31 August 2012

Carleton makes amends ... sort of

Carleton University has finally attempted to atone for accepting what was little better than a bribe and then trying to cover it up. In 2010, the university made a secret deal with Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell which, in return for a $15-million donation for a graduate program in political management, would allow the Riddell Foundation to appoint three of five people on a steering committee that would have power over the program's budget, academic hiring, executive director and curriculum. The deal was fronted by former Reform Party head Preston Manning who would also head the steering committee.

Having made the deal, the university fought tenaciously to keep the details hidden, an effort that ultimately failed. Carleton faculty and the Canadian Association of University Teachers understandably called the arrangement a major infringement on academic freedom. Now Carleton president Roseann Runte, responding to the criticism, has revealed a revised deal. It will require the steering committee to operate in accordance with the university's policies and procedures, and it will no longer approve key hiring and curriculum decisions. It will, however, provide "timely and strategic advice."

Obvious questions remain. For example, will the university be able to say no to "timely and strategic advice" from the $15-million man? The only way academic independence will be assured is if this funding is divorced from any "advice" from the donor. Until then, skeptics will quite rightly have their doubts.

Attempts by big business to infiltrate academia have not been limited to Carleton. The University of Toronto established the Munk School of Global Affairs partially funded by Barrick Gold Corp. chairman Peter Munk. This deal gives Munk or his heirs sole discretion to pull $15-million of his donation if the school doesn't meet their expectations. (A petition to have this arrangement annulled and renegotiated can be found at http://www.petitiononline.com/munkoff/petition.html.)

Earlier this year, 200 professors at York University signed a letter requesting the university stop a proposed agreement with former BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie's Centre for International Governance Innovation to fund 10 research chairs until academic safeguards could be negotiated, stating that it allowed "unprecedented influence over the university's academic affairs." The Canadian Association of University Teachers has warned it will launch a boycott this fall if Wilfrid Laurier and the University of Waterloo don't "amend the governance structure for the Balsillie School of International Affairs so that academic integrity is ensured."

Last September, documents obtained after a three-year freedom-of-information fight with the University of Calgary revealed that Talisman energy gave the university $175,000 for a public relations and lobbying campaign against government programs to restrict fossil fuel consumption and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The university subsequently acknowledged "that there was insufficient management and governance oversight" and announced new internal controls.

These insidious attempts by business to influence our political dialogue by infiltrating our universities demand close attention. Quite aside from the very business-like practice of doing deals privately in back rooms, an offense to the open nature of a university, the deals themselves threaten to corrupt our democratic process with plutocratic influence. And Carleton's solution is hardly the answer.

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