to make them job-ready. To limit the cost of education, university administrations have turned to models from the retail sector, increasingly relying on poorly paid contingent faculty (commonly known as sessionals, adjuncts or part-timers), who are hired on short-term and limited contracts without the rights or benefits of their tenured and tenure-track colleagues. Statistics Canada ended its surveys of university and college faculty years ago, so Canada lacks good data. But we know from US data that almost 75 per cent of faculty in US degree-granting institutions are now in contingent positions, being neither tenured nor tenure-track. Anecdotally we know that Canadian universities are moving in a similar direction.

Changes to the university’s research role have been equally dramatic. Given the significant amount of Canada’s research done in universities, it’s not surprising that industry has taken an interest in shaping and directing it.

The U of C’s partnership with Enbridge is a case in point. After the agreement was signed in 2011, Joe Arvai was chosen to be director of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability. Arvai was a relatively young academic with impressive credentials. He had been recruited from Ohio State University and made a full professor in Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. In 2008 he had been on Barack Obama’s energy advisory group; Stanford University had named him a Leopold Leadership fellow; and he had worked for NASA and the International Energy Agency. In October 2011, after becoming director of the Enbridge Centre, he was appointed to the US National Academy of Science’s Board on Environmental Change and Society and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board.

That’s when early signs of problems at the U of C emerged. In an October 25, 2011, email to a senior university official, Arvai asked why the school was holding back on announcing his appointments to the NAS and EPA bodies. The reply was simple and immediate: “Len [the dean of the business school]. He doesn’t want to piss off Enbridge any more.” Arvai shot back: “Making Enbridge happy is not on my radar… I know next to nothing about where we are in discussion with Enbridge. And I am the current director of the centre.”

Several days later he wrote a long email to the dean, saying, “I cannot serve as the centre’s director if the sponsors are allowed to meddle in its academic activities.” Arvai then laid out what the centre is—“an independent academic centre devoted to research and outreach regarding the science and practice of corporate sustainability”—and what it is not—“A public relations entity managed or directed in any way by the sponsors” or “a think tank that unquestionably carries the sponsor’s requests or ideas.”

Troubles continued: disputes about the terms of reference for the centre, the membership of its external advisory board, research to be done. Finally, on March 10, 2012, Arvai drafted his letter of resignation as director, which the dean announced a week later. The following July, Arvai resigned from the centre’s external advisory board, terminating all involvement with the U of C.

Three and a half years later, on November 6, 2015, Arvai ended his public silence with an op-ed in The Globe and Mail. While saying that corporate partnerships done right can be very valuable, Arvai argued that hadn’t been the case with the U of C and Enbridge: “…certain wishes expressed by officials at Enbridge, and ultimately granted by officials at the U of C, were incompatible with the mission of a new academic centre that needed to be built upon the foundation of academic and scholarly independence.” He added that contrary claims that things had been transparent, legitimate and free of corporate influence or conflict of interest “are as difficult for me to accept today as they were in 2012.”

The issues raised at the U of C in relation to its Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability (renamed the Centre for Corporate Sustainability after all the publicity) are not unique in the burgeoning number of university–corporate partnerships. What is unique at Calgary is that the issues came to public attention. Typically details about such partnerships are shrouded in secrecy—both before and after they’re signed.

The two most thorough analyses of university–corporate partnerships, by the Centre for American Progress (CAP) in the US and by CAUT in Canada, proved both difficult to do and revealing in what they found. They were challenging because the constituting documents could only be obtained from universities through aggressive use of access to information laws.

The Centre for American Progress obtained 10 partnership agreements between top US universities, such as University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and major energy companies including British Petroleum, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Shell and Total. For cash-starved universities, these partnerships made $883-million in industry funding available over 10 years. The CAP report showed that universities agreed to pay a high price in return.

CAP’s 2010 report set out to see if the agreements protected the very things that make universities uniquely of value to the society, namely independence of thought, unrestrained critical inquiry and public access to findings and ideas. It did so by examining whether the deals made provision for practices that sustain these values, such as academic control of all academic decisions about teaching and research done under the auspices of the university; full transparency of the criteria and process for awarding research support; basing decisions about what research to fund on evaluations by independent peer experts; free and open sharing of research results, materials, data and knowledge; the right of researchers to publish their findings in a timely manner; an explicit commitment to academic freedom; and clear policies to deal with conflict of interest.

