Academic freedom is a precious thing. The ability to think independently and make judgments that can't be influenced by money or power is an essential public good, and needs to be protected in democratic societies that benefit from disinterested inquiry.
A CBC investigation into the University of Calgary's relationship with Enbridge Inc., the Alberta-based pipeline company, has highlighted the issue of how far private sponsors want to influence university research centres they are increasingly funding.
In March, 2012, the university established the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability. Enbridge promised $2.25-million to fund the centre, described at the time as "a neutral platform for education and research aimed at enhancing corporate practices that advance the care of people, the planet and the economy."
But the CBC examination of e-mails written by academic personnel shows their concern that the company's clout could compromise the centre's independence in areas of staffing, student awards and board memberships. More broadly, professors worried that the university was becoming too closely identified with the values of the oil industry.
A former director of the centre conveyed his view that "Enbridge sees the centre as a PR machine for themselves."
Enbridge denies it tried to influence the institution's operations. Its name has since been dropped from the centre's title, and the company has reduced its donation by $1-million.
The University of Calgary's track record in this area is hardly pristine. The university eagerly partnered in the failed Canada School of Energy and the Environment, a think-tank run by Conservative adviser Bruce Carson and widely seen as a front for the oil-sands lobby.
In a province where the energy industry is so dominant, academic leaders must continue to assert the principles of independence even as they court donors. That could be problematic at the University of Calgary, because the university's president, Elizabeth Cannon, is also a director of Enbridge's income fund, for which she was paid $130,500 last year. This kind of balancing act may not be unusual among Canadian university presidents, hired for their contacts and fundraising abilities. But the appearance of conflict still needs to be subjected to close scrutiny.
For now, Premier Rachel Notley has left the response to the CBC investigation in the hands of the university's board of governors. But speaking of independence, it is worth noting that the chairman of the board is a former vice-president at – small world! – Enbridge.