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President’s message / Dark night of the academic soul

President’s message / Dark night of the academic soul

By James Compton

Universities must not strike Faustian bargains with donors if they are to ensure their social legitimacy. This welcome message was delivered by a keynote speaker at a conference last month on university governance in the 21st century organized by the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia. The conference attracted activists and faculty association presidents from coast to coast to share best practices and create a critical dialogue on collegial governance. It worked.

But you may be surprised by who gave the keynote. It wasn’t any of the faculty association members present. Instead, it was delivered by Dr. Santa Ono, president of the University of British Columbia. Dr. Ono warned the audience about the increased role that donor money plays in university bud-gets due to decreased state funding.

For the record, Dr. Ono stated unequivocally that “academic freedom is the cornerstone” of any university and that “we cannot sell the soul of the university” simply because a tight budget would be improved with money from donor X.

Dr. Ono had to leave immediately following his address, but if I’d had the chance to speak with him I would have heartily thanked him for his comments. And I imagine I wasn’t alone.

His talk was a striking contrast to a previous speaker that day who spoke of the “elephant in the room” — by which he meant faculty unions. For Neil Gold, former provost and vice-president at the University of Windsor, university governance is a management right that unionized faculty work to strip away through collective bargaining. From his legalistic perspective, collective agreements were framed as negative constraints and fetters to collegial governance, and not as a set of rules and obli­gations which serve both management and unionized faculty.

Dr. Ono challenged this negative framing, saying unions are “not the elephant in the room” but an “important part of making universities better places.” Faculty unions are not simply representatives of the interests of labour, they fight to protect the broader interests of the university community.

I couldn’t agree more. Dr. Ono should be applauded. Collegial governance doesn’t mean eliminating differences of opinion. As Dr. Ono told his audience, “criticism makes us better,” and isn’t that precisely what the academy promotes and defends?

The legitimacy of any university — its soul — resides in the autonomy and academic freedom of faculty to teach and do research as they see fit. Sadly, this independence is put at risk if agreements with private sector corporations or governments create conflicts of interest between autonomous scholarship and the bottom line.

A CAUT report titled Open for Business — On What Terms? warned of this troubling situation back in 2013. The report looked at 12 collaborations and concluded that in the majority of deals “universities have agreed to various violations of their own academic integrity” by allowing “private donors and corporate partners to co-opt roles formerly, and properly, played by academic staff.”

The idea for the Open for Business project was sparked by a 2010 study of 10 university-research collaborations in the United States called Big Oil Goes to College. That report suggested that academic integrity was being sacrificed by these agreements — valued at more than $800 million.

Recent reporting by The Guardian suggests not much has changed, referring to what it calls, the “invisible colonization of academia” by the fossil fuel industry. “To say that these experts and research centers have conflicts of interest is an understatement: many of them exist as they do only because of the fossil fuel industry. They are industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by academia.”

It is precisely these kinds of concerns that prompted CAUT to create an ad-hoc investigatory committee to review allegations of conflict of interest, and violations of academic freedom connected to the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability at the University of Calgary.

There is nothing inherently wrong with university partnerships with private corporations or governments, providing conflicts of interests are avoided and academic autonomy is maintained.

So, hats off to you, Dr. Ono. I believe faculty associations are prepared to work with you, and others who share your perspective, to ensure the soul of the university is not sold to the highest bidder.

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