University of Calgary needs to take hard look at corporate sponsorships, critics say
University has risk to reputation and independence
Alberta's premier is going to keep a close eye on how the board of governors at the University of Calgary respond to the criticisms raised in a CBC investigation, which examined the university's relationship with pipeline company Enbridge.
"We will be monitoring what the ultimate facts of this situation reveal, what the role of the board of governors is, what decisions they take," said Rachel Notley on Tuesday.
In addition, Notley said the government will look at whether the provincial government's conflict of interest legislation applies appropriately to agencies, boards and commissions throughout Alberta.
While Notley is taking a wait and see approach, others are calling for some kind of public inquiry by the U of C into how tight the university has become with Alberta's still influential oil patch.
Both David Keith, a former U of C climate scientist, now at Harvard, and David Robinson, executive director with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, feel there should be some sort of public accounting of how the university has been dealing with these sponsorships and the criticisms by some of its faculty.
The CBC investigation into the sponsorship deal between the University of Calgary and Enbridge highlights a growing debate about post-secondary funding right across the country.
It's a necessary evil, the best-case way of dealing with the [financial] realities- Ken Steele, private consultant
Thomas Lukaszuk, a former Progressive Conservative minister of advanced education in the province, says universities must strike the balance of looking for corporate funding without becoming in-house research facilities for industry, which would tarnish their reputation.
Already, Lukaszuk says he understands if people perceive the U of C to be too cozy with the oil industry. The risk, he says, is that a U of C degree will one day lose its value and respect.
"There could be a problem looming," he says, "because if we start seeing every building in the university named after a large oil company and every chair endowed by an oil company, [people will] start questioning whether this truly is an independent university driven by academia."
For example, when David Marshall became a university president in the early 1990s, government funding represented about 75 per cent of an institution's total revenue. But now, he says, it's down to between 40 and 60 per cent depending on the institution and province.
Governments "are getting to the point where they are now the minority shareholder, yet demanding the majority of input and control," says Marshall, the past president of Mount Royal University in Calgary and Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont. "That's the tipping point you are finding."
In the last five years, says Marshall, just about every university in the country has had board of governor discussions about what types of corporations are suitable to partner with.
Several universities have decided not to partner with oil and gas companies, and have even divested their investments away from the sector because of pressure from student groups.
- How the University of Calgary's Enbridge relationship became controversial
- University of Calgary, Enbridge deny interfering with academic freedom
When Marshall was first hired, no one ever asked him about his fundraising skills.
But that's the first question asked today because of the importance of individual and corporate donations, and because of the competition from hospitals, charities and not for profit groups.
"It's a necessary evil, the best-case way of dealing with the [financial] realities," said Ken Steele, a private consultant in the post-secondary industry.
Academic concerns ignored?
In the case of the short-lived Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability at the University of Calgary, it appears the university administration wanted to appease the company in hopes of further funding from Enbridge in the future, according to emails obtained by CBC News under freedom of information legislation.
These emails also show the university was also hoping to leverage the agreement with Enbridge to attract donations from other companies in the oil and gas industry.
But the project concerned several academics at the U of C and elsewhere who felt that corporate concerns – corporate PR interests in particular – were taking precedence over the university's true purpose.
"The issue here is not that Enbridge was asking, it's that a public institution whose job it is to balance competing interests and do high quality research in the public interest abjectly failed to do that," charges David Keith, a former U of C professor now at Harvard University.
Since the Enbridge sponsorship was first announced in 2012, several faculty members have expressed their frustration over academic concerns playing second fiddle to Enbridge's interests, but their views didn't seem to matter.
"The complaints seem to have been dismissed, and I think that really speaks volumes to the lack of integrity of the administration," said CAUT's David Robinson, who also thinks there should be a public inquiry of some kind.
"This is a festering problem at the university and it's not looking good on the administration to sit back and say nothing," he said.
Pocket of Big Oil?
The former director of the Enbridge Centre at the U of C, Joe Arvai, said in an email the U of C already has a reputation as being in the pocket of Big Oil.
Such a belief exists more in Central and Eastern Canada, says Janet Wright, who owns an executive recruitment firm that works with universities and colleges.
If an Alberta university has a reputation for being too close to Big Oil, "it wouldn't be the University of Alberta, it would be the University of Calgary," she says.
Under the initial 10-year deal with Enbridge, the Calgary-based corporation pledged $225,000 annually to pay for one faculty position, some scholarships and a few other expenses.
The company also wanted "customized opportunities" for Enbridge executives and clients to meet with researchers at the U of C's Haskayne School of Business, and for the U of C to partner with a small university in Michigan, where Enbridge was embroiled in cleaning up a high-profile oil spill from one of its pipelines, the emails show.
The president of the U of C dismisses the notion that her institution has a reputation as being in the pocket of Big Oil.
"In the big scheme of things, who are the big financial supporters, of the University of Calgary, outside of government? That would be our alumni, that would be community leaders, but industry is actually a very small part," she said in an interview with CBC.
Cannon also said there is no need for an investigation at this time and the university never received any formal complaints from academics. If so, it would have investigated.