In Calgary, a lot of people see the energy industry and universities as natural partners.
After all, Calgary is a proud oil town. The city's website on economic development boasts that the city is home to all of the country's major oil company headquarters and has the highest head office concentration of any city in Canada. It's a city where "decisions are made and deals are brokered."
But when it comes to the city's higher education, the enthusiasm for the industry coming from its largest university has prompted some uncomfortable questions. Is the University of Calgary in bed with the oil industry or do any of its relationships compromise academic freedom?
The university has generally brushed off these questions, suggesting that some controversies it had in the past were isolated incidents or taken out of context. But with at least one independent investigation underway into allegations of academic meddling, the institution's reputation is hanging in the balance.
A probe, launched by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), is focusing on the university's relationship with pipeline company Enbridge, and allegations of conflict of interest and academic meddling that surrounded their partnership. The university has denied anything inappropriate took place, and the company has also denied allegations of corporate interference. But this case follows other controversies:
- In 2007, the university shut down a pair of research accounts when an audit concluded they were being used for partisan purposes by climate change doubters at an organization called the Friends of Science, with significant funding from a fossil fuel company, Talisman Energy.
- In 2013, the association of university teachers released a report following an investigation of partnerships between corporate donors and a dozen universities. It found that the University of Calgary, through multiple research agreements, allowed oil companies like Nexen, Royal Dutch Shell and Husky Energy to dictate how funding they provided was spent. The report concluded that these arrangements had compromised the university's academic integrity.
- In 2014, a "think tank" housed out of the University of Calgary that was doing advocacy work to promote the oil and gas companies, wound down its operations in the midst of a police investigation looking into what it did with millions of dollars in federal and provincial government funding.
U of C Urban Studies Department Coordinator Byron Miller says ties to industry are the source of the “unspoken, but nonetheless understood sense that we have to be careful about what we [professors] say and do.”
While Miller acknowledges that some faculty feel the chill more strongly than others, CAUT executive director David Robinson said he had received enough evidence of conflict of interest and suppression of academic freedom to launch an investigation.
A campus in the heart of the oilpatch
The University of Calgary campus is largely reflective of the city's downtown core. You can walk from a Petro-Canada-branded engineering building to a learning centre built with funding from oil and gas philanthropist Don Taylor in under the same amount of time you can from Enbridge's corporate headquarters to Suncor's downtown.
And although times have been tough for business in recent years due to falling global oil prices, there are over 1,500 energy companies in Calgary — Cenovus, Enbridge, and Suncor among them. The city's ever-growing skyline is dominated by skyscrapers housing oil companies and the law firms and financial brokers integral to their practice.
“[Calgary] is where the money is. It’s where the players are,” former research manager at the Parkland Institute Regan Boychuk said. “It’s only natural that this would be the first point of contact for such initiatives. The school has obviously made it clear over the years that it’s quite receptive to these sorts of initiatives by the oil patch.”
Boychuk said that oil companies want to be associated with academic institutions such as universities to boost their reputations. He cited polling from the U of C’s School of Public Policy (SPP) that showed “oil executives and oil companies have the credibility of used car salesmen.”
But the credibility of an oil executive can magically shoot through the roof if he or she is standing next to an academic.
“People don’t trust what [oil companies] say, so when they want to make their arguments they have a much better chance [to be taken seriously by] supporting universities and think-tanks. They fund think-tanks and university research to have academics and economists make those arguments,” Boychuk said.
That's what the university teachers association has been investigating.
University of Calgary and Enbridge: friends with benefits?
CAUT's probe is focusing on the university's Centre for Corporate Sustainability, which was previously sponsored by pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. The centre even used to have Enbridge's name in its title before the company shifted some of its funding to the university's School of Public Policy in 2014.
At the time that the centre was being set up, several academics questioned whether Enbridge was trying to use the university's name to boost the company's environmental credentials following the devastating pipeline disaster that released millions of litres of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan in July 2010. Meantime, the University of Calgary's president, Elizabeth Cannon, was sitting as a director of Enbridge Income Fund Holdings, taking home $130,500 in 2015, while making over $600,000 at the university the same year.
