A defence of corporate funding at public universities

The University of Calgary's relationship with Enbridge has prompted concerns about corporate donations at Canadian universities. But Colleen Collins of the Canada West Foundation argues that if companies stop funding academic research, it would be bad for universities.
(University of Calgary)

Some academics at the University of Calgary claim that Enbridge attempted to influence staffing at the Centre for Corporate Sustainability while donating to the school. The university has now announced a review.

For critics, the case is evidence that corporate money and public universities just shouldn't mix. But Colleen Collins, the vice president of the Canada West Foundation, argues that if companies stop funding academic research, it would be bad for universities. 

The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.

What if that corporate money comes with strings attached? 

When you put your name on a building, when you put your name on a faculty, you do advertise to the world, hey, we're interested in the better public good, and we've put our money where our mouth is. So we recognize that there could be potential issues involved. I think in addition to policy...individual academics have a pretty strong sense of protecting their academic freedom, and that's part of our DNA, and it's built into universities. There will be situations where companies step over the line. They may not understand the nature of the agreement — but that's why some of these agreements take a very long time to set up, so that those boundaries and expectations are really clear. 

It's one thing if corporations step over that line, but what happens if universities follow them over that line? Some academics at the University of Calgary say that Enbridge attempted to interfere in areas like staffing and operation at the Centre for Corporate Sustainability and that some administrators at the university encouraged them and supported them in that. What's your reaction to those allegations? 

Well, relationships can be hard. What comes as a suggestion from one person may be seen as a command from another... This is, you know, a good case study where perhaps those relationship boundaries weren't well established, weren't well understood. And that's what happens. What's amazing to me, actually, is if you look at it, we've had a few cases in the last year or so and they've received a lot of attention, but when you look at the number of corporate donations to universities across the country, it's actually amazing how few problems we have. 

But what about the reputation of a university? Isn't that paramount here, and doesn't the legitimacy of research depend on that perception that the university is unbiased, and that it's not directing its research to serve some kind of corporate sponsor? Is it worth risking even the perception of that, by accepting these kinds of corporate donations? 

Well, you know, we have schools of economics and political science that are funding by government. Universities, unless they're — well, even if they're only funded by tuition dollars — dollars always come from somewhere. And that's why the principles of academic freedom are well established and well defended. That's why we have tenure, is that regardless of who provides the funding, whether it's corporate donor, government donor, or, for that matter, students, the academic freedom is preserved and the integrity of the research is preserved. 

If we were to ban corporate donations at universities altogether -- an outright ban -- what effect do you think that would have on research? 

Well, less of it would be done, because in some cases, research can be very expensive...Less would be done. Without any question, less would be done, and I think that would be too bad. 

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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