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CAUT Bulletin Archives

May 2011

Collaborations: Are Universities Sacrificing Integrity?

By Penni Stewart
The political scandal about Bruce Carson, the prime ministerial advisor-turned lobbyist whose activities are making front page news, obscures a more insidious role he has been playing as what Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada calls “the political quarterback for the joint government/industry pro-tar sands campaign.” It is this role and especially Alberta universities’ ties to big oil and government in this industry campaign that raise alarm bells.

In 2007, Harper’s Conservative government awarded $15 million to the Canada School of Energy and Environment, a “centre of research excellence and commercialization.” The centre is a tri-party collaboration between the Universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge, whose original mandate was to coordinate and support research and commercialization in energy and environment through institutes established at each university.

Today, according to the school’s website, the mandate includes advising industry, academia and government “to facilitate the development of sound regulations and appropriate legislation to deal with energy development, and protection and enhancement of our environment…” and coordinating “research and academic programming in energy and environment at the three partner universities in Alberta…”

Although ostensibly an academic research centre, the CSEE’s executive director — Carson, who left the Prime Minister’s Office in 2008 to take up the post — is a political appointee. A longtime political strategist in the Harper administration, Carson was named by Maclean’s magazine in 2008 as an “indispensable PMO figure” who “fills in as chief of staff.”

A recent report in the independent online magazine The Tyee describes Carson’s linkage “between the Prime Minister’s Office and major oil sands players.” CSEE deputy director Zoe Addington was most recently director of policy for Industry Minister Tony Clement.

A six-person board of directors, chaired by Brian Heidecker, oversees the CSEE. Heidecker is also chair of the University of Alberta board of governors. The CSEE board includes the presidents of the Universities of Calgary, Lethbridge and Alberta, and curiously, Robert Turner, currently chair of the University of Lethbridge board of governors and vice chair and partner at law firm Fraser Milner Casgrain, and Douglas Black, another vice chair and senior counsel at the same firm, who also sits on the board of governors at the University of Calgary. Black is also the founding president of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, whose membership features a veritable who’s who of big oil and gas and is partnered with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Coincidentally, Carson, who has taken leave from all of his positions, had also served as a vice chair of the Energy Policy Institute. At the CSEE, Carson “worked hand in glove with the oil industry to advance their political agenda. This included organizing a set of ‘dialogues’ on the oil sands on behalf of CSEE and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers,” Greenpeace’s Stewart alleges.

Of course, this is all about tar sands development and Canada’s energy strategy. Writing in the February 2011 edition of Policy Options, Carson concludes: “The prospect of oil sands development driving scientific research and technological innovations will, if successful, provide Canada with a platform to export our experience and new technology to the developing world. This is where the markets will be for Canadian products, if we take advantage through oil sands research to move to a greener economy.”

There is nothing surprising in the Harper Government pursuing development of the oil sands as a national energy strategy. The issue is the role of the CSEE and the academy as part of this strategy.

In a recent study, Jennifer Washburn of the Center for American Progress found the energy industry eager to collaborate with universities in financing support for “green” research to project an image of the industry as concerned about thorny issues like climate change or environmental damage. But the highest proportion of industry spending continues to be directed toward gas and oil extraction.

Governance of the CSEE raises important questions for the academic community. Why are the presidents and board members of Alberta’s three largest universities so engaged in this enterprise? When we don’t have an arms-length approach to political decision-makers, how can we serve the public interest?

The CSEE passes none of the tests of collegial governance and transparency. And the school’s activities, according to their website, appear to consist mainly of developing government-industry links with little academic input. How do we maintain our academic independence and ensure there is a free and open exchange of ideas in the face of such a seamless corporate/ state alliance?

The question of how to protect academic autonomy and integrity from corporate and state incursions is pressing. Worldwide, corporations representing big agriculture, pharma and energy are increasingly entering into agreements with universities and colleges eager to find new sources of funding to support research and academic programs. We must find ways to ensure academic missions, public-interest obligations and institutional commitments to academic freedom are protected. CAUT is working in collaboration with the American Association of University Professors to establish guiding principles for such campus alliances. These will be of vital importance in the coming years.