If we’d been paying attention, perhaps we wouldn’t be so shocked by the U of C’s corporate-influence scandal

Posted on November 13, 2015, 1:03 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: The University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, conveniently located adjacent to the oil corporations’ towers in downtown Cowtown. Below: The writers of the notorious Alberta separatist Firewall Manifesto, which then-premier Ralph Klein wisely tossed into the garbage; Calgary School alumni and Firewall signa-Tories Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan and Ted Morton in appropriate garb.

It’s a backhanded credit to the University of Calgary, I suppose, that the CBC’s recent exposé of the heavy hand of corporate influence on the academic tiller of the institution’s School of Business was such a shocker.

The taxpayers who generously finance the university and in some cases send their children there in hopes they’ll receive a worthwhile post-secondary education obviously believed they had reason to expect academic work produced by its professors to be independent, free of corporate influence and based on verifiable evidence.

firewall-writersIn other words, that it could be trusted, by citizens and policy makers alike.

Alas, the story presented by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s investigative team, based in significant part on freedom of information searches that pried revealing U of C correspondence from the hands of reluctant university administrators, paints a very different picture.

Whatever the intentions of the senior corporate officials of pipeline-builder Enbridge Inc. were when they forked over the seed money for the so-called Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability, the enthusiasm of highly paid U of C administrators to keep sweet for them is at once appalling and hilarious.

Notwithstanding the neutral language carefully used by the CBC’s journalists, the contents of the correspondence the network’s investigative reporters uncovered reveals obsequious administrators pathetically willing to accept almost any corporate command, no matter how questionable from the perspective of maintaining the university’s independence.

harper-cowboy-hatWhen their own academics raised concerns that funders were being allowed to purchase credibility at the expense of independent research, the overpaid Uriah Heeps in the university’s executive suite had no hesitation tossing their own faculty’s considered advice over the side. “Along the way, concerns about academic independence, the role of university research and the credibility of the researchers were dismissed,” the CBC explained.

The U of C’s administration can squirm and deny all it wants, but it seems highly unlikely the institution’s reputation can survive these revelations completely intact. Every Alberta taxpayer should read the CBC’s stories with care.

The thing is, though, none of this would shock anyone who has been paying attention to what goes on at the U of C.

For nigh on 40 years – the history is murky because the designation is informal – the U of C has been home to the “Calgary School,” an ill-defined group of politically partisan professors and well-connected former students in the political science, economics and history departments who have used the public university and its School of Public Policy to train a generation of neoliberal shock troopers bent on bending Canada to their idea of ideological perfection.

Subject: Tom Flanagan On 2013-01-30, at 4:12 PM, Dunning, Jenni wrote: For EMMA From: Dunning, Jenni Sent: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 3:52 PM To: Photodesk - Toronto Star Subject: Tom Flanagan In a bison coat on CBC. flanagan.jpgAs Donald Gutstein, author of Harperism, How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, described the School of Public Policy, it functions as “a neoliberal think tank embedded within a university.” (The School of Public Policy and the Calgary School are not exactly the same thing, but they might as well be. You might say the former is an actual tax-supported institution, while the latter is the partisan and secretive political society made up of many of the people employed by the former.)

Some of the Calgary School’s most well known alumni include recently skidded prime minister Stephen Harper, former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith, sometime Harper advisor Tom Flanagan, former Alberta finance minister Ted Morton (the worst premier this province never had) and serial polemicist Ezra Levant. Given their active political history, it is extremely difficult to believe such individuals do not have a politically partisan agenda.

The Calgary School was the source of the notorious Firewall Manifesto, a letter to then premier Ralph Klein urging him to build a sovereignist firewall around Alberta’s borders. Mr. Klein sensibly tossed the missive in the trash.

The Calgary School project, naturally, has also benefitted from generous corporate support – indeed, it would be interesting to see the administrative correspondence pertaining to that file – and from the naiveté of taxpayers who assumed all academic work coming out of a university was trustworthy and rigorous.

ted-mortonIt is not. The department is steeped in the quasi-theological ideology of the “Austrian economists,” Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and their cultish followers, which, as New York Times economics columnist Paul Krugman describes their theorizing, “explicitly denies that empirical data need to be taken into account.”

In his blog, Dr. Krugman provides a useful link to American journalist Josh Barro, no lefty, who usefully describes the two big reasons the right loves the Austrians: “One is that Austrian economists reject empirical analysis, and instead believe that you can reach conclusions about correct economic policies from a priori principles. It’s philosophy dressed up as economics; with the Austrians, there is never any risk that real-world events will interfere with your ideology.” The other, libertarian apologist that Mr. Barro is, is that they’re dead, so they can’t argue with their fans, like so many at the Calgary School, in the event they were inclined to.

Lately and typically, Prof. Jack Mintz of the School of Public Policy has been screeching hyperbolically in the National Post that Alberta is about to turn into Greece, the better to undermine such cautious NDP policies as a modest increase in the taxes of the most profitable corporations, a higher minimum wage and a review of what are widely believed to be the lowest resource royalties on the planet.

It’s evocative, if I heard the CBC’s on-air report earlier this month correctly (I couldn’t find this in the linked online stories), that the million dollars Enbridge pulled out of its eponymous corporate sustainability centre would instead go to the School of Public Policy.

Arguably, the whole Calgary School project has done far more damage than Enbridge’s rather limited effort to squeeze the maximum public relations potential from its donations to the School of Business.

If it is less shocking, that may have as much to do with the lousy reputation the fields of economics and political science share in the public’s mind.

Notwithstanding its generous corporate donors, the School of Public Policy continues as powerful publicly financed lobby actively devoted to the destruction of both the new NDP Government in Edmonton, and now no doubt the new Liberal Government in Ottawa, almost certainly with the connivance of university officials and loads of corporate dough.

It is hard to believe that much non-partisan, independent academic scholarship takes place in this atmosphere. Perhaps the whole thing deserves a formal inquiry of the kind that can only be conducted with legal authority to clear the air.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

11 Comments to: If we’d been paying attention, perhaps we wouldn’t be so shocked by the U of C’s corporate-influence scandal

  1. Kris

    November 13th, 2015

    To be totally fair, people always say before that it could never happen, and after that it was totally obvious.

    Reply
  2. November 13th, 2015

    The neoliberal, Leo Strauss-style, plutocracy, being concocted by the Chicago School of economic con-artistry, that was transplanted to Chile and then to Calgary – makes a very interesting saga of deceptive misuse of the terminology of “freedom” and “economic liberty”. The excellent account of this whole plunder scheme is well documented in the acclaimed book Leo Strauss and the American Right, