U of C prof says academic freedom has been undermined

As the University of Calgary deals with an investigation into corporate sponsorship at its business school, an engineering professor is suggesting there are deeper problems related to academic freedom at the university.

Martin Mintchev says university administration interfered in research publication

Engineering professor Martin Mintchev would like the University of Calgary to examine its recent push into China. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

As the University of Calgary deals with an investigation into corporate sponsorship at its business school, an engineering professor is suggesting there are deeper problems related to academic freedom at the university.

Martin Mintchev, a professor at the University of Calgary's Schulich School of Engineering, says the U of C needs to examine its recent expansion into China.

The U of C's relationship with China has had its ups and downs in recent years. In 2010, the university was removed from Chinese government's list of accredited institutions after granting an honourary degree to the Dalai Lama. The accreditation was restored the following year.

In 2013, the university created the China Regional Advisory Council intended to strengthen ties with the country, a move that culminated in the creation of a joint research centre in Beijing with the Kerui Group, a Chinese industrial company that specializes in oilfield services such as drilling.

U of C's president Elizabeth Cannon travelled to Beijing to open the centre that is to focus on opening up China's shale natural gas resources. The Kerui Group provided $11.25 million in funding for the Beijing campus.

Also part of the China push was a deal to bring visiting researchers to the University of Calgary for research experience, funded by the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC). The university aims to have 25 per cent of its graduate students come from outside of the country by 2016.

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Chinese researcher in Calgary

Beginning in 2013, Mintchev employed one of those researchers in his engineering research lab that is focused on down-hole drilling navigation. He says that his experience with that one student shows that the university has a bias toward external funders and that his complaints about the student's research have led him to the possible dismissal from his position as a tenured full professor.

The student came to the University of Calgary in the fall of 2013, as a visiting researcher sponsored by the CSC, in the first year of its deal with the University of Calgary. He was a PhD student at his university in China and was funded in part by the CSC and partly by Mintchev's research funds. 

Broadly speaking, the working relationship was rocky, but veered into issues of academic freedom when the student submitted a paper to a scientific journal. Mintchev alleged the student used material for which Mintchev claimed copyright. The paper listed Mintchev as a co-author, and he claims, contained errors that needed correction.

Mintchev raised his concerns with the journal and says university administration interfered in the publication of the paper to the point where it contacted the journal directly asking for copies of Mintchev's correspondence. Meanwhile Mintchev made revisions to the paper so the student could publish it.

"I worked on editing these errors under the constant threat of the university administration that if I do not allow the usage of my copyrighted material, or do not facilitate the publication of this paper that I am facing suspension or dismissal," said Mintchev in an interview.

Mintchev did edit the paper but says that he is still facing discipline.

U of C response

The University of Calgary said that Mintchev's characterization of events was not accurate and that administration did not infringe on his academic freedom by requiring Mintchev to fulfil his duties to the visiting researcher.

After a CBC News investigation, the University of Calgary began investigating its relationship with pipeline company Enbridge in connection with the company's sponsorship of the former Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability.

In an interview with CBC News Nov. 18, Mark Starratt, a member of the University of Calgary's board of governors, said the university was not dealing with any other issues of academic freedom, although Mintchev had contacted Starratt directly in early November.

In a statement, the university said that Dr. Mintchev's complaint was outside the scope of the independent review of the Enbridge centre, and as such it was not under Starratt's purview. It said Mintchev's complaint is currently being investigated.

Mintchev believes that the problems run deeper than just one relationship between a researcher and a professor.

"In the complex relationship between the university and external sponsorship and the academic freedom of professors to exercise their supervisory duties properly, I think the university administration has profound problems."