Rolling the dice on academic freedom

The risk of donor influence on cash-strapped universities

Ghazal Azizi, News Editor

McGill University bears the name of its founder James McGill, but this honorific was a condition tied to James's large donations that were used to establish the institution. His gift, however, cannot be isolated from the colonial violence which produced it. He was only able to formalize the higher education system in Canada—albeit for white men only—by exploiting and enslaving Black and Indigenous people on stolen land. In addition to casting light on the colonial structures of Canadian universities, McGill’s depraved founding exemplifies an issue that lingers today: The power that donors can exert over campuses.

Though public funding constitutes the majority of the total revenue for most Canadian universities, the decline in government spending on postsecondary education along with campuses’ increasing operational costs have forced universities to pursue other sources of income. In the 2019-2020 year, more than 70 per cent of total university revenue was publicly funded in most Canadian provinces and territories, including Quebec. Yet, total public investment in universities has been on a gradual decline across Canada since 2008-2009, decreasing from 67.0 per cent to 54.7 per cent in 2019-2020. Spikes in tuition fees, reliance on international students, and private donations are compensating for this decline. At McGill, the revenue generated by donations and investment interest on endowed gifts for the 2021 fiscal year was approximately $170.2 million of its total revenue of $1.47 billion.

Derek Cassoff, managing director of communications at McGill’s University Advancement (UA) office, explained that the university accepts two kinds of donations: Direct-spend gifts that are spent all at once, and endowed gifts that establish an investment fund and exist in perpetuity.

“We have gifts at the university that go back to the 19th century donors [...] 150 years ago, that are still [...] operating today because of [the McGill Endowment Fund],” Cassoff said. “The university's endowment right now is about $1.8 billion, which is pretty high by Canadian standards, [and] just shows the level of generosity that McGill donors have shown over time.”

As donations compose more and more of universities’ funding landscape, concerns grow for how the interests of third-party funding can cross the line into academic and campus life.

In 2020, the University of Toronto (UofT) rescinded a directorship offer to Valentina Azarova, a human rights lawyer and scholar. The withdrawal had been prompted by a phone call from a tax judge and major donor to the Faculty of Law named David Spiro. In it, Spiro had expressed apprehension about Azarova’s recruitment due to her previous papers on the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Spiro’s controversial intervention in the university’s hiring decision led the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to censure the UofT administration in April 2021, a rare and last-resort sanction in which academic staff are asked to decline appointments, speaking engagements, and awards. The censure successfully pressured the university to re-offer the position to Azarova, who declined it the second time around. Experts attributed the infringement of academic freedom at UofT to a reliance on donations in the wake of public funding cuts, arguing that this financial model undermines campus autonomy.

Azarova’s mistreatment at UofT is not an isolated story. Jennifer Berdahl joined the University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Sauder School of Business in 2014 as the Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies, a position dedicated to gender equality in the workplace. When Arvind Gupta, UBC’s president and vice-chancellor, resigned only a year into his five-year contract, Berdahl shared a blog post theorizing that Gupta’s sudden departure was due to the toxic “masculinity contest” at the university. John Montalbano, the former chair at UBC’s Board of Governors (BoG), whose $2 million donation funded Sauder’s Montalbano Centre for Responsible Leadership Development and created Berdahl’s professorship, was infuriated by Berdahl’s post.

“He basically eventually called me up at home on a Sunday morning and just really chewed me a new one and told me my reputation was shit now and [...] I would lose my funding,” Berdahl said in an interview with the Tribune. “Later that night, he sent an Associate Dean after me [who] sat me down, and basically told me that I better shut up.”

The UBC administration took away funding for Berdahl’s professorship, removed her from all committees, and debilitated her from fulfilling her positional duties, research, and outreach.

“A bunch of women in Vancouver who were executives and high up in [...] industry had been on this Board of Advisors for me,” Berdahl said. “They all stopped talking to me and that board got dissolved because they were Montalbano’s connections and friends. Basically, they literally took away my position and the support behind it.”

