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Universities face many types of influence

Persuasion by donors and industry partners is the kind that causes the most commotion, but there are other kinds, too.

By MARTHA CRAGO | June 8, 2015

At various times in the life of universities, issues arise about how and to what degree donors and certain industries influence the academy. In fact, there are many kinds of pushes and pulls that shape our academic and research programs. Often these sources of influence are associated with money (and not only donor money), though sometimes money is not a factor. Here are some examples.

The way the federal government develops research programs influences the way we configure our proposals. About 15 years ago in Quebec, the provincial granting agency funded team research. At the time, there was only one agency funding all disciplines; this meant that many researchers worked in teams, many of them multidisciplinary. And, indeed, some of the strongest team research in the country was and still is done in Quebec. At that time, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council funded primarily solo discovery grants. Even though many discoveries resulted from these grants, this form of funding did not stimulate team work. Once the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence program was launched, many researchers began reaching out to colleagues across universities to form networks. In short, the nature of the funding programs influences how Canadian university researchers conceive of their research possibilities and the kind of research they do. That is one sphere of influence.

In the world of graduate studies, another form can be seen when graduate students are choosing both a supervisor and a thesis topic. I remember a prospective student telling me she wanted to study how narrative development differed in boys and girls. “That certainly sounds interesting,” I told her, “but my work is about how Aboriginal children’s language development is alike and different from that of non-Aboriginal children.“ The student changed her topic and wrote a wonderful thesis on narrative development in Aboriginal children. However, before she submitted the thesis to the university, she presented it to the Aboriginal community for approval. What seemed like an ethically correct thing to do had unexpected consequences, with approval of the thesis caught in a conflict situation among community members. Even though the delay was not based on disapproval of the thesis per se, it meant that the student graduated a year late. This example has always reminded me that influence can occur in many different forms along the academic pathway and that it changes the directions and timing of people’s work and lives.

The form of influence that is usually the cause of commotion in our universities is that of donors and industry partnerships. How resilient are we to those influences, how much do we bend to them, and how much do we benefit from them? And, who decides what is “good money” or “bad”? As an administrator, I have seen a university president turn down a large gift to establish a centre for the study of the work of a person whom many would find objectionable. I have seen the faculty of a university name almost every classroom and some hallways after corporate donors.

I also have known of graduate students not allowed to publish their thesis because they were studying with a professor doing research for a company, and the student had not been told or did not realize that there was a no-publish or delay-publish clause that pertained to their work. Many of us remember the Nancy Olivieri case, where a pharmaceutical company tried to suppress a professor’s research findings. Such situations can be avoided if universities have clear guidelines for graduate students about intellectual property and disclosure as well as attentive legal review of all industrial research contracts for their professors.

Recently, some people have called on universities and researchers to refuse corporate money from companies associated with fossil fuels. Does this mean some university members can exert influence on the kind of funding and research that other members find meaningful and useful? The question speaks to the essence of academic freedom. What if the industry funding includes a condition that people in that industry will help to evaluate student projects that were funded by the industry‘s contribution, or that industry representatives may give lectures in certain courses? Many would find that this is going too far; but others think that industry involvement has academic value and can enhance students’ experiential learning.

It would be useful to have a rigorous exchange among Canadian universities on the kind of guidelines we need to steer our choices. We need to understand the numerous forms that influence can take, both subtle and blatant, as well as how to protect academic freedom in the face of differing opinions about types of influence.

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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  1. Simon Greenland-Smith / June 11, 2015 at 10:59 am

    This is a wonderful piece and a great conversation starter. It really gets at the heart of the issue, which is that ‘money’ does not come without context. In institutions such as universities it is crucial that there is a filter between donors and the university’s activities. This is the essential tenet of academic freedom. When there is insufficient controls to mitigate the influence of the donors agenda on the activities of the university, the university loses it credibility as an independent institution, which is the foundation of why it is a good idea to give to universities in the first place.
    In the case of Shell and Dalhousie (presumably the example you cite in your second last paragraph), the gift and the source of the money were not objectionable in their own right, but it was the influence that the money had on the university’s activities, in this case the judgement of academic matters by donors/industries. I think many faculty would find that level of influence objectionable no matter who the donor was. So in this case, people were not calling on the university to reject money from companies associated with the fossil fuel industry, but rather drawing attention to a relationship (contractual) between the university and the fossil fuel industry the threatens Dalhousie’s academic freedom.
    Students clearly want industry partnerships and ‘real-world’ experience to be part of their education, but not at the cost of universities becoming beholden to the will and judgement of industry.
    I appreciate your balanced look at this issue but rather than portraying it as a double-edge sword, I think with the kind of protections for academic freedom that you recommend we could end up having our cake and eating it too.

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