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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2014

Universities wide open for business

By Wayne Peters
Our universities are forfeiting their integrity and undercutting core academic principles of autonomy and academic freedom through their collaborations with governments, industry and private donors. This is the bleak conclusion drawn by CAUT’s recent report, Open for Business: On What Terms?

The report examines 12 collaboration agreements established to create research and teaching programs to determine the extent to which they protect these fundamental principles of the academy. Sadly, only a few got it right. The results paint a disturbing picture. In many cases, academic freedom is not protected, publication rights are excessively restricted, control over academic matters is relinquished, and conflicts of interest are not required to be disclosed. In the majority of these collaborations, the relevant documents were never released to the university community, or the broader public, and the decisions to enter into them in the first place were made without the approval of the institution’s academic community and governing academic bodies.

Universities are seen to be positive forces for social good. By creating and transmitting knowledge, they advance our social, cultural, political and economic interests. They promote a well-educated and independent-thinking citizenry which, in turn, contributes to the creation and maintenance of democratic civil societies.

Institutional autonomy and academic freedom are core principles on which the inte­grity of our public post-secondary institutions depends. Institutions must be free from external influences to set their academic directions. Additionally, they must ensure the freedom for individual academic staff to establish their own directions for teaching, research and scholarship. Fundamentally, the strength of a university’s integrity is a reflection of its conviction to safeguard these central principles.

Of course, there is a long history of attempts by political, religious, corporate or other special interests to influence higher education in its decisions, teachings, research and scholarly inquiries. Unfortunately there is also a like history of institutions that have inappropriately, and often willingly, complied. The result is always an erosion of institutional autonomy and academic freedom and an irreparable harm to institutional integrity and the public trust on which the academy depends.

As Open for Business suggests, there has been an increased interest from government, industry and private donors to partner with universities to create and fund research program or teaching program collaborations. Driven by a chronic public underfunding of the post-secondary education system in Canada, many of our university administrators welcome such relationships as readily available means to offset the public funding shortfall.

CAUT, with the support of our member associations, has intervened at several Canadian universities in recent years where it identified such collaborations as being problematic for institutional autonomy and academic freedom. A dramatic case was at York University where Jim Balsillie, through the Centre for International Governance Innovation — a private think tank he founded, wanted to launch a $30-million program in international law in conjunction with Osgoode Hall Law School. But opposition by faculty in the law school and the wider university ultimately led to York’s decision not to pursue the partnership.

Of the 12 collaborations considered in CAUT’s report, seven are industry-funded research initiatives carried out by the university while five are teaching program initiatives funded in part by wealthy donors and/or corporations. For instance, the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta is a research initiative funded primarily by Imperial Oil and the Province of Alberta at more than $10 million over five years. The funding agreement gives control over areas of research and the direction of the centre to external funders. It specifically states that the centre “will focus on areas of strategic interest to Imperial Oil.” There is no reference to the protection of academic freedom nor is there any provision for an independent and impartial peer review system for the awarding of funding.

Of course, the concerns raised by CAUT’s report are not directed at collaborations per se. University collaborations with third parties can be useful mechanisms for advancing teaching, research and scholarly work. That industry partners or private donors might want their interests served in the process should come as no surprise. What is surprising is that the administrations of so many universities would fail to protect the fundamental academic principles of institutional autonomy and acade­mic freedom when they entered into these collaborations.

In addition to drawing attention to such collaborations, Open for Business includes an appendix citing various principles to protect academic integrity and the public interest that ought to form the basis of any agreement. The principles were developed and approved by CAUT Council in April 2012. Broadly, these principles call for the protection of academic integrity, academic freedom and institutional autonomy; a commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas; the protection against conflicts of interest; an assurance of transparency; and a central role for academic staff in decision making.

CAUT believes university collaborations must be negotiated in an open and transparent manner and that they ought to protect the very ideals that underpin a university’s reputation and its public credibility. In our administrators’ failure to do so, our institutions will become less vital and relevant to society and will fail in their missions to advance the social good.