On the dark side of philanthropy

“We are deeply disappointed that Janis Sarra has had to step down as Director of the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies… Like her, we will all work to secure the academic independence of the Institute and its programs, and to reform its governance.” This open letter signed by 16 UBC distinguished scholars –associated in one way or another with the Peter Wall Institute– took many by surprise. The consensus on campus is that the relatively newly appointed Director has been doing a good job.

I surely don’t have the time to play the investigative journalist, but anyone who has heard this recent podcast by the CBC, or read the book The Trouble with Billionaires by Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks, would certainly wonder. Is it Western Canada’s turn to write its own chapter on the uneasy ties between Canada’s universities and wealthy business magnates?

Debates about such tensions are as old as the concept of philanthropy itself. So far, all the tales have been originating from either south of the border or from Central Canada. The most recent stories being U. Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, and Jim Balsillie’s School of International Affairs at Waterloo’s two universities. There is also Balsillie’s dealings with York University to create a School of International Law. And here is a particularly disconcerting one, courtesy of the German university system.

Cash-starved universities are often led to solicit private donations in order to jumpstart institutes, establish schools, or initiate academic programs. Philanthropic giving has been an integral part of the success story that North America’s university system embodies. It has been instrumental to their meteoric rise and expansion in the 20th century. The names of John D. Rockefeller, Henri Ford, Andrew Carnegie, William Hearst and others adorn buildings, libraries and research facilities throughout many prestigious US campuses.

In principle, universities have strict policies that limit donors’ influence over the use of their gifts, and over the choice of scholars to fill chairs and directorships.  After all, the role and the responsibility of university faculty to make academic decisions for programs and personnel without outside interference is considered a hallmark of academic freedom.

It so happens that donations are sometimes accepted without adhering to proper governance structures that allow them to protect their autonomy, their independent scholarly mandate, and their academic integrity. Donors, especially those “of the visionary type”, are then able to control, micromanage, and sidestep normal academic processes for structuring programs, selecting affiliated scholars, or recruiting (and dismissing) directors.

Interventionism and control can take various forms. According to Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks, the donations in the case of the Munk school are to be paid in installments over an extended time period. So, at least on paper, Munk retains influence over the school’s direction simply by being able to withhold money if he doesn’t find the school’s programs satisfactory.

In the case of the School of International Law at York University, a five-member steering committee comprised of two members from Mr. Balsillie’s think-tank CIGI (Centre for International Governance Innovation), two from York and the executive director of the program, oversee the 10 research chairs. Among the committee’s responsibilities, “establishing the specific financial terms and expectations for each of the chairs, including their research plans and research support.” Since all decisions made by the committee require unanimous approval, CIGI has de-facto veto power over research directions and programs.

Whether the governance of UBC’s Wall institute is suffering from similar ailments needs to be probed and discussed. We should all join our 16 colleagues and support the effort “to secure the academic independence of the Institute and its programs, and to reform its governance.” 

Echoing the CAUT’s report on the dismissal of Dr. Ramesh Thakur, the inaugural director at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, “no amount of money, whether public or private, can guarantee academic excellence unless academic principles and values are well understood and protected.”

This entry was posted in Board of Governors, Op-eds, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On the dark side of philanthropy

  1. Pingback: alQpr » Blog Archive » What’s in a Gift Horse?

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