Joe Arvai's tenure at the University of Calgary ended brusquely in July 2012 after the rising academic star balked at leading a new research institute that he felt would be perceived as little more than a corporate mouthpiece for Canada's largest pipeline company.
But Arvai is not the only professor to leave the university over concerns its relationships with the oil industry were too cozy, a CBC investigation has found.
Emails obtained from a freedom of information request suggest a pattern of corporate influence during the bungled attempt to establish a new research centre that cost the university top level academic talent and its Haskayne School of Business upwards of a million dollars in corporate sponsorship.
The story of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability covers a short and troubled two-and-a-half years that ended in the fall of 2014.
In that time, documents obtained by the CBC reveal a university bending over backward to accommodate the apparent public relations ambitions of a corporate patron.
Along the way, concerns about academic independence, the role of university research and the credibility of the researchers were dismissed.
Fraught from the start
In the beginning, the Enbridge Centre looked like a coup for the U of C, its business school and university president Elizabeth Cannon.
I have the impression that Enbridge sees the centre as a PR machine for themselves, whereas I see it as an academic research centre - Joe Arvai, Former director of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability
To establish the centre, Enbridge pledged $2.25 million over a 10-year period.
More important than the relatively modest sum, at least by oil patch standards, was the potential for more funding down the road.
A pipeline operator and one of Canada's biggest companies, Enbridge has traditionally maintained closer ties to the Edmonton-based University of Alberta.
For the U of C, a new Enbridge-sponsored research centre represented a step towards establishing its own direct relationship with a key industry player.
The pairing, though, was fraught from the start, and one of those who felt that way was Joe Arvai, the young academic – a rising star in the area of organizational decision-making – who had been brought in to head the new venture.
For a young academic, Arvai's march through the academic ranks since graduating with his doctorate in 2001 had been a dream scenario.
In 10 years, he moved from being an assistant professor at Ohio State University to becoming a full professor and the U of C's Svare chair in applied decision research.
Over that time, he was on Barack Obama's energy advisory group during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Stanford named him a Leopold Leadership fellow and he also worked for international agencies such as NASA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board and the International Energy Agency.
From the outset, though, Enbridge's hands-on approach to the new centre troubled Arvai, according to the email trail.
Beyond naming rights, Enbridge sought to influence board memberships, staffing and the type of students that would be considered for awards, the emails show.
The company hired its own public relations firm to publicize the centre's launch, and also wanted "customized opportunities" for Enbridge executives and clients to meet with researchers at the U of C's Haskayne School of Business.
Enbridge also expected the U of C would form a partnership with a university in Michigan in what some have suggested was an attempt to help recuperate its battered reputation in the state after a broken oil pipeline spilled millions of litres into the Kalamazoo River.
In a Jan. 3, 2012 email to Leonard Waverman, the dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the time, Arvai wrote: "I am not sure what we are signing up for. I have the impression that Enbridge sees the centre as a PR machine for themselves, whereas I see it as an academic research centre.
"In the latter case, it's likely that finds of academic work in the centre will not, at times, paint industry — including Enbridge — in the best light. I'm not sure that Enbridge understands this."
The dean responded that he did not understand Arvai's concerns.
At one point the dean told Arvai in a voicemail message, "If this goes belly up my ass is on the line and I won't feel happy with you either on this."
Waverman, who left the U of C near the end of 2012 to become dean of McMaster's DeGroote School of Business, declined an interview request. Arvai also chose not to comment on the advice of legal counsel.
The benefits to Enbridge in championing this new centre seemed straightforward.
A series of industry pipeline spills were not doing the company any favours. If the centre could help to win hearts and minds for its existing operations or a major new project like the Northern Gateway pipeline, which was grinding through a controversial regulatory review and months of contentious public hearings, then presumably it would be a few million dollars well spent.
When viewed through the lens of the outrage caused by oil spilling into a pristine Midwest river – one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history -- a partnership between the U of C and Central Michigan University, which some would argue makes little sense on paper, becomes much more understandable.
At the same time, the prospect of so nakedly serving corporate interests seemed to appall Arvai.
"My strong concern is that people will view the relationship with CMU as somewhat contrived," Arvai wrote in a March 1, 2012 email to Dan O'Grady, Enbridge's national manager for community partnerships and investment.
"To be blunt, some will view this as a 'payoff' of some sort to CMU in the aftermath of the spill."
