An investigation by CBC News into the relationship between the University of Calgary and Canada's largest pipeline company has revealed "a university bending over backward to accommodate the apparent public relations ambitions of a corporate patron."
According to reporters Kyle Bakx and Paul Haavardsrud, emails obtained from a freedom of information request suggest "a pattern of corporate influence during the bungled attempt to establish a new research center that cost the university top level academic talent and its Haskayne School of Business upwards of a million dollars in corporate sponsorship."
"Most damningly it smacks of us being apologists for the fossil fuel industry rather than independent scholars and teachers doing work in broadly defined area."
—U of C professor Harrie Vredenburg
To establish the Enbridge Center for Corporate Sustainability at U of C, the corporation behind controversial pipeline proposals including Energy East and Northern Gateway reportedly pledged $2.25 million over a 10-year period.
The benefits for the company "seemed straightforward," write Bakx and Haavardsrud:
A series of industry pipeline spills were not doing the company any favours. If the centre could help to win hearts and minds for its existing operations or a major new project like the Northern Gateway pipeline, which was grinding through a controversial regulatory review and months of contentious public hearings, then presumably it would be a few million dollars well spent.
When viewed through the lens of the outrage caused by oil spilling into a pristine Midwest river—one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history—a partnership between the U of C and Central Michigan University, which some would argue makes little sense on paper, becomes much more understandable.
What the company wanted in return, however, raised some eyebrows.
Beyond naming rights, Enbridge sought to influence board memberships, staffing and the type of students that would be considered for awards, the emails show.
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The company hired its own public relations firm to publicize the centre's launch, and also wanted "customized opportunities" for Enbridge executives and clients to meet with researchers at the U of C's Haskayne School of Business.
"Enbridge is doing too much tune calling, in my view, to the point that the Center's usefulness to [Haskayne school] academics is being sacrificed to Enbridge's PR objectives," business professor Harrie Vredenburg wrote in a 2012 email complaint to Leonard Waverman, the dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the time.
"Most damningly," Vredenburg added, "it smacks of us being apologists for the fossil fuel industry rather than independent scholars and teachers doing work in broadly defined area."
"I am not sure what we are signing up for," U of C's Svare chair in applied decision research, professor Joe Arvai, wrote in a separate email to Waverman in 2012. "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, who had been tapped to head the new venture, stepped down as the head of the Enbridge center before its launch. He has since left U of C for the University of Michigan.
Based on conversations he had "with many people who were involved, including Joe," climate scientist and former U of C professor David Keith told CBC that Arvai was removed as director of the center "before its formation at the specific request of Enbridge."
Last fall, CBC reports, Enbridge's name was taken off the center—it is now just the Center for Corporate Sustainability. Under a revised agreement, the company also dropped its funding to the school by one million dollars. Enbridge continues to sponsor the center's seminar series, as well as arrangements with several other university departments.
Such conflicts of interest, however, are sure to keep cropping up. As Bakx and Haavardsrud write, "corporate money is becoming a more critical part of the funding model for Canadian universities as they no longer receive the same level of financial support from government as they once did."