To some, her paycheque from Enbridge appeared to put her in a conflict of interest.
Emails released to the CBC through a freedom of information request provide a trail of evidence highlighting the concerns among faculty members. In one email exchange reported by the CBC, former director of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability Joe Arvai told former dean of the Haskayne School of Business, Leonard Waverman, that he was worried about Enbridge's objectives.
"I am not sure what we are signing up for. I have the impression that Enbridge sees the centre as a PR machine for themselves, whereas I see it as an academic research centre," Arvai wrote.
And in a 2011 email sent to Waverman by U of C Professor Harrie Vredenburg, Vredenburg said the name of the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability — which was formerly called the Enbridge Centre for International Resource Industries and Sustainability — “smacks of us being apologists for the fossil fuel industry rather than independent scholars and teachers doing work in a broadly defined area.”
“We built IRIS over 17 years now with strong industry support but without being seen as industry apologists. I’m concerned that we may have stepped over the line,” Vredenburg wrote.
CAUT's Robinson said the evidence warranted a closer look into whether academic freedom was being repressed and whether big oil's influence was at play.
But the university administration refused to meet with the association's investigators and warned its professors of the potential fallbacks if they chose to participate in an April fact-finding visit by CAUT.
Provost Dru Marshall sent an email to faculty at noon on March 18 warning that their identities may not be protected if they spoke to the association's investigators.
"CAUT is an external body that has no official standing on our campus, and is not bound by our policies, including those that protect privacy and confidentiality," Marshall wrote, adding that "Those of you who choose to participate have the right to express your opinions, and your freedom to do so will be respected. You are reminded that your privacy may not be protected by CAUT, and if you provide sensitive or confidential information to CAUT, that confidentiality may not be protected."
The tone of the provost's email made people uncomfortable. Robinson said the notion that CAUT wouldn't respect the privacy of those they interviewed was totally inaccurate, and described the email as “more than a hint that they didn’t want us on their campus.”
Miller, the urban studies department coordinator, said it didn't surprise him. He “just regarded it as what we might expect" because "university administration wants to put this story to rest.”
The university says it isn't under the influence of corporate backers and defends the investments it receives from industry. U of C media relations says corporate funding can "benefit the university without compromising the values of the institution," adding that there are "rigorous standards to ensure research independence and academic freedom."
When the Board of Governors commissioned an investigation into conflict of interest after the CBC exposed the relationship between Enbridge and the university, they cleared President Cannon of any breach of University of Calgary procedures.
Enbridge dismissed the criticism as well. The Calgary-based pipeline company had said the CBC story that revealed Enbridge's involvement in the centre made "unfair and false allegations that Enbridge attempted to influence the centre’s operations and infringed on academic freedom."
When asked for additional comment, Enbridge referred National Observer to their November, 2015 statement on their relationship with the U of C.
Big influence, bought dirt cheap
The Enbridge Centre yielded $2.25-million spread over 10 years, a marginal sum compared to the hundreds of millions the university receives annually.
The University of Calgary’s Development Office — the fundraising arm of the university — generated $218.9-million for the university in 2015, an increase of $71.5-million from the previous year. The U of C hopes to raise $1.3-billion from private donors over the next five years, a goal they’re over halfway to reaching. Robinson said the Development Office has gained a lot of influence within the institution.
But he finds it baffling that the University of Calgary was “so quick to sacrifice their integrity for a relatively small amount of money" from Enbridge.
“They’re given a mandate to get donations and private sector contracts and are often going into territory they shouldn’t be going into,” Robinson said. “Clearly I think in light of constant funding pressures, the allure of private sector funding might be a little seductive. But you have to balance that with the price you’re paying for it.”
When asked to respond to Robinson's statement, the university's media relations team sent National Observer a copy of the Board of Governors' investigation that cleared them of allegations of academic "wrongdoing."
“I really don't feel that I can talk with you about this”
David Keith was once a star professor at U of C but left over big oil's influence on the university. Keith is the former director the U of C’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy (ISEEE), and was involved in the CBC investigation into the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability.
