Confidence Game: Conflict-of-Interest, Confidentiality Clauses, and Our Public Universities

Three public cases in the Canadian academy over the last year and a half make it clear that we need radical change in how Canada’s universities are run.

The most recent of these cases came to public attention last Monday morning, when the CBC broke the news that Elizabeth Cannon appears to have been conducting herself in ways that put her in a conflict-of-interest with the public trust reposed in her as President of the University of Calgary. Working with documents that he had obtained under a freedom of information request, Kyle Bakx of the CBC reports that email communications at the University of Calgary strongly suggest that Cannon was requiring academic staff at the University of Calgary to take decisions based upon their sense of the oil company Enbridge’s importance as a donor to the University. Or, as Bakx more bluntly puts it, the documents show the university “bending over backward to accommodate the apparent public relations ambitions of a corporate patron.” In Bakx’s report, one faculty member expresses his concern that the situation at the University of Calgary “smacks of us being apologists for the fossil fuel industry.”

Academic freedom is at stake here. No academic researcher should have to take any decision whatsoever in relation to what a donor to his or her university desires. Any funds directed by an individual or a corporation to one of Canada’s public universities must come with absolutely no strings attached. This is essential to ensuring the public’s confidence, as Premier Rachel Notley has noted, in the academic integrity and academic independence of Alberta’s universities. No academic work in the public interest must in any way be influenced by what any one individual or any given corporation wants of it. As David Keith, Professor of Applied Physics and Public Policy at Harvard, claimed later on Monday, in remarks at the first night of the Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta’s inaugural Academic Freedom Week, it is clear that the University of Calgary has a very weak culture for defending faculty on conflict-of-interest funding issues, but the entire postsecondary education system in Alberta, he suggested, needs to develop a managerial culture that is less provincial. And as David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), noted at the same event, it is not surprising that a corporate donor to a university would try to exert control over the university through its funding. What is shocking: that any university would allow it. 

The specific question that needs to be asked: how was it possible for anyone at the University of Calgary to imagine that it was acceptable for Elizabeth Cannon, as the University of Calgary’s President, ever also to sit on any board at Enbridge? And receive for her presence there the sum of $130,000 annually? Whatever we may individually think about the amounts currently being paid to university presidents in Canada, surely we should all be able to have the confidence that university presidents receive their handsome compensation packages in order to be free to devote themselves entirely to the public work and public interests of the university over which they are presiding. The money paid them from the public coffers should preclude their playing any other executive role, and they should certainly not be playing any executive role for a private corporation. If a university president wishes to give some of her extracurricular time to a non-profit organization that is her (generous) choice. But it should go without saying that to agree to take additional compensation from any other source when in office as president should be strictly off-limits. The very fact that any university could sit by and be content for its president to sit on a private corporation’s board suggests our universities have been infiltrated by Volkswagen ethics.

From Bakx we learn that Cannon takes the position that as there was no formal complaint from any member of the University of Calgary community about what has been transpiring there over the last several years the public is not to be concerned. But what is the prevailing culture at the University of Calgary if its Administration and Board are content to lose star academics such as Joe Avrai and David Keith rather than address the conflict-of-interest concerns they raise? And what do the absence of formal complaint at the University and the President’s reliance upon that absence by way of defense tell us?

The overarching problem has, of course, been much analyzed in terms of the corporatization of the academy. As Thomas Docherty, professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, noted in a roundtable conversation at the University of Alberta’s Faculty Club on Friday, there is an absurdity to this corporatization. Why have business models that have so disastrously failed, most obviously in the conduct of banks and financial corporations that brought about the 2008 financial crisis, been imported to a domain that was otherwise healthy — a domain that has only been made to struggle in the face of a “vampiric” immiseration of the public sector brought about by the collusion of private corporations with government in arrangements (over matters such as low royalty payments for the extraction of material resources) that leave much wealth in private hands at the expense of public wealth? Docherty cited George Soros, one of the world’s wealthiest men, on the issue: the close and comfortable relationship of government and corporations at the expense of the public interest is nothing other than “fascism.”*

