Ewart: Little Fanfare for Chevron's Fracking Research Funding at U of C  Banner Image

Ewart: Little Fanfare for Chevron's Fracking Research Funding at U of C

Stephen Ewart, Calgary Herald
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As the University of Calgary investigates a soured relationship with a corporate sponsor, it’s hardly a surprise reporters weren’t invited to Monday’s launch of a new research chair related to hydraulic fracturing funded by oil giant Chevron.

Even university president Elizabeth Cannon “was called away” and unable to attend the event announcing a funding partnership with the federal government and Chevron Canada to address the “urgent scientific, economic and societal issues” around the controversial practice to make oil and gas flow in underground reservoirs.

The low-key announcement came as links between academic funding and corporate PR are under scrutiny at the school. Last week, U of C announced a third-party review of its Centre for Corporate Sustainability following an investigation by CBC News into the relationship with the centre’s original named sponsor — pipeline company Enbridge.

An invitation to see Cannon and Chevron Canada president Jeff Gustavson announce Prof. David Eaton as the inaugural NSERC/Chevron industrial research chair in microseismic system dynamics was updated over the weekend to advise it would be a private event. On Monday, Ed McCauley, vice-president research, stood in for Cannon.

She and Bonnie Dupont, a former Enbridge executive who is chair of U of C’s board of governors, have recused themselves from discussing the investigation.

That hasn’t stopped others from talking.

“Academic freedom is the cornerstone on which research and teaching rest,” Dr. Sandra Hoenle, president of the U of C faculty association, said in a statement Monday. “It is of concern that the president may have allowed a corporation to influence what research is done or how it is conducted. A fully independent investigation is necessary.”

The school’s students’ union agreed.

In announcing its review, the board of governors acknowledged “the integrity of the university” is being questioned. While the school does acknowledge “there have been many lessons learned” both U of C and Enbridge are adamant the company didn’t exert any undue influence over the mandate or operations of the centre as part of its $2.25-million in funding.

Cannon subsequently resigned a $130,000-a-year position on the board of Enbridge Income Fund that she’d held since 2003.

Premier Rachel Notley said her government is monitoring the situation and will examine if post-secondary institutions should be obliged to comply with provincial conflict-of-interest law. The U of C review is solely on the Enbridge Centre launched in 2011 and won’t consider any broader concern over corporate donations and academic freedom.

Neither the philanthropy nor the concerns about it are new.

Chevron, for example, partners with more than 100 universities worldwide — including MIT and Stanford — through scholarships, grants, funding for faculty positions and lab equipment in what it calls “strategic investments in the economic development of local communities and the future of the energy business.”

Its new partnership with the U of C, led by Eaton, a member of the Department of Geoscience there since 2007, will build on past research of hydraulic fracturing to create best practices for future resource development, the school said.

Andrew Leach, who chairs Alberta’s current climate change advisory panel, held the Enbridge Professorship at the University of Alberta until last March. He defended his sense of academic freedom in a 2013 blog post while conceding some people believed it comprised his independence in the “often-heated” energy debate in Canada.

Carleton University in Ottawa rewrote the agreement for its school of political management after a $15-million donation from Paramount Resources founder Clay Riddell prompted complaints from a faculty association in 2012 it infringed on academic freedom. The school has since limited the input of donors.

The U of C has also seen a criminal investigation of Bruce Carson, a former staffer in Prime Minister’s Office, after Ottawa donated $15 million in 2006 to launch Canada’s School for Energy and Environment.

Joe Arvai — the original director of the U of C’s Enbridge Centre, now at the University of Michigan — wrote a column for the Globe and Mail last weekend that defended the value of corporate donations to academic institutions but said the need for transparency in agreements was underscored by his experience in Calgary.

He said CBC “correctly points to several instances where certain wishes expressed by officials at Enbridge, and ultimately granted by officials at the U of C, were incompatible with the mission of a new academic centre that needed to be built upon a foundation of academic and scholarly independence.”

Despite the names prominently adorning the buildings, corporations provide less than five per cent of university funding.

Donors have some say over their gifts but shouldn’t expect a university to ever cede control. Both sides would do well not to equate every investment as a public relations/corporate branding opportunity.

Stephen Ewart is a Calgary Herald columnist