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The Jackman Law Building, which also houses the Laskin Law Library, makes up part of the Faculty of Law campus at the University of Toronto. The university is returning a US$450,000 gift from Amazon after the donation was used to support an anti-trust-related webinar.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

The University of Toronto’s law school is returning a US$450,000 gift from retail giant Amazon and updating its disclosure guidelines, after facing criticism for a lack of transparency around the donation, which was used to support an anti-trust-related webinar.

“We acknowledge the important questions raised about the lack of full transparency pertaining to the gift, and the perception of external influence on our academic activities,” faculty of law dean Jutta Brunnée wrote in a public statement posted Tuesday night.

“For that reason, I have decided, together with President [Meric] Gertler, to return the gift to Amazon.”

The donation was first reported by news outlet The Logic on Aug. 15, after it obtained documents about the transaction through an information request. According to The Logic, Amazon donated US$450,000 ($600,000), part of which funded a series of webinars on competition and anti-trust issues – with the Seattle-based company having some say in which academics were selected to participate. Despite Amazon’s involvement, the funding source was not publicly disclosed.

The news has sparked a firestorm amongst academics, with multiple associations expressing concerns about the donation’s impact on academic integrity, at a time when the federal government is considering major changes to competition law within the online marketplace.

In a letter last Thursday to Mr. Gertler, David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers said he was “perplexed about how the Amazon donation could have been accepted by the university” given a number of policies the university has concerning corporate donations and academic integrity. CAUT calls itself a national voice for 72,000 teachers, librarians, and other staff at 125 universities and colleges across the country.

“A failure to disclose that Amazon not only sponsored but also selected seminar speakers would constitute a serious violation of basic standards of academic integrity and academic freedom. Disclosure of financial interests and funding sources is a fundamental requirement of all academic research,” Mr. Robinson says in his letter, which was shared with The Globe and Mail.

In an e-mail response to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Brunnée said “all decisions on academic matters pertaining to the gift were made by academic leads, in alignment with approved academic priorities.”

Later Tuesday evening, the university posted a new statement from Ms. Brunnée, which said that the donation did adhere to policies on donations, and was disclosed in a quarterly board report in March, 2022. Her statement did not say whether that report was a public document.

Ms. Brunnée had said in a previous statement that the gift had so far “supported stipends for six student research assistants; venue, travel-related and hospitality expenses for events; and communications costs. It has also supported a staff position to coordinate, among other things, an online speaker series.”

She also said previously that while the donor “did not seek recognition,” it was her decision not to reveal the funding source, “because fostering open discussion and debate that reflects the full range of perspectives in the field was my top priority.”

She added: “I recognize now that more information may have been preferred to enable some of our participants and invited speakers to fully evaluate their engagement in these activities.”

In an e-mail Tuesday, Amazon spokesperson Julia Lawless said that “like many other companies with significant investments and job creation in Canada, we contribute to policy dialogues on a wide range of topics, and we always respect the independence of our partners.” She added that the disclosure of charitable gifts is typically left to the discretion of partners.

Mr. Robinson said in an interview Tuesday that university policy requires disclosure of donations above $250,000, but Amazon’s gift was reviewed in camera, or in private, by an academic board. That’s not sufficient for the broader academic community, he said.

“There’s a lot of funny business that’s gone on here, and I think it’s really incumbent upon the university to come up with a clear statement and clarify everything that’s happened,” Mr. Robinson said.

In addition to returning the gift, Ms. Brunnée said the university “will immediately introduce a new guideline to ensure that in the future, all philanthropic donations from corporations will be publicly disclosed.”

“The university is also commissioning an independent survey of best practices among postsecondary institutions with respect to recognition and disclosure of corporate giving. We will use the findings to inform future decision-making and potential updates to our faculty’s gift acceptance policies.”

CAUT’s concerns were echoed in a similar letter posted online Monday by the University of Toronto Faculty Association.

“These are very concerning allegations about decisions at the University of Toronto, which, if true, threaten to undermine academic and public trust in our institution and in the integrity of its members,” says the letter, co-signed by Jeff Bale, UTFA vice-president, university and external affairs, and Terezia Zorić, UTFA president.

They wrote that they have contacted the university’s provost “requesting an urgent meeting to hear more about this situation.”

Mr. Robinson said Tuesday that he hopes that the university’s action will go further than an internal review: “I think just because everything seems so tainted right now. I think an independent assessment will be more appropriate.”

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