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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2009

Minister’s Office Threatens SSHRC’s Federal Budget Funding: Internal Email

Text of an e-mail sent June 5 to SSHRC president Chad Gaffield describing threat made by the office of Gary Goodyear, minister of State for Science & Technology.
Text of an e-mail sent June 5 to SSHRC president Chad Gaffield describing threat made by the office of Gary Goodyear, minister of State for Science & Technology.
Science Minister Gary Goodyear’s office threatened to withhold federal budget funding for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council over its decision to fund a controversial academic conference, according to an internal e-mail obtained by CAUT under access to information legislation.

CAUT first learned early in June that Good­year had telephoned SSHRC president Chad Gaffield requesting a reconsideration of a peer-reviewed decision to fund an academic confe­rence on Israel and Palestine held June 22­–24 at York University.

After the minister’s intervention, SSHRC asked conference organizers to notify it of any changes to the program that had occurred since they had applied for funding — a request that contravenes the agency’s own grant holder policy, which requires any changes be provided at the conclusion of the grant.

In the end SSHRC accepted their assurances that any modifications were minor and funding for the conference went ahead, but that’s not the point, says CAUT executive director James Turk.

“It’s clear that this happened because the minister didn’t approve of the topic of the conference, and at the time we considered this personal intervention by the minister so serious we called for his resigna­tion,” Turk said.

“Little did we know then that the phone call was apparently accompanied by a threat from the minister’s office to withhold a funding increase in the next federal budget.”

The e-mail obtained by CAUT, dated June 5, under the subject line “Extremely urgent,” was sent to Gaffield from SSHRC communications manager Trevor Lynn and described what he had just been told by Goodyear’s chief of staff, Phillip Welford: “He (Welford) said that this is a serious issue and was so serious that it will make it hard for the Minister to recommend increased funding for SSHRC in the next budget.”

Turk said that the e-mail raises serious questions about how decisions are made about federal government funding for academic granting councils.

“It appears that as far as Goodyear is concerned, those decisions can be questioned when a granting council supports something he disagrees with politically, and that is not acceptable in Canada or anywhere where academic freedom is respected,” he said.

SSHRC issued a written statement saying the “internal e-mail regarding comments by the Minister’s Chief of Staff is inaccurate” after the e-mail was made public.

Goodyear pointed to the SSHRC statement when questioned about the e-mail in the House of Commons Sept. 29.

Asked by Marc Garneau, the opposition Liberal Party’s science and technology critic, about “the use of pressure tactics by one of the minister’s officials against an arm’s-length academic research council,” Goodyear responded that “the Member will be happy to know that the social sciences council has clearly stated that e-mail is inaccurate.”

When contacted by Le Devoir newspaper, SSHRC’s communications manager refused to comment further in what way the e-mail describing Welford’s comment was inaccurate, or why a mistake like this would be made in an internal e-mail. Asked by Le Devoir if he often attributes false comments to the minister in communications to his superior at SSHRC, and why, if what he’d written was inaccurate, he would have suggested that his boss, Chad Gaffield, call Welford directly, Lynn would only say repeatedly that he was sorry but could not say more.

“Lynn should not be taking the fall for Goodyear,” Turk said. “It’s the minister who should be doing the explaining, and he is clearly pointing fingers elsewhere because there is no acceptable explanation for what happened.

“It’s time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to demonstrate his respect for academic freedom in Canada by asking for Goodyear’s resignation.”

CAUT has sent the e-mail and hundreds more pages of documents obtained through its access to information request to the head of an independent inquiry it commissioned to investigate issues surrounding the York conference.

Jon Thompson, professor emeritus at the University of New Brunswick and one of Canada’s leading authorities on academic freedom, was asked in September to conduct the inquiry. Thompson is soliciting submissions from Industry Canada, SSHRC, administrators from the sponsoring universities, conference organizers and participants, faculty, students and any other interested parties in order to examine issues arising from the conference related to academic freedom, the role of federal granting councils and the responsibilities of members of academic communities for protecting the discussion of controversial issues on university and college campuses.

Thompson is expected to report by the end of November.