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University of Calgary influenced by Big Oil in 2015 controversy, academic report concludes

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The entrance to the University of Calgary (Photo: University of Calgary).

It's not every day you see terms like "corporate obstructionism" and "institutional corruption" used to describe the way things are done at one Canadian university in a peer-reviewed academic paper written by scholars from two other institutions and published in a respected academic journal.

This is one reason I think the stuff may be about to hit the academic fan when the conclusions of University of Victoria sociology professor Garry Gray and University of British Columbia PhD student Kevin D. McCartney start to sink in on this side of the Rocky Mountains at the University of Calgary.

The conclusions of Gray and McCartney are also unlikely to be popular with corporate media, in particular Postmedia's Calgary Herald.

Their paper -- Big Oil U: Canadian Media Coverage of Corporate Obstructionism and Institutional Corruption at the University of Calgary, hot off the presses at the Canadian Journal of Sociology -- certainly doesn't mince words, as the title alone suggests.

The backstory, extensively covered by the CBC in 2015, involved a modest $2.25-million endowment by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. to be paid over a decade to what was then called "the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability" within the U of C's business school.

When Enbridge, the company that then wanted to build the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline, was accused of trying to use the university "as a PR machine for themselves," as one unhappy U of C academic put it at the time, and senior university administrators appeared to go along with the corporation, claims academic freedom was being undermined and the mission of the university subverted soon went public.

The CBC journalists' exposé was based in significant part on freedom of information searches that pried revealing U of C correspondence from the hands of reluctant university administrators. As was said in this space at the time, the contents of the correspondence that the network's investigative reporters uncovered showed administrators willing to uncritically accept almost any corporate instruction, regardless how questionable it seemed from the perspective of maintaining the university's independence.

Taking their cue from those 2015 CBC stories, McCartney and Gray reached conclusions about corporate, university and media activities unlikely to surprise anyone who has paid attention to news coverage of the Canadian fossil fuel industry in the context of growing public concern about climate change.

The authors' analysis of 70 news stories from various Canadian news sources published in the aftermath of the CBC's initial reports argues there was a parallel effort by the Calgary-based energy company and the Calgary university to frame the central issues of corporate obstructionism in public post-secondary institutions and what they term "institutional corruption" as if they were part of the university's mandate and purpose.

Moreover, they argue, there was a "stark contrast" between the way corporate and non-corporate media covered the controversy -- with the CBC and non-commercial media emphasizing the debate about academic freedom and the proper role of public institutions while corporate media "sought to defend the integrity of the relationship between the university and Enbridge during the investigative process."

"Corporate media sources also attempted to downgrade the seriousness" of concerns the university's president was at the same time a director of an Enbridge subsidiary, they said.

The two B.C. researchers argue corporate news coverage of the 2015 controversy at the U of C should be seen in the context of a historical tendency to downplay the social and environmental impacts of fossil fuel development on Indigenous people, and similar history of emphasizing the impact of climate change on business interests over its long-term consequences for the environment.

"We place this academic scandal in the context of global carbon capitalists making strident efforts to shape and manage social change efforts around energy, and equally, the deeply Canadian tension between the recognition of a climate crisis and the centrality of carbon extraction and transportation to the Canadian economy," the researchers wrote.

"Such tension is the foundation of institutional corruption," they continued -- defining "institutional corruption" as violations of public trust embedded in the structures, norms and practices of any professional environment.

In their conclusions, McCartney and Gray observed that "the profit motivation of corporate media, their advertising license to do business and use of official sourcing were clear when compared to how non-corporate media treated the same controversy."

As for the university, they said, the willingness of administrators "to sell the legitimacy of the university to corporate interests" and of academics to contribute by "producing research under the guise of apolitical scientific progress" show how "normalized functions of an institution cause harm and break public trust."

Finally, they said, the trend of corporate donations switching from a pure philanthropy model to a role that involves more day-to-day involvement in what universities decide to do shows how "fossil fuel companies are leveraging publicly funded centres of education and learning to promote a carbon-intensive future."

This, they concluded, "is the very definition of corporate obstruction in democracy."

We should stand by for a brisk response from the U of C, I would wager.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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