09 May 2015

Can academics serve two masters?

The steady encroaching of the corporate sector into the decision-making processes of our societies is the greatest threat to twenty-first century democracy. This includes encroachment into academia.

This troubling development was brought to light in the recent Alberta election. The NDP proposed a two per cent increase in the corporate tax rate. Jack Mintz, an esteemed University of Calgary economist, claimed the increase would cost the province billions in investment and 8,900 jobs. Given Mintz's impressive C.V., one might assume this is the gospel on corporate taxes, and one must therefore oppose the NDP 's proposal.

But wait. Dr. Mintz is more than a mere professor at the University of Calgary, he is also the director of its School of Public Policy. And he is something else. He is also a beneficiary of corporate largesse. He sits on the board of directors of Imperial Oil, a service for which he receives annual compensation of almost a quarter of a million dollars in cash and stock options.

Now I don't question the estimable Dr. Mintz's integrity, but a quarter of a million dollars can exert a powerful influence over one's thinking. Not that a responsible academic would allow it to affect his opinions. Or not consciously at least, but unconsciously it's another matter. Studies show that scientists who depend on corporate largesse produce results significantly more biased toward corporate interests than their independent colleagues. The subconscious is a powerful force, and a powerful rationalizer.

But whether Mintz's economics is corrupted by money or not isn't the main point. Academics are like judges: they must not only be impartial, they must be seen to be impartial. Accepting big bucks from an oil company doesn't exactly convey impartiality. Citizens in a democracy need unbiased sources of information and they have the right to expect that from universities. But can a citizen expect objective information and opinion on economics or public policy when the source of that information is receiving six-figure compensation from a narrow vested interest? Is the good professor offering economics or politics? Is the information coming from a school of public policy or a school of corporate policy? Mintz's dual role is a clear conflict of interest.

The University of Calgary is taking an unfortunately cavalier attitude toward the pursuit of knowledge by allowing professors to take money from interests vested in their areas of expertise. No one can be blamed for seeing Mintz's opinion on the NDP tax policy as biased, or for wondering what biases are creeping into the university's School of Public Policy, and that is unfortunate for Mintz, for the University of Calgary, for the public's understanding of economics, and for the democratic process. Academics can indeed serve two masters, and very profitably indeed, but at the cost of public trust.


  1. It's also unfortunate for his students. I think if he would have sided with the NDP, he would no longer be a director on the board of Imperial Oil, so yes I do think he is biased. More importantly he has sacrificed independent thought. The value of his mind and thinking have been sold for an extra $250K+ No more independent analysis, not much introspection, when you know ahead of time what you are going to conclude in writing about, in this case, an economic issue it requires very little , if any conceptual thinking. The real cost to him, is that he no longer can write what he thinks is right, because he simply no longer really thinks. He follows a formula, because he knows ahead of time what he is going to say. There is corruption for power and corruption for money. What he has corrupted for money is his own mind. This was a really interesting post and a subject I think needs to be talked more about.

  2. Why wouldn't you question this fellow's integrity? The University of Calgary, like its companion school, the University of Chicago, is the academic beating heart of corporatism and neoliberalism. These schools have contributed mightily to making market fundamentalism the default operating system of the political classes on both sides of the border.