He declined an interview for this story, but has been critical of the U of C’s corporate partnerships in the past.
Speaking about ISEEE, Keith said the university was unable to strike a balance between corporate interests and environmental research. He told the CBC in 2013 that the university removed another academic from ISEEE at the request of pipeline company Enbridge, essentially compromising the academic integrity of an ostensibly academic research institution.
At the time, Keith said that kind of action “fundamentally misconceives the university’s role.”
And, during the 2015 investigation into the Centre for Corporate Sustainability, he said that from his "conversations with many people who were involved, including Joe [Arvai], but several others, and not just conversations, but detailed notes and emails, my understanding is that Joe Arvai was removed as director of the centre before its formation at the specific request of Enbridge."
But Enbridge spokesman Graham White said the company made "no such request," calling it a "misrepresentation that was clarified in our public statement," which reads: "the then director of the Centre advised that due to other affiliations and commitments, he might not be able to fulfill his role. At that time, Enbridge sought assurances from the University that if the director could not fulfill his duties, a search would begin for his replacement."
Keith, who left for Harvard in 2011, told the CBC in 2015 that "I'm not claiming that some good analysis from the U of C would have magically saved the province, but better, more unbiased, more forward-looking analysis could have helped us collectively make better decisions, and we lost that."
Former ISEEE Director and U of C Professor David Layzell “stepped down” from his post in 2012 to “focus on his own research.” When asked for an interview about the University of Calgary’s administrative culture, Layzell said over email that “I really don’t feel that I can talk with you about this.”
He added: “Maybe that says more than us actually talking.”
Layzell is not the only professor who finds it difficult to talk. University of Calgary geography professor Gwendolyn Blue, during an October 2015 interview just weeks before the federal election, said university employees were discouraged from making politicized comments because of “our current political conjuncture.”
And the chill extends well beyond election time. Blue said there's an atmosphere at the U of C that, while difficult to describe, it "prevents a critical commentary, particularly around corporate influence."
"It's hard when you live in a company town to throw stones at the company. There's no easy good guy or bad guy," she said. "It's blurry and it's messy. There's no knight in shining armour who's going to come in on a clean energy horse to save us."
Some professors will only speak on condition of anonymity. One professor at the university told National Observer of feeling "downright scared." The professor described feeling frightened about criticizing aspects of the university’s strategic plan. Having gotten in trouble before, it seemed unwise to risk further discipline, this source said.
Tenured University of Calgary political science Professor Barry Cooper wrote in the Calgary Herald in 2015 that the University of Calgary’s management culture is “deeply flawed,” and pointed to university president Elizabeth Cannon’s role on the board of directors for the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability.
Cooper said that while he didn’t catch any flack from university administration after the Herald published his column, he admitted that his colleagues may not have been so lucky if they were in his shoes. He said “some of his junior colleagues” told him that they aren’t willing to be as critical of the university because they don’t have tenure.
But Cooper said that “the U of C administration doesn’t have such a hot rep anyway.” If they ever tried to “do something [against] exercising what’s essentially freedom of opinion, they would have the full weight of all the people that disagree with them come down on their heads.”
(Coincidentally, Cooper was also the faculty member involved with the climate-doubting Friends of Science, helping the group set up their "research accounts" at the university that were funded in part by Talisman Energy.)
U of C economics professor Trevor Tombe said the university has never tried to sway his research or intimidate him — even when he discusses environmental policy that might be at odds with some of the university’s corporate partners.
“As any institution populated with people will be, there might be cases where someone oversteps where they shouldn't. That doesn’t make it an institutional-level problem, that makes it the mistake of that particular individual,” Tombe said.
Another interview request made by the National Observer to engineering professor Denis Onen was re-routed to University of Calgary communications manager Marina Geronazzo. She also referred to the university's report into the Enbridge Centre that found “no improper conduct by anyone involved in connection with the creation and operation of the centre.”
“We trust this material serves to provide full context and conclusion related to this matter,” her email read.
In another email, she wrote: “Professor Onen has advised he does not feel he is qualified to speak on this.”
“On paper, it looked okay.”