Berdahl took to her blog once more to publicize this infringement on her academic freedom. “They were going to kill me quietly or they could kill me publicly, and I chose the public killing,” she told me. Following the post, the UBC Faculty Association began an 18-months-long grievance process, after which Berdahl recovered half of her funding. Former British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith conducted an investigation that concluded “Dr. Berdahl reasonably felt reprimanded, silenced and isolated” by the UBC administrators, though Montalbano was not found guilty of violating any of UBC’s policies. While Montalbano stepped down as the chair of the university’s BoG, the scandal shows the murky waters of undue influence that can accompany donations. Berdahl claims that a fundraising employee revealed to her in confidence that there was an implicit understanding between the university and Montalbano that his donation would grant him the BoG chair position.

“[As] our public universities become increasingly reliant upon donors for funding, donors are playing an outsized role in influencing the direction of universities in ways that they shouldn't,” Berdahl said. “[T]hat's really threatening the current state of universities today.”

The rivalry between UofT, UBC, and McGill extends beyond rankings; violating academic freedom seems to be another sport for Canada’s top universities. In 2017, Andrew Potter stepped down as the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) three days after publishing an essay in which he characterized Quebec as an “almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society.” Six hundred and eighty-eight pages of internal emails revealed that Potter was pressured to step down by former Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier, following public backlash and donors threatening to cut funding to the institute. Andrew Potter declined the Tribune’s request for a comment on the matter.

McGill never admitted to infringing on Potter’s academic freedom. Fortier insisted that academics in managerial and administrative roles at the university should not enjoy the same level of academic freedom as academics outside such positions. Yet, a report by the CAUT concluded that the university had violated the McGill Statement of Academic Freedom and challenged Fortier's claim, which has since been known as the Fortier Doctrine and was in fact the same argument that UofT used to justify revoking Azarova’s directorship offer.

Berdahl finds that public underfunding of universities has created a corporate culture of prioritizing fundraising over academic values.

“If you think about people's position, [their] ability to please donors and raise money is a huge part of [their] evaluation as a leader now, right? [...] And in fact, the Associate Dean, who was probably most involved in violating my academic freedom, is now the Dean. He was basically rewarded for prioritizing the donor’s feelings over my academic freedom.”

Renee Sieber, the President of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), also finds that there is a culture at universities to solicit donors for donations that are rarely unconditional.

“[University Advancements] are very protective of donors, who they nurture throughout the lifetime of the donor,” Sieber told the Tribune. “McGill spends considerable time trying to facilitate that loyalty from people who eventually become donors. The general public might see it as, ‘hello, wealthy person out there, we're going to go after you for money.’ It usually is, ‘you have an existing connection to the university, because you went there, you sent your kids there.’ And that loyalty is nurtured over time.”

McGill, too, admits that there are “ongoing conversations between the university, its fundraising team, and [...] loyal donors,” according to Cassoff, who says that gift negotiations can take up to a decade at times. Universities turn increasingly to donors as an unfortunate survival mechanism. Treating campuses as playgrounds for capitalist exchanges is a quicksand that threatens the very existence and purpose of higher education. David Robinson, executive director at the CAUT, argues that the influx of specific donations creates “a distortion within academic priorities,” where certain programs or initiatives receive more resources than others depending on the desires and interests of private donors.

“[T]hey're going to be interested in things that they have a personal interest in, or that [are] aligned with their business interests, [or] profile,” Robinson told the Tribune. “We're going to see lots of funding for the kind of [...] corporate responsibility issues or things that are of interest to the corporate world, but we're not going to see a lot of donations going to the [...] study of child poverty in Canada [...] to [...] theoretical physics.”

