Enbridge, U of C and me: Joe Arvai speaks up for 1st time

Joe Arvai — a recurring figure in the CBC News investigation this week examining the relationship between Enbridge and the University of Calgary — speaks up for the first time about his time as director of a controversial research centre.

Former director of U of C's controversial Enbridge Centre speaks out for the first time

Joe Arvai, who was the director of the former Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability (since renamed) at the University of Calgary, raised repeated concerns to university administration about how much influence the company had at the centre. (Twitter @DecisionLab)

Joe Arvai has been a recurring figure in the CBC investigation this week examining the relationship between Enbridge and the University of Calgary. Arvai was the director of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability, which was renamed the Centre for Corporate Sustainability last fall. He declined interview requests, but was quoted frequently from emails and other documents obtained by the CBC. Arvai raised repeated concerns to university administration about how much influence the company had at the centre. Both Enbridge and the university deny the company had any control. Arvai submitted this letter to appear as an opinion piece in the The Globe and Mail, reprinted with permission by the CBC. Arvai is currently the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

I was one of the subjects this week of a series of CBC reports about the alleged influence Enbridge Pipelines may have exerted on an academic centre I led while a faculty member at the University of Calgary. Understandably, I've received several requests for comment from journalists since the CBC story broke. My position on these requests has been to politely decline them. The CBC has done an exceptional job of getting the facts correct, which has made it easy for me to let the story speak for itself.

I've also declined invitations to speak out because my involvement in the Enbridge Centre was neither enjoyable, nor memorable for any reasons I would call "good". It placed my reputation at risk; it took a personal and psychological toll at home; and it damaged my faith in a university that I still believe can do remarkable things. 

However, some of the responses to the CBC story from Enbridge and from the University of Calgary have made me reconsider my earlier position.

First of all, when it comes to corporate donations to universities – like the one for the Enbridge Centre – I believe that donors have every right to raise certain questions, and to have measured expectations. For example, I think donors should be able to suggest – but not necessarily select – individuals who could effectively serve in an advisory capacity. And, they should be granted a meaningful voice in the dialog that results in the establishment of a centre's name and mission. They should not be allowed to require that support from an academic centre be limited only to individuals who share their "core values."

Corporate and philanthropic donations to universities are not rare. When done right, which I believe to be the case more often than not, these donations often serve as the foundation for positive and impactful scholarly work. Indeed, I was the beneficiary of many such partnerships outside of the Enbridge Centre while I was at the U of C. Likewise, I never experienced anything like what happened in the Enbridge Centre in the positions I held prior to my joining the U of C. And, I have absolutely no concerns about – nor have I seen any evidence of – undue corporate influence in my current position.

It's also worth remembering that an institution like the U of C, or a company like Enbridge, isn't a monolithic entity. It's convenient, but ultimately inaccurate, to point the finger at the entirety of an institution as being systemically flawed. Bottom line: I had – and still have – great friends and colleagues at the U of C, as well as at Enbridge. They are rich with great ideas, and they work according to a well-calibrated moral compass.

However, in my opinion, the CBC story correctly points to several instances where 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 a foundation of academic and scholarly independence. In light of what I went through at the time, the post hoc suggestions by some that decisions made by the U of C in setting up the Enbridge Centre were transparent, legitimate, and free of corporate interference or conflict-of-interest are as difficult for me to accept today as they were in 2012.

It is appealing at times like these to look for scapegoats. In reading the reports and social media posts about the Enbridge Centre, it's pretty clear to me that people are outraged, and are looking for heads to roll.

My own view is that times like these are perfect for reflection, and for sowing the seeds of positive change. The postmortem on the Enbridge Centre at the University of Calgary provides many teachable moments about the institutional, professional, and personal damage that poorly thought out agreements, and overly cozy relationships may produce, especially when hard and necessary questions go unanswered.

Likewise, times like this shine a much-needed spotlight on the importance of having in place academic leadership that is built on a foundation of transparency, trust, and integrity. The events surrounding the creation of the Enbridge Centre reflect significant failures in leadership. I taught my MBA students in the U of C's Haskayne School that effective leadership is in large part a function of good judgment, and defensible decision-making. With this lesson in mind, all of the stakeholders that ought to benefit from a well-managed public university like the University of Calgary – students and their parents, staff, faculty, taxpayers, and donors – deserve this kind of leadership. Indeed, they have every right to demand it.