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If we'd been paying attention, perhaps we wouldn't be so shocked by U of C's corporate-influence scandal

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It's a backhanded credit to the University of Calgary, I suppose, that the CBC's recent exposé of the heavy hand of corporate influence on the academic tiller of the institution's School of Business was such a shocker.

The taxpayers who generously finance the university and in some cases send their children there in hopes they'll receive a worthwhile post-secondary education obviously believed they had reason to expect academic work produced by its professors to be independent, free of corporate influence and based on verifiable evidence.

In other words, that it could be trusted, by citizens and policy makers alike.

Alas, the story presented by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's investigative team, based in significant part on freedom of information searches that pried revealing U of C correspondence from the hands of reluctant university administrators, paints a very different picture.

Whatever the intentions of the senior corporate officials of pipeline-builder Enbridge Inc. were when they forked over the seed money for the so-called Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability, the enthusiasm of highly paid U of C administrators to keep sweet for them is at once appalling and hilarious.

Notwithstanding the neutral language carefully used by the CBC's journalists, the contents of the correspondence the network's investigative reporters uncovered reveals obsequious administrators pathetically willing to accept almost any corporate command, no matter how questionable from the perspective of maintaining the university's independence.

When their own academics raised concerns that funders were being allowed to purchase credibility at the expense of independent research, the overpaid Uriah Heeps in the university's executive suite had no hesitation tossing their own faculty's considered advice over the side. "Along the way, concerns about academic independence, the role of university research and the credibility of the researchers were dismissed,' the CBC explained.

The U of C's administration can squirm and deny all it wants, but it seems highly unlikely the institution's reputation can survive these revelations completely intact. Every Alberta taxpayer should read the CBC's stories with care.

The thing is, though, none of this would shock anyone who has been paying attention to what goes on at the U of C.

For nigh on 40 years -- the history is murky because the designation is informal -- the U of C has been home to the "Calgary School," an ill-defined group of politically partisan professors and well-connected former students in the political science, economics and history departments who have used the public university and its School of Public Policy to train a generation of neoliberal shock troopers bent on bending Canada to their idea of ideological perfection.

As Donald Gutstein, author of Harperism, How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, described the School of Public Policy, it functions as "a neoliberal think tank embedded within a university." (The School of Public Policy and the Calgary School are not exactly the same thing, but they might as well be. You might say the former is an actual tax-supported institution, while the latter is the partisan and secretive political society made up of many of the people employed by the former.)

Some of the Calgary School's most well known alumni include recently skidded prime minister Stephen Harper, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, sometime Harper advisor Tom Flanagan, former Alberta finance minister Ted Morton (the worst premier this province never had) and serial polemicist Ezra Levant. Given their active political history, it is extremely difficult to believe such individuals do not have a politically partisan agenda.

The Calgary School was the source of the notorious Firewall Manifesto, a letter to then premier Ralph Klein urging him to build a sovereignist firewall around Alberta's borders. Klein sensibly tossed the missive in the trash.

The Calgary School project, naturally, has also benefitted from generous corporate support -- indeed, it would be interesting to see the administrative correspondence pertaining to that file -- and from the naiveté of taxpayers who assumed all academic work coming out of a university was trustworthy and rigorous.

It is not. The department is steeped in the quasi-theological ideology of the "Austrian economists," Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and their cultish followers, which, as New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman describes their theorizing, "explicitly denies that empirical data need to be taken into account."

In his blog, Krugman provides a useful link to American journalist Josh Barro, no lefty, who usefully describes the two big reasons the right loves the Austrians: "One is that Austrian economists reject empirical analysis, and instead believe that you can reach conclusions about correct economic policies from a priori principles. It's philosophy dressed up as economics; with the Austrians, there is never any risk that real-world events will interfere with your ideology." The other, libertarian apologist that Barro is, is that they're dead, so they can't argue with their fans, like so many at the Calgary School, in the event they were inclined to.

Lately and typically, Jack Mintz of the School of Public Policy has been screeching hyperbolically in the National Post that Alberta is about to turn into Greece, the better to undermine such cautious NDP policies as a modest increase in the taxes of the most profitable corporations, a higher minimum wage and a review of what are widely believed to be the lowest resource royalties on the planet.

It's evocative, if I heard the CBC's on-air report earlier this month correctly (I couldn't find this in the linked online stories), that the million dollars Enbridge pulled out of its eponymous corporate sustainability centre would instead go to the School of Public Policy.

Arguably, the whole Calgary School project has done far more damage than Enbridge's rather limited effort to squeeze the maximum public relations potential from its donations to the School of Business.

If it is less shocking, that may have as much to do with the lousy reputation the fields of economics and political science share in the public's mind.

Notwithstanding its generous corporate donors, the School of Public Policy continues as powerful publicly financed lobby actively devoted to the destruction of both the new NDP Government in Edmonton, and now no doubt the new Liberal Government in Ottawa, almost certainly with the connivance of university officials and loads of corporate dough.

It is hard to believe that much non-partisan, independent academic scholarship takes place in this atmosphere. Perhaps the whole thing deserves a formal inquiry of the kind that can only be conducted with legal authority to clear the air.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.


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