McGill’s income from endowed gifts must be used for the specific purposes laid out in the donation contract. Donations can, therefore, dictate the future of a university for decades. Andrew Kirk, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, served as Interim Dean at the Faculty of Engineering from 2011 to 2013 and was privy to this oft-camouflaged force. According to Kirk, there were century-old legacy donations at the faculty that funded out-of-date research and had to be renegotiated with the successors of the late donor.

“You've really got to steer donors away from locking us into doing something that seems great right now, but it's so specific that it's not going to be useful in the future,” Kirk said in an interview with the Tribune. “[We] want to make sure that donations have got as much flexibility as possible so that they can be used to benefit the university for many years to come.”

While external pressures and interventions in university affairs grow with private donations, a larger threat ensues when administrations internalize sycophancy. Robinson believes that universities tend to unconsciously appease donors following large donation sums out of fear that offending them will jeopardize future partnerships and fundraising.

“If a pharmaceutical company had given money to a health institute and the health institute wanted to put on a series of lectures talking about the harms caused by certain pharmaceutical drugs, would that be something that people might be shy to pursue? It's certainly possible. And I think that's more of the kind of subtle influence that the donors have,” Robinson told the Tribune.

Robinson’s example is not hypothetical. Almost two decades before the Azarova scandal, UofT had similarly revoked a job offer to psychiatry professor David Healy, who questioned the safety of Prozac and the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, a corporate donor to the university. In addition, a Global News investigation revealed that the pharmaceutical industry invests millions of dollars each year in Canadian universities to help shape medical education. At McGill, for instance, pharmaceutical company Merck & Co Inc. donated $4 million to the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in 2013 as part of its five-year project to inject $100 million into biopharmaceutical research and development in Quebec. Environmentally extractive companies have also crept into the university’s administrative skeleton. The Faculty of Engineering actively partners with Suncor Energy Foundation, a fossil fuel company, and the two mining companies Rio Tinto and ArcelorMittal Mining Canada Gross Profit (G.P.). McGill’s BoG hosts members with direct ties to various corporations, such as the pharmaceutical company Knight Therapeutics Inc. or Petro-Canada. As private corporate donors pump money into the university, McGill reciprocates with a sense of duty to protect the interests of its financial supporters over the faculty and students—the neglected beating hearts of the campus.

The administration’s repeated refusal to divest from fossil fuel companies, despite student and faculty pleas, is a telling example. Greg Mikkelson, a former professor in the School of Environment and the Department of Philosophy, who resigned when the BoG opposed his divestment motion, finds McGill’s obstinacy to be an extension of its priorities.

“Back when the clique who run the McGill Board [of Governors] were trying to justify their second refusal to divest from fossil fuel, they [demonstrated] what seemed to be greater loyalty to other wealthy donors (i.e., their own peers) than to McGill students, faculty, staff, Quebec society, or even Canadian society, let alone the larger biotic community,” Mikkelson wrote in a statement to the Tribune.

Divest McGill, a climate activism group on campus, also claims that “if your project doesn’t fit the BoG’s agenda, it will not go through.” Yet, Divest has looked to ways to circumvent the university’s favouring of money over student and faculty democracy.

“One interesting strategy taken by the folks at Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard was to collect donations from alumni in Harvard's stead that they would then give to Harvard only if they divested,” Divest McGill wrote to the Tribune. “This is an avenue that could be taken at McGill too, and if they still refuse to divest then that money could become a ready-made seed fund for reinvestment projects.”

Not only the university's name, but the titles of several buildings on campus bear the reminder of wealth too often tied to private motivations. Eliminating unwelcome donor influence, however, is an effort not without hope. Leverage campaigns like Divest’s may help achieve short-term results, but cannot solve the root issue. Capitalist dynamics of competition for funds have taken over the university. Increased public funding best serves as a weapon to safeguard academic freedom and student democracy, especially in Quebec, where underfunding universities has been a persistent problem. If the fragile financial state of universities continues due to government negligence, and the university continues to prioritize capital at the expense of students, private interests will monopolize campuses to the point where they will cease to exist as public-serving, intellectual entities.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor