Faculty seeks provincial probe into academic freedom at University of Calgary

The University of Calgary's faculty association is calling out leadership for using for-profit corporate structures to keep decision-making behind closed doors.

The U of C's faculty association calls out corporate creep at the post-secondary institution

Sandra Hoenle, chair of the University of Calgary's faculty association, says corporate structures are inappropriate for collegiate governance. (CBC)

The University of Calgary's Faculty Association is calling for the provincial government to probe governance at the university saying the for-profit structures have no place in a collegial setting.

In a letter written to U of C faculty Thursday night, the chair of the faculty association, Sandra Hoenle, wrote:

"One of the greatest concerns is the domination of the senior administration in the governance processes of the University. The failures of the checks and balances intended in effective collegial governance are significant.

"One of the failures in governance has been the Board of Governors' and the Senior Administration's misapplication of for-profit corporate structures within a university collegial setting. Rather than being a place of transparency and open debate reflecting the University as a public institution accountable to the academic and broader communities, the Governors and Administration have used for-profit corporate structures to keep decision-making behind closed doors and controlled by the privileged few."

In an interview with CBC News, Hoenle said the corporate approach is inappropriate. 

"Collegial governance is really being diminished at the university," she said. "This is an ongoing, long concern and no one seems to be addressing it. And there's really this corporate creep, and the thing is — we're not a corporation. Universities are not corporations."

CAUT Investigation

Hoenle was responding to an investigation by the Canadian Association of University of Teachers (CAUT) into the formation of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability in 2011 and 2012.

The investigation found there was a clear appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of U of C president Elizabeth Cannon's paid role as a board member of an Enbridge subsidiary, while still being involved in discussions about the formation of the research centre funded by the pipeline giant.

The university teachers association also found that the academic freedom of former professor Joe Arvai was compromised because of the university's mishandling of the Enbridge centre. Arvai was hired at the U of C in 2011 and was to be the director of the Enbridge Centre.

He repeatedly expressed concerns about academic freedom in emails over the period of late 2011 and early 2012 and alleges that he was removed from the his role after he stated his opposition to Enbridge's  Northern Gateway pipeline project.

He later left the university and is now the director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

Joe Arvai was concerned his academic freedom was going to be compromised while working as director of the Enbridge Centre before its launch. (University of Calgary)

In an interview with CBC News, Arvai welcomed the report.

"The report from the CAUT is factually accurate, and in light of those accuracies, I think it's wholly appropriate for the faculty association to be asking for a provincial review," said Arvai.

A CBC News investigation in 2015 prompted the CAUT report. That investigation included complaints from professors and emails obtained through a freedom of information request.

The investigation suggested a university bending over backward to accommodate the apparent public relations ambitions of a corporate patron and the dismissed concerns about academic independence by professors.

The board of governors at the University of Calgary commissioned its own investigation into the formation of the centre. That investigation was led by retired justice Terrence McMahon. He found no wrongdoing on the part of university officials.

In a statement earlier in the week, the University of Calgary board of governors chair Gordon Ritchie said the board felt the McMahon report had properly cleared the university and its officials of any wrongdoing and considered the matter closed.

Province reviewing academic freedom

Benjamin Lof, spokesperson for Alberta's Ministry of Advanced Education, said in a statement that conflicts of interest are being examined at the public boards in the province and that includes scrutinizing academic freedom at universities. 

"Academic freedom is a cornerstone of any university, and that principle will continue to be maintained in Alberta," Lof said.

"Albertans must have confidence that our boards are governing Alberta's post-secondary institutions effectively and have high ethical standards in place including transparent conflict of interest policies and practices. That's why our government is reviewing post-secondary board governance and conflict of interest through our review of agencies, boards, and commissions."   

In her letter to faculty, Hoenle said the provincial governance review had been truncated in recent months and she wants to ensure that it is expanded to specifically deal with issues that were identified in the CAUT and CBC Investigations.