The teachers association has been tracking issues at the Enbridge Centre since at least 2013 when it found that most universities don’t outline protections for academic freedom when they strike deals with industry. At that time, the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability was seen as “one of the better ones.”
“On paper, it looked okay,” Robinson said. “We have to distinguish between what’s on paper and what’s in practice and that maybe the practice in this case wasn’t really reflective of what the agreement actually was.”
In its 2013 report on corporate influence at universities, the university teachers association determined that a different funding deal -- the $10.2-million agreement to form the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for In Situ Energy (AICISE) --had compromised the U of C’s academic integrity. AICISE partnered the U of C with companies like Nexen, Shell and Repsol with the stated goal of researching technologies that help reduce the environmental impact of oilsands extraction.
But the association found that control over AICISE research was given to a 10–11 person “management advisory board” comprised mainly of non-academic, private sector members. This board has the power to approve or reject plans and budgets proposed under AICISE, and a majority vote is all that’s needed to carry budgetary and research decisions.
Inconvenient details of yet another research deal — the Consortium for Heavy Oil Research — also surfaced in the association’s report. It found that deals struck with donors like Husky and Nexen stipulated those companies could pull research funding if it wasn’t advancing projects they liked.
The details of the deals described in the 2013 report were not previously known to the public, at the time it was published, but university administrators said that although they didn’t contain specific protections for academic freedom or “other important principles,” things like peer-review and university policy would protect students and staff from breaches of academic integrity.
At the time, former University of Calgary Faculty Association President Robert Sutherland said those most affected by the deals — students and staff — had no way to understand how their experience on campus would change.
“The secrecy and lack of transparency of these agreements is extremely important,” Sutherland said in 2013. “We’re talking about public institutions that have public boards of directors that are supposed to be looking after our interests and they entered into secret agreements.”
Problems over secrecy have dogged the University of Calgary under Cannon's presidency. The CBC obtained documents through a Freedom of Information request and reported that they showed that Cannon personally approved more than $90,000 in legal fees to fight an information request from the public broadcaster. The story in question detailed a 2012 information request that outlined the relationship between the U of C and the fundraising arm of the Conservative party.
The university has denied that Cannon approved or signed the expenses, saying that it was its acting general counsel who signed them.
That, according to Robinson, is a fundamental problem with university culture. He says universities should be open to scrutiny, but we’re seeing a shift toward secrecy.
The funding model has changed, but "oily schemes" not needed
On June 24, the University of Calgary approved the largest budget in its 50-year history, $1.27-billion. The provincial government is providing $446.5-million -- less than half of the public university’s 2016-17 operations.
Most university administrators point to a lack of “predictable and stable” government funding as the cause of their corporate partnerships. And Alberta universities have seen their share of near-crippling funding cuts in the past five years.
The former Progressive Conservative government cut over $140 million from post-secondary in 2013 and cut again by around two per cent in 2015. Far from replacing money from previous budget cuts, the new NDP government froze tuition fees. The U of C isn't anticipating any new provincial funding for 2017-18 due to Alberta's current financial woes.
But the University of Alberta, which also saw cuts to its funding before the NDP were elected in 2015, remained largely unscathed in terms of corporate partnership scandals. U of A biology professor David Schindler has been consistently impressed by the his school’s capacity to fend off bad corporate deals.
“The U of A's policy on accepting money from industry, government, foundations or private individuals is also very clear that there will be no strings attached by the donor as to what can be reported,” Schindler said. “I don't think any of the oily schemes outed at the U of C would have ever gotten in the door at the U of A.”
The teachers association expects it will conclude its University of Calgary investigation at the end of August, with publication some time in the fall.
-Editor's note: this story has been updated to correct a typographical error in a quote from Trevor Tombe. It originally read "... there might be cases where someone oversteps where they should." It has been updated to read "there might be cases where someone oversteps where they shouldn't."
It was updated again on August 23 to correct statistics showing levels of funding raised by the university's development office and an additional comment from the university stating that its acting general counsel was the one who signed off on legal fees related to a freedom of information request. These changes were made in response to an email from the institution's media relations office that requested corrections to the article.