A professor who left the University of Calgary over how the school handled a corporate-funded sustainability institute says he sees his concerned echoed in a report that found major problems with the centre.
“What the report describes is factually accurate,” said Joe Arvai, who now teaches at the University of Michigan. “In that regard, it feels like a bit of a vindication of what I had said.”
The head of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which did the investigation, said problems with the university’s plans to create the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability should be a warning for institutions across Canada.
On Wednesday, the association released a document that said the university president was in a conflict of interest, since she took part in planning the centre while holding a paid position on one of the Calgary-based energy company’s boards. The investigation also found the project was poorly administered and subject to influence by its donor.
The university has rejected those findings and has referred to a 2015 report that cleared the school of wrongdoing. It declined to provide anyone for an interview.
Arvai, who was the original choice to lead the centre, strongly supports the association’s conclusion that faculty and staff have been intimidated from expressing their concerns. He referred to a fellow professor who was dismissed as director of a research centre after opposing university administration on energy and environmental issues.
“To me, (that is) telling of how I certainly felt when I was there — to go up against the University of Calgary would be to invite reprisals.”
At least two other academics have expressed similar concerns in media reports.
Arvai said that the wider academic community is starting to notice.
“Absolutely, yes. I’ve heard from people who have been shortlisted for jobs there, and have been interviewed, who have declined an opportunity to pursue employment at the University of Calgary because these concerns were raised.”
David Robinson, head of the teachers association, said Canadian universities are increasingly dependent on corporate support.
Such collaborations can benefit all parties, including the public, he said. But they must be carefully structured.
In 2013, his group surveyed 12 corporate/academic research and program collaborations from institutions across the country.
It found only two of those agreements had public documents. Seven held no specific guarantees of academic freedom and only six had language ensuring academic matters remained under the university’s control.
Just two forbade a financial interest by participating faculty in the corporate partner and one agreement required disclosure of conflicts of interest.
“At the end of the day, it’s incumbent on universities to have effective self-policing mechanisms,” said Robinson. “These kinds of situations shouldn’t be allowed to happen in the first place.
“We have to ensure that any corporate sponsorship puts academic values ahead of any public relations exercise.
“The mission of the university is not to present good PR for companies. It is to pursue knowledge. It is to preserve knowledge. It is to disseminate knowledge.”
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press