The larger geopolitical game, a dark one, appears to be playing out at our public universities as a confidence game in which not only academic researchers but academic administrators find themselves silenced not simply by the demands of corporate donors attempting to use to their advantage the immiseration of the public sector that they themselves have helped to produce by dictating that their money — money wrested from public resources! — should be used to produce outcomes they desire, but also by the importation of various aspects of corporate culture to the university. This includes the importation of the instrument of the confidentiality clause. This corporate beast has been at work producing baleful outcomes elsewhere, such as at the University of British Columbia where, this past summer, the strange resignation of its president, Arvind Gupta, after a mere year in office was claimed as a matter about which the university’s administration could say nothing. Gupta, it was said, had signed a confidentiality clause which purportedly bound both parties to silence. This did not, however, keep senior members of the UBC administration from speaking anonymously to the Globe and Mail on their views of Gupta’s presidency. Such conduct is injurious to Arvind Gupta. But it is also injurious to the public when it cannot know what drove someone to leave a top public job such as the UBC presidency.

The culture of the confidentiality clause raised an ugly head too the year before when the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan was summarily fired by the Provost, Brett Fairbairn, when he released to the press a document entitled “the Silence of the Deans” which revealed that the deans there were told that if they publicly expressed their concerns about a program prioritization process underway at Saskatchewan known as TransformUS, their “tenure would be short.” Fairbairn, whose letter firing Buckingham accused him of “insubordination,” cited as the basis of his action Buckingham’s supposed breach of a confidentiality clause that he had signed when taking the position of Dean. The idea that any such confidentiality clause could keep Buckingham as Dean from exercising his rights to either intramural or extramural critique contradicts the principles of academic freedom as set out by the Canadian Association of University Teachers in its 2010 statement, “Academic Freedom for Academic Administrators,” which declares that

Where a decision has been achieved by consensus, by majority vote, or through the exercise of legitimate authority, that fact does not constrain members of the academic staff, including those holding administrative appointments, from exercising their academic freedom by criticizing the decision. 

In my view, as I noted in the Q&A after Robert Buckingham’s talk Tuesday night at AASUA’s Academic Freedom Week, no administrator at any of Canada’s universities should be signing a confidentiality clause that keeps them from being able to disclose to the public any concern about how our public universities are run. 

The culture of secrecy at our public universities must end. And if we (sadly) cannot count on university presidents to exercise sound ethical sense in their own relationships with corporations, then we need to legislate restraints on their activities.

We also need to change the practices by which university presidents are chosen. The current corporate-influenced vogue is for presidents to be hired in secretive processes run by head-hunting firms that refuse the possibility of there being any public aspect to the process. Why, for example, shouldn’t the short-listed candidates for a university presidency be asked to give public talks? No professor can be hired at a university without giving a public talk. Why then would a public talk not be required of those applying to fill a university’s top job? We are told good candidates would not come forward unless they were assured that the process for selecting them was entirely confidential. I submit that public universities should want to hire as president only candidates eager to give a talk for the university in which they declare what they intend to bring to and do for the public institution that they propose to lead. Such a requirement would in and of itself take us a long way to ensuring that those being chosen for the top job will act for the public interest rather than for private gain precisely because they will be chosen by the methods of democracy rather than by the methods of corporations. We might also then have genuine confidence that those leading our universities are acting for the public interest even when they are taking decisions behind closed doors.

Kudos to Kyle Bakx. We need more journalistic work that exposes the cultures of secrecy shaping our democracies.

* On this point, see also Thomas Docherty’s book Universities at War (Sage Swifts, 2014). For members of the University of Alberta community Docherty’s book is available electronically through the library website.


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8 Responses to Confidence Game: Conflict-of-Interest, Confidentiality Clauses, and Our Public Universities

  1. Laurie Adkin says:

    This is a brilliant synthesis of the issues, Carolyn. Brock University faculty have come to the same decision about the necessity of open presidential searches:

  2. Ghoussoub says:

    Reblogged this on Piece of Mind and commented:
    What happened at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Calgary over the last year and a half make it clear that we need radical change in how Canada’s universities are run. The culture of secrecy at our public universities must end.

  3. Excellent post. I support the suggestion that a university president should be precluded from sitting on the board of directors of any private sector company. Given that Universities Canada recently published five principles aimed at forging closer links to industry and increasing collaboration with the private sector and given that the new chair of Universities Canada, Ms Cannon, is apparently unable to recognize a conflict of interest when it’s staring her in the face, this is the only way to ensure that she and others like her don’t lose sight of whose interests they’re trying to further.