Waverman, though, had been more accepting. "If CMU is the price we pay in the short run — that's the price," he wrote in an email to Arvai on April 13, 2011.
'Apologists for industry'
Instances such as the controversy surrounding the Enbridge Centre have done little to refute the U of C's reputation, according to Arvai, of being in the pocket of the oil industry.
Faculty members, such as business professor Harrie Vredenburg, described Enbridge's influence at the university as a classic case of "he who pays the piper calls the tunes" in an email complaint to Waverman on Aug. 26, 2011.
Enbridge is doing too much tune calling, in my view, to the point that the Centre's usefulness... is being sacrificed to Enbridge's PR objectives - Business professor Harrie Vredenburg
"Enbridge is doing too much tune calling, in my view, to the point that the Centre's usefulness to [Haskayne school] academics is being sacrificed to Enbridge's PR objectives," Vredenburg wrote.
"Most damningly it smacks of us being apologists for the fossil fuel industry rather than independent scholars and teachers doing work in broadly defined area."
The potential for conflicts of interest to arise when a public institution accepts corporate funding doesn't mean that Canadian universities should necessarily turn away sponsorship dollars.
In fact, corporate money is becoming a more critical part of the funding model for Canadian universities as they no longer receive the same level of financial support from government as they once did.
Increased corporate sponsorship, however, also means that appropriate protocols must be in place to protect researchers and the public interest.
When it comes to the Enbridge Centre, questions remain about whether the university's administration — and U of C president Elizabeth Cannon, in particular — did enough to safeguard these concerns.
Emails show that Cannon was aware of the problems at the Enbridge centre before and after its launch in 2012.
But her emails at the time show she was intent on keeping Enbridge happy, especially considering the company had in the past given more money to the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
"They have traditionally been strong supporters of U of A and this is the first major gift to U of C," Cannon wrote to Waverman on Aug. 23, 2012. "They 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."
When it comes to Enbridge, Cannon also has her own potential conflict of interest by virtue of her being an independent director of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings, since late 2010. She has disclosed this position. Last year, her board compensation from that position amounted to $130,500.
Enbridge's chief executive Al Monaco, meanwhile, is a U of C alumnus who has sat on the university's Board of Governor's Investment Committee as well as the Dean's Advisory Board to the Faculty of Medicine.
Bonnie DuPont, who was a member of centre's board and currently chairs the U of C's board of governors, is a former Enbridge vice president.
Cannon's Enbridge connection
David Keith, a star academic in his own right who left the U of C for Harvard in 2011, has been highly skeptical of the school's apparent chummy relationships with corporate Calgary.
The U of C's handling of the Enbridge centre, Keith said, illustrates the type of choices made by administration that prompted at least two academics, him included, to leave the school. If the dean wasn't aware of Cannon's connection to Enbridge, Keith says that's a potential conflict.
"If Elizabeth was a board member and was receiving money from Enbridge, and the same time wrote an email about that without clearly disclosing her conflict of interest without discussing it — that's ugly," Keith said in an interview with CBC.
In his opinion, "that's the kind of stuff that in an effective managerial culture, the board of governors would call her to account."
In an interview with CBC, Cannon says she does not know if the dean knew of her role with Enbridge. Regardless, she says, "every time I speak, it is as a university president and president of the University of Calgary."
Such close ties between a university and a company aren't necessarily problematic, as long as they're properly managed.
In Keith's view, the university has only itself to blame for losing someone like Arvai who stepped down as the head of the Enbridge centre before its launch, though he remained on the board.
"From my conversations with many people who were involved, including Joe, but several others, and not just conversations, but detailed notes and emails, my understanding is that Joe Arvai was removed as director of the centre before its formation at the specific request of Enbridge," said Keith.
For its part, Enbridge says it values academic independence and didn't attempt to influence the centre's operations or staffing choices. The company told the CBC it made the donation without any strings attached and the partnership in Michigan was not about publicity.
Both Enbridge and the U of C also deny the company had any input in Arvai leaving the director job.
According to the U of C, no academics ever made formal complaints about their academic freedom being infringed upon. The university's president says the institution's credibility and reputation are not at risk.
Last fall, Enbridge's name was taken off the centre. It is now just the Centre for Corporate Sustainability.
Under a revised agreement, the company also dropped its funding to the school by one million dollars. Enbridge continues to sponsor the centre's seminar series, as well as arrangements with several other university departments.