Universities suffer corporate enticements with strings

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Some grand new buildings at the University of Toronto -- including a lavishly renovated "heritage mansion" -- seem to beckon us to walk through their doors into halls of higher learning.

But they're also evidence that our universities, faced with deep government funding cuts, have found comfort in the warm embrace of corporate money, which is paying for the impressive new facilities.

With university administrators now heavily focused on wooing private funds, corporate money has become an increasingly potent force shaping our universities -- a development prompting a group of concerned professors to hold a teach-in at U of T's Bahen Centre this Saturday.

The concern is that reliance on corporate philanthropy risks skewing the university's priorities to court the rich, and threatens to undermine the role of universities as key democratic institutions where society's prevailing orthodoxies and power structures come under scrutiny.

Are universities likely to critically scrutinize power structures when their funding increasingly comes from those who dominate these very power structures?

This question surfaced last year with the firing of the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs -- which is heavily funded by billionaire Jim Balsillie -- and affiliated with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Ramesh Thakur, an internationally renowned scholar, was fired as director after he clashed with Balsillie over Balsillie's involvement in academic issues at the school. The firing was done by administrators at Wilfrid Laurier and Waterloo, but it appears they were acting to please Balsillie.

An investigation by the Canadian Association of University Teachers called this "the dark side of philanthropy," faulting the universities for their "lack of commitment to . . . academic integrity" and "regrettable failure to educate the principal donor . . . Jim Balsillie, as to the donor's proper role."

Universities insist they vigilantly protect academic freedom. U of T's Statement of Purpose pledges to protect critical teaching and research, since "no other institution . . . is the custodian of this most precious and vulnerable right of the liberated human spirit."

Lofty words. But U of T's written agreement with donor Peter Munk, establishing the Munk School of Global Affairs, seems to tell a different story.

The agreement reveals that $15 million (almost half Munk's $35 million donation) will only be given to the university at some point after 2017 -- and only after Munk has been satisfied with the outcome of the Munk School.

This certainly puts pressure on those running the school to take it in a direction pleasing to Munk. Is it likely they'll hire academics doing research, say, on the role of multinational corporations in developing countries -- where the mining operations of Munk's Barrick Gold Corporation have come under attack?

Munk's agreement with U of T calls for $2 million to be spent on "branding" -- as if the school were a cigarette or designer handbag.

Another strange clause in the agreement sets an elitist tone that seems out of keeping with the university as a collegial academic community. It specifies that the school's elegant heritage mansion will have "a formal entrance reserved only for senior staff and visitors to the School."

Others -- junior faculty, students and the public -- may also feel beckoned to come to the Munk School in the hopes of liberating their human spirit. But, like deliveries, they'll be directed to enter by the back door.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet and The Trouble With Billionaires. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

 

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