Senior administrators at the University of Calgary suppressed academic freedom and failed to address glaring conflicts of interest while attempting to establish an Enbridge-funded research centre, according to a report commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) that was released Wednesday.
The report — co-authored by Alison Hearn of the University of Western Ontario and Gus Van Harten of York University — is the result of almost two years of investigation, and starkly contradicts the findings of the university’s own internal review of the situation.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers is a nationwide federation of associations representing 70,000 post-secondary workers.
“Academic staff and professors involved at the centre reached out to senior administrators and said ‘we’re concerned about Enbridge’s influence over the centre, we don’t think we should be a PR firm for Enbridge,’” said David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, in an interview with DeSmog Canada.
“Those concerns were rebuffed. That’s a very serious matter that strikes at the heart of the academic credibility and integrity of work at the University of Calgary.”
Here are five key takeaways from the report.
1) University president Elizabeth Cannon was in a stunning conflict of interest
In 2011 and 2012, the University of Calgary fervently worked to launch the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability within the university’s renown Haskayne School of Business.
A small problem: the University of Calgary’s president, Elizabeth Cannon, was a board member of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings Board, for which she received an annual remuneration of $130,500 per year (that’s in addition to the $454,000 in salary that she made in 2013). At the end of 2014, Cannon owned over $800,000 of shares in the income fund.
Yet she failed to recuse herself from any of the negotiations for the sponsorship deal with Enbridge.
In fact, she made several direct interventions in the process, including an email in August 2012 to the dean of Haskayne School of Business stating that Enbridge is “not seeing your leadership on this file and are feeling that once the funding was committed, the interest from you was lost. This is not good for you or the university. I want to have a good relationship with Enbridge given that Al Monaco is incoming CEO and our grad (and I am on one of their Boards!).”
The CAUT report concluded this represented a “clear appearance of a conflict of interest” that “should have been readily apparent to anyone who knew of the circumstances.”
Its advice? Quite obvious, really: she shouldn't have occupied a paid position on an external corporate board as U of C president, or should have recused herself from all involvements with Enbridge.
2) Former Enbridge Centre director Joe Arvai had his academic freedom seriously compromised by the university
Joe Arvai, a former Michigan State University professor and member of Barack Obama’s energy advisory group during the 2008 campaign, was hired on as director of the proposed centre.
Almost immediately, he started resisting the company’s push to create what he called a “PR machine for themselves.” His concerns included Enbridge’s request for the institute to partner with Central Michigan University — which was geographically close to where the catastrophic Kalamazoo River oil spill happened in 2010 and served as an opportunity for the company to try to rehabilitate its reputation in the area.
In addition, he became concerned that the centre’s name and terms would “strip away my credibility when it comes to the kind of research and policy work I do best.”
He eventually left the directorship after Enbridge strongly opposed his dual appointment to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency science advisory body. Furthermore, he told the CAUT committee that he was actually removed from his position only a week after he indicated his opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline when asked by the company’s public relations firm.
The report held nothing back on this front.
“This mishandling appears to have been due to a desire on the part of senior U of C leadership to please a significant donor,” the authors wrote. “On repeated occasions, one or more University officials who should have been affirming and defending Arvai’s academic freedom instead undermined it.”
3) The university failed to credibly maintain any independence from Enbridge
The agreement was that Enbridge would provide $2.25 million over ten years to help fund the research institute, which would focus on “corporate sustainability and triple bottom line decision-making.”
In return for a mere $225,000 a year, the company pushed to receive naming rights, influence over who funding awards were given to, ability to push for partner institutions such as Central Michigan University and “customized opportunities to meet with researchers pursuing projects of interest.”
The university happily granted them all their wishes.
That led to business professor Harrie Vredenburg writing an email in August 2011 to Haskayne School dean Leonard Waverman, suggesting the situation “smacks of us being apologists for the fossil fuel industry rather than independent scholars and teachers doing work in a broadly defined area.”
The report concluded that “there appears to have been a significant failure of collegial governance, accountability and oversight in the establishment of the [Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability].”
Robinson of CAUT said in an interview with DeSmog Canada: “It doesn’t surprise me at all that companies want to try to influence university research to their advantage. What does surprise me, and frankly shocks me, is when universities give into those demands so easily.”
4) The university has no serious interest in admitting its mistakes
In response to the criticism following the explosive investigation in late 2015 by CBC News into the situation, the university’s board of governors launched a “comprehensive and independent review,” led by former judge Terrence McMahon.
The 17-page report, which took under two months to prepare, cleared Cannon of any alleged wrongdoing. The university maintains that “the McMahon Report is the proper, comprehensive and independent review of matters connected to the Enbridge Centre.”
The authors of the new report strongly disagreed, concluding the McMahon Report was “undermined by his limited acknowledgement and consideration of the role of academic freedom at universities” and gave “significant benefit of the doubt” to higher-ups at the university.
In an interview with DeSmog Canada, Kate Jacobson — current student and former editor-in-chief of the student paper, the Gauntlet — noted the McMahon Report only looked at whether the university had violated its own “very narrow” policy.
“In my mind, the University of Calgary likes this report because it doesn’t ask any hard questions and exonerates them within the confines of their own policy,” she said.
Furthermore, the University of Calgary’s senior administration refused to participate in the report, despite having what Robinson described as “numerous opportunities in which they could have contributed.” When CAUT came to campus in 2016 to interview faculty members for the report, university provost Dru Marshall warned that the group may not protect the confidentiality of participants.
Without expanding on its reasoning for concluding the report “lacks legitimacy due to flawed process,” the board of governors “considers the Enbridge matter closed.”
Arvai, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, wrote in an email to DeSmog Canada that: “To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t a lot of fun to read the CAUT report because it brought back very vivid memories of the conflicts and intimidation I experienced at the time. But, on a positive note, it’s a vindication after the McMahon report, which felt incomplete and one-sided to me.”
5) There are many opportunities for the university to improve, but it won’t be easy
The report concluded with nine recommendations.
They included prohibiting the president and other senior officials from serving for remuneration on any external corporate board, acknowledging publicly that it was wrong for Cannon not to have recused herself from Enbridge-related matters and implementing a policy governing the creation of externally sponsored research institutes.
But that itself might require a re-evaluation of the institution’s entire relationship with the oil and gas industry.
After all, the University of Calgary has a long history of controversies relating to alleged collusion with oil and gas interests, including channeling oil funding for Friends of Science via “research accounts” and housing the Bruce Carson-led Canada School of Energy and Environment.
“This keeps happening because all of these people are part of the same class: they go to the same events, and parties, and Petroleum Clubs,” Jacobson concluded. “They have a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo in Alberta, and that manifests itself on campus in terms of how oil companies are involved.”
Image: Cowbells at the University of Calgary President's Stampede. Photo: Reg Tiangha via Flickr creative commons