Ontario's universities are trying to assemble a toolkit to help their leaders navigate the delicate, sometimes controversial funding deals they broker with wealthy private donors.
The Council of Ontario Universities will launch a working group of senior administrators to explore the best ways to protect academic freedom and help donors understand it, an idea with increasing urgency as private funding proliferates and the terms of giving undergo a noticeable transformation.
The new effort begins in the wake of fierce debates over the parameters of several major private donations to universities, one of which has led Carleton University to try renegotiating a contract some saw as undermining its academic independence.
"We are seeing a small but perceptible shift in the zeitgeist of philanthropy, and with it, changes in the structures of arrangements," said University of Toronto president David Naylor, who is leading a $2-billion fundraising campaign. "I think the electricity you're seeing is because some of these wires are crossed, and people are trying to figure out where the insulation tape needs to be applied."
The absence of clear rules is apparent in a 2010 donor agreement whereby oil magnate Clayton Riddell pledged $15-million to Carleton to start a new political management program. It established a five-member steering committee – two appointed by Mr. Riddell's charitable foundation, two by the university, and one jointly selected – with power to "approve the budget, the selection of adjunct faculty and staff, including the Executive Director and to participate in the faculty hiring decisions."
The Canadian Association of University Teachers was quick to condemn the terms. "As soon as the public sees that places in universities can be bought, or that influence can be purchased, then the public would rightly question what's different about a university than anyone else," said CAUT executive director Jim Turk.
The CAUT has been similarly critical of two other recent partnerships: the Balsillie School of International Affairs, jointly launched four years ago by the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a private think tank founded by wireless magnate Jim Balsillie; and a proposed venture between York University and CIGI that was scuttled before it started.
But even Thomas Homer-Dixon, a vocal defender of the Balsillie School, called Carleton's agreement inappropriate.
"You don't want the donor influencing the hiring process," said Dr. Homer-Dixon, the Balsillie School's CIGI chair in global systems.
Carleton fought a request from The Canadian Press to release the donor contract under freedom of information laws for nearly a year, but relented on June 29. This week, the school issued a statement saying the agreement "did not fully reflect Carleton's policies and procedures" on budget management and staff selection, promising to "rework the provisions in collaboration with the donor."
But Carleton has no plans to review another clause Dr. Homer-Dixon thinks is "out of bounds," which makes $9-million of the $15-million contingent on a review of the program's performance by Mr. Riddell's foundation after five years.
Universities' shifting attitudes toward donor input come at a time of enormous financial pressures, as government grants and escalating tuition fees fail to keep pace with rising costs and enrolments.
With industry ever more eager to leverage universities' talent, and philanthropists prioritizing social innovation, universities see real potential for transformative collaborations that do not fit the traditional public-private moulds. But the devil resides in each agreement's details – wrinkles the COU's working group hopes to help smooth.