Academics association charges conflict of interest at University of Calgary

The president of the University of Calgary was in a conflict of interest over a 2011 plan for a corporate-funded research centre at the institution, an investigation by the group that represents academics has concluded.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers also found creation of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability was fraught with governance problems and subject to influence from its donor. As well, the association said that faculty and staff have been intimidated from speaking out on the issue ever since.

“We have extensive experience dealing with university administrations on matters related to academic freedom,” said the report’s authors in a letter to Gordon Ritchie, chairman of the university’s board of governors.

“Neither of us can recall ever having encountered a university administration, or indeed any party, that took such an array of steps as the University of Calgary has done in order to avoid engaging with, while also actively frustrating or discrediting, an independent investigation into its past conduct.”

The university appointed retired judge Terrence McMahon to conduct an investigation into allegations around the Enbridge Centre. In a 17-page report in 2015, McMahon cleared the institution and said president Elizabeth Cannon was only doing her job as a administrator.

“The Board of Governors fully stands behind the McMahon report as the comprehensive and independent review of matters connected to the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability,” said Ritchie in an email Tuesday.

“Our position remains that the CAUT investigation lacks legitimacy.”

Ritchie said the board may have further comment after studying the association’s 109-page document.  

Despite invitations, the university did not participate in the association’s investigation. It said the process was biased from the start, citing remarks from one of the members of the investigating committee.

That member resigned from the investigation. The authors said that he did not contribute to the final report.

The association launched its probe after a series of media reports into the birth of the sustainability centre, which was partially funded by a $225,000 annual grant by Calgary-based pipeline company Enbridge.

Concerns arose after it was revealed Cannon was involved in discussions over the creation and staffing of the centre despite holding a paid position on an Enbridge board.

“At the very least, Dr. Cannon should have recused herself publicly from all Enbridge-related discussions and decisions at the U of C,” the report concludes, adding she intervened several times during the centre’s creation.

The report, authored by a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and a media studies professor at the University of Western Ontario, also found the academic freedom of the school’s original director was damaged.

That director left under a cloud over disputes about the centre’s goals and his opposition to the Keystone XL oilsands pipeline. As well, the report said Enbridge was given too much input into the centre’s academic priorities, recommending its partners and helping plan its launch.

“Viewed in isolation, some of the actions of U of C administrators would not rise to the level of an encroachment on academic freedom,” said the report. “But as an accumulation, in our view they do.”

The association also found the Enbridge agreement was flawed. It concluded the size of the donation was too small to fund what the centre was supposed to do, forcing the university to seek further corporate funds to keep it going.

It also pointed out the centre never seemed to have been discussed by the university’s board of governors.

David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, said the association’s report reaches different conclusions from McMahon because it asked different questions.

“(McMahon) was to look at if any policies and procedures of the university were violated. Those policies and procedures were interpreted very narrowly.

“When it came to academic freedom and academic freedom as a foundational value in the university, the McMahon report tended to be a little bit too perfunctory.”

The association’s report includes correspondence from the university distributed to faculty and staff when the investigators visited the campus.

“Those of you who choose to participate have the right to express your opinions, and your freedom to do so will be respected,” said the March 18, 2016, letter.

“You are reminded that your privacy may not be protected by (the association), and if you provide sensitive or confidential information to (the association), that confidentiality may not be protected.”

Robinson said only two professors at the university, both of whom now teach elsewhere, spoke on the record. The rest asked for anonymity.

“I think there is a culture of fear at the university,” he said.

“The administration was very aggressive with our committee and when we announced our report. It makes me wonder why.”

Robinson said the association, which represents about 70,000 academic staff at 122 universities and colleges, conducts such investigations about once a year.

“As universities and their leaders become more and more linked to the corporate, how do we handle potential conflicts of interest? We have to ensure that any corporate sponsorship puts academic values ahead of any public relations exercise.”

— Follow @row1960 on Twitter.

 

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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