With Canadian post-secondary institutions increasingly strapped for cash, it's heartening that an affluent businessman like oil magnate and Calgary Flames co-owner Clayton Riddell donated $15-million over 10 years to seed a master's level program in political administration at Ottawa's Carleton University. The program, announced in 2010 and bearing Mr. Riddell's name, completed its inaugural year this spring.
However, the integrity of the program, and academic independence in general, were called into question this week by Carleton itself when it announced it would be "reworking the provisions" of the donation with the Riddell Family Charitable Foundation.
The donor deal, Carleton announced, "did not fully reflect [the university's] policies" with respect to budget management and staff selection – a reference to it allowing the foundation to effectively name three of the five members of the program's powerful steering committee.
The committee's chair is currently Preston Manning, a friend of Mr. Riddell's, founder of the Reform party and president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, whose self-described mission is "to identify, develop and support political entrepreneurs who can advance … a free and democratic Canada guided by conservative principles." The other Riddell representatives are Cliff Fryers, director and chair of the Manning Centre, and Chris Froggatt, former chief of staff to Conservative cabinet minister John Baird.
Carleton's conclusion that something perhaps was amiss seems not to have come of its own accord, but largely from pressure from The Canadian Press (which long pressed for details of the agreement) and Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner (who in March secured the release of a heavily edited version of the deal).
Few would deny that a donor to a university should have some say in the conditions of his gift. But whatever its financial distress, a publicly funded university can't abandon or delegate its authority on matters of curriculum, staff and faculty hires, annual budgets and other responsibilities.
Concerns have recently been raised about curriculum and freedom of discourse in the dozen Beijing-financed Confucius Institutes operating in Canadian universities. As Carleton illustrated, the dangers – however unintentional – can also come from within.