What it found was something else. In almost all cases, the universities gave majority control of the research alliance to the corporate partners; in 40 per cent of the agreements, universities ceded full control. In none of the deals was there a requirement that faculty research proposals falling under the partnerships be judged by independent peer experts. In 80 per cent of the agreements, the university gave its industry partner total control over the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals in each grant cycle. Most of the arrangements severely restricted the university’s ability to broadly license the results of research coming from the partnership. Many failed to properly protect the sharing of academic data and results with other academic investigators for research verification and other purposes.

Three years later, in 2013, CAUT undertook parallel research to see if Canadian universities had behaved differently. It was able to obtain 12 partnership agreements, including one involving the University of Alberta, three involving the University of Calgary as well as eight others involving universities such as UBC, Toronto, Western, Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier, McGill, Laval and Concordia. Corporate partners included Shell, ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil, Nexen, Husky, Barrick Gold, Pfizer, Goldcorp and Cassells Brock & Blackwell LLP, as well as private foundations.

The CAUT report found that the Canadian universities had, like their US counterparts, too frequently sacrificed their academic integrity. Only one of the research partnerships specified that funding decisions must be based on independent expert peer assessment. Only three spelled out the details about how faculty could apply for funding and under what criteria. In only two partnerships were the academic researchers ensured access to all the data collected. Only one had a provision forbidding conflict of interest. Half did not provide for the unrestricted right to publish the findings of the research. In only half did the universities retain control of all academic matters affecting their students and faculty. Serious problems with compromised academic integrity were present in the four Alberta university partnerships.

Students are viewed as customers who should pick up more of the cost. They are to be pleased, not challenged, and made job-ready.

While universities are clearly still sacrificing academic integrity, they are doing so in more serious and less visible ways than in the days of E.A. Ross and Scott Nearing. Through partnerships, third parties have been able to profit from the credibility of the university while effectively taking control of what is being done in the university’s name. The villain is not the partner seeking to gain university resources, reputation and academics’ skills to further the partner’s agenda—an understandable desire. The fault lies with the universities and their administrators who give in to corporate demands that undermine the university’s raison d’être. CAUT found some partnerships that respect academic integrity, such as the one between the University of Toronto, Goldcorp and gold mining executive Pierre Lassonde. This indicates that proper partnerships are possible when universities stand up for their values and partners understand such requirements as a condition of joint ventures with universities.

One of Canada’s most eminent scientists and a Nobel laureate, John Polanyi, has said: “We have struggled for a long time to come to terms with the fact that our universities serve the public interest best when free of government interference in academic affairs. We have now to come to terms with the fact that these same institutions should, in everyone’s interest, be substantially free from influence as to what is taught or thought, even by such an interested party as industry.”

But this is proving increasingly difficult as the line between university and industry is progressively blurred by partnerships in which the university fails to protect its faculty’s independence and academic freedom. The matter is further complicated as senior university administrators have started wearing corporate hats as well as their university ones, and lending their names and the university’s to corporate ventures.

In the midst of the controversy over Calgary’s partnership with Enbridge last fall, it was revealed that president Cannon had, since 2003, been a member of the board of Enbridge Income Holdings, for which, in the most recent year, she had received $130,500 on top of her university compensation (itself in excess of $500,000). She quickly resigned from the Enbridge board, and a university-sponsored investigation “unequivocally” found her behaviour to be “responsible and proper.”

Still relatively unusual for university presidents, Cannon’s corporate board membership is not unique. For example, Indira Samarasekera, while president of the University of Alberta, served on the boards of Scotiabank and Magna International. At the same time, David Lynch, dean of the U of A’s engineering faculty, which was in a multi-million dollar partnership with Imperial Oil, starred in an advertisement for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. No one of these is damning in itself, but all are indicators of university corporatization. All of them compromise the university as a space in which critical thought and inquiry are shielded from the corrupting demands of special interests, orthodoxy or conventional wisdom.

This was at the heart of troubles with the Calgary–Enbridge partnership. But tension over the university’s mission and its academic staff’s independence from powerful interests in society has long been a recurring issue. The freedom to raise deeply disturbing questions and challenge conventional wisdom has always faced opposition. As in 1915, such opposition can only be overcome when the academic community mobilizes to assert the public importance of its role and, when, like Joe Arvai, it has the integrity to live by its principles.

James Turk was the long-time director of CAUT. He is now a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.



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