  4. hyl (@H_Y_L) says:

    I have no problem with the idea that University president should have conflict of interest constraints against corporate board involvement, but excellent as this piece is, I think there is a missing element. University presidents are hired, in part, for their reputation and are expected to translate that reputation into opportunities for the university. Serving on Boards has been constructed as the kind of valuable service that puts advanced education thinking into a corporation’s or organization’s zeitgeist, while simultaneously bringing those institutions’ experiences in ‘real world’ issues, and beneficence (donations, partnerships) back to the university. In the context of decreasing public shareholding of post-secondary educational institutions, a university president’s position has expanded to include fund-raising, in much the same way that political leaders -from municipal mayors to prime ministers- have come to be expected on trade delegations. University presidents are expected to exploit their reputation and perhaps professional expertise -essentially to prostitute their personal cachet- for the fiscal benefit of the university. That their service on a Board is compensated in the same way that the other Board members’ is, could be seen as equal pay for equal work.

    So, until there is a shift in public attitude away from thinking that universities should not be financed by public dollars, what would precluding university presidents from corporate Board service produce? Sure, the Elizabeth Cannons, Indira Samasekeras and other members of the University Presidents’ Club would see their annual income reduced, but would that make them more effective lobbyists for a change in the funding of universities? As I seebit, it’s the job description that needs changing.

  5. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    A wonderful post and analysis. A small point just occurred to me about public searches for university presidents and other highly-placed administrators, which you so rightly contrast to the manner in which faculty are hired. We hear continually that our senior administrators are so lavishly compensated because competition for their talents is fierce. Why would it not be a point of pride for them to nail to their mastheads the number of competitive searches by which they are recruited, ferociously, such that they can hardly poke their clever heads above the parapets of their current lucky institutions? At the end of the year they could report to us about the number of talks they were prevailed upon to give by other institutions that lured them with huge salary packages. That’s how it works for academics, after all — nothing is more of a status-builder than counter-offers from other institutions.

    I don’t suppose it could be that part of the logic of secrecy is that hard evidence for these putative showers of counter-offers can’t in fact actually be produced by most highly compensated senior admins.

  6. Joanna says:

    I agree with the thrust of your article, but have issues with the last point. It is true that professors give a public talk before being hired; it is also true, however, that this talk is, in the case of senior hires, often not advertised as being a ‘job talk’, since senior candidates often don’t want their current institutions to know that they are looking for another job. I don’t think you can hire a university president in a same way that you hire an assistant professor.

    • Michael Hynes says:

      Don’t know how it is in other universities, but our 4 most recent decanal searches in Calgary (faculty of Science) DID involve the short-listed candidates making a public presentation, and a fair number of those involved external candidates. So if it can be done for Deans, why not for VPs and presidents as well ? The same has been true of our searches for department heads.

  7. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    You are right that senior job talks are not called job talks, but this is in my experience face-saving for the candidate and not about what the candidate’s home institution would think. For senior people it usually is not about “looking for another job”, it’s about being recruited. Not calling those job talks job talks is about plausible deniability — “we’d love to hear more about your work on x, so interesting” and then if the whole thing is a disaster, or another crypto-candidate works out better, or if the visitor is toying with the attentions of the inviting institution in order to leverage better pay back home — no one has to publicly say anything other than “what a treat it was to hear about your work / what a treat it was to visit your department”. Since people are going to keep seeing each other professionally at conferences etc. this just makes social etiquette sense. But at the same time, everyone also *knows* that a senior person who gets invited to give lots of talks at other institutions is a catch, in fact senior people who possess it don’t at all try to keep this kind of cachet secret because everyone knows most senior people don’t share in it, and the publicness of officially non job talk job talks is an important part of the process — the inviting community can go and check the person out and then talk about them afterward and express “wow wouldn’t it be great to have them as a colleague” or “yikes!”. This is very, very, very different from the current culture of hiring senior admins using highly paid consulting firms and a process that is aggressively secretive — paired with a lot of public talk about how hard it is to find good people and declaring senior admin are *so* highly paid because it is a *really* competitive market (the evidence for which competitiveness and sought-afterness no one is permitted to examine for themselves).

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