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Academic freedom compromised by U of C, watchdog group finds

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Canada’s academic watchdog is chastising the University of Calgary for putting the interests of a corporate sponsor ahead of independent research and its faculty

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) says the University of Calgary compromised the academic freedom of its then professor Dr. Joe Arvai during the 2012 creation of the university’s Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability.

It also says U of C president Elizabeth Cannon had a “clear appearance of a conflict of interest” when she sat on the board of directors of an Enbridge subsidiary while also involving herself in discussions about the the research centre.

This report from CAUT follows a November 2015 CBC News investigation into the university’s relationship with pipeline company Enbridge and the role the corporation played in the formation of the centre, which is now simply called the Centre for Corporate Sustainability.

The CBC News investigation included complaints from professors and emails obtained from a freedom of information request. The investigation suggested a pattern of corporate influence by Enbridge, a university bending over backward to accommodate the apparent public relations ambitions of a corporate patron and the dismissed concerns about academic independence by professors.

Much of the investigation centred on the role of Arvai, who was hired at the U of C in 2011 and was to be the director of the Enbridge Centre.

Joe Arvai UCalgary

Joe Arvai was concerned his academic freedom was going to be compromised while working as director of the Enbridge Centre before its launch. (University of Calgary)

Emails showed Arvai disagreed with Enbridge over a partnership with Central Michigan University and was uncomfortable with the name that Enbridge proposed for the centre.

Arvai also alleges that he was removed from his role as director of the centre after he expressed opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. He later left the university and is now the director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

CAUT conclusions

The CAUT investigation began in 2016. The final report was released this morning, with three main findings

  • There was a clear appearance of a conflict of interest in Cannon’s serving on the the Enbridge Income Fund Holding’s board for approximately $130,000 while she was president of the U of C, and that she should have recused herself from any university activities that were of interest to Enbridge.
  • Arvai’s academic freedom was compromised as a result of the U of C’s mishandling of the Enbridge Centre, and that the university subordinated its responsibilities as an academic body to the priorities of prospective donors in the oil and gas industry.
  • Enbridge sought to influence the establishment and public launching of the centre, including having influence on the centre’s name and having special access to the university’s academic and other staff to discuss or determine academic priorities.

The CAUT represents 70,000 academic professionals at 122 universities and colleges across the country. Its report and recommendations are not binding on the U of C.

U of C supports Cannon

In a statement today, Gordon Ritchie, the chair of the university’s board of governors, said, “The position of the Board of Governors stands that the report lacks legitimacy due to flawed process. The Committee has not conducted itself with independence and fairness. We also want to reiterate our full support and confidence in President Elizabeth Cannon’s leadership.”

The U of C commissioned its own report into the Enbrige Centre in 2015. It was conducted by retired Justice Terrence McMahon and found there were no breaches of university policies or procedures in the institution’s relationship with Enbridge.

CAUT says Cannon should admit to a conflict of interest. It also recommends forbidding the president and senior officials from sitting on corporate boards, and urges independent reviews of sponsorship agreements.

However, the university said it considers the matter to be closed.

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