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Corporate U takes the offensive

John Bell

December 18, 2015

According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a university is “a public institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge in the public interest.”But today’s universities and colleges are increasingly in thrall to the corporate “benefactors” who are filling the funding void left as government backs away from its responsibility to foster “knowledge in the public interest.” And in return corporations expect to call the shots in how research is conducted, who is hired to teach and how curricula are designed.

The battle for the soul of post-secondary schools—the battle between knowledge in the public interest and Corporate U—is taking place across the country.

It may not surprise you that the University of Calgary is in the midst of a series of struggles over academic freedom in the face of oil industry funding. One of U of C’s corporate partners is Beijing-based Kerui Group, an oilfield drilling and pipeline business. Through Kerui, U of C is involved in shale gas extraction research in China, and is bringing Chinese students to Calgary to conduct similar research.

U of C engineering professor Martin Mintchev has gone public with complaints that one such PhD student has essentially stolen some of his copyrighted material for inclusion in an article submitted to a professional journal, an article which Mintchev says is riddled with errors. The professor has complained to U of C administration, which has sided with the student (and with the corporate funding) and threatened Mintchev with academic penalties and dismissal.

Mintchev told the CBC: “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.” Given U of C’s recent track record, that is a colossal understatement.


In 2012 U of C set up the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability. It hired a young, rising academic star from the US to head it; Joe Arvai had worked with NASA, the US Environmental Protection Agency and as an energy advisor to President Obama.

But from his arrival Arvai complained, in emails to the dean of the business school who was his superior and to the Board of Governors, about unethical interference from Enbridge. The pipeline giant wanted to interfere with student awards and use the Centre for its public relations purposes. It also wanted to form a partnership with a Michigan university that made no academic sense, but would allow Enbridge to pump money and positive PR into the area where its ruptured pipeline polluted the Kalamazoo River in 2010.

Arvai wrote to his superior, Dean Leonard Waverman: “I am not sure what we are signing up for. I have the impression that Enbridge sees the centre as a PR machine for themselves, whereas I see it as an academic research centre. “In the latter case, it’s likely that finds of academic work in the centre will not, at times, paint industry—including Enbridge—in the best light. I’m not sure Enbridge understands this.” Waverman’s reply was anatomically cryptic but politically clear: “If this goes belly up my ass is on the line and I won't feel happy with you either on this.”

If Arvai thought U of C president Elizabeth Cannon would defend academic integrity, he was in for some schooling. Cannon sits on the board of directors of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings, a conflict of interest the nets her an extra $130,500 a year.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Arvai quit. Waverman has moved to Hamilton where his lofty academic ideals lead McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business. And Cannon is riding out the scandals, insisting there is nothing wrong with her double life. She may succeed. Such blatant conflicts of interest and corporate interference are becoming the norm in Canadian academic life.


At Ottawa’s Carleton University, biology professor Root Gorelick is an elected faculty representative to the board of governors. He has made headlines for refusing to sign a gag order which will prohibit him from ever divulging the doings of that board of the rest of his life. He argues that his role is to represent and report to the faculty association that chose him.

Lacking the geographic connection to the oil and gas industry the U of C enjoys, Carleton had decided to build on political connections instead. With the 2005 creation of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy—yes, headed by Reform Party founder Preston Manning—Carleton began marketing itself as the training ground for right-wing political and economic ideology. “Raising the bar of democratic governance requires talented individuals who possess not only a good appreciation of political theory but a highly developed understanding of its practical application,” Manning said at the time.

Someone who understood the “practical application” of his politics was Clayton Riddell, petro-billionaire and (in 2014) Canada’s 16th richest individual. In 2010 he “donated” $15 million to set up (in cooperation with the Manning centre) the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management. In return Riddell got more than his name on the letterhead; a secret agreement with Carleton gave him power to control hiring, student enrollment and curriculum. News of the deal reached Carleton faculty (through its rep on the board of governors perhaps) and then CAUT. After a year-long legal battle to keep its agreement with Riddell secret, Carleton was forced to fess up, and rip up that agreement in 2012.

Not exactly “raising the bar of democratic governance”. But U of C and Carleton are not unique. Corporations are staging hostile takeovers at campuses nationwide, and faculty and student unions are pushing back.

Are our schools to be run like public institutions devoted to the public good or like businesses devoted to profit? Do students and faculty have a right to know how their schools are run, or are decisions to be treated like state secrets? As with the rest of our public services, the battle for the soul of our education—how we train and inspire young people—hangs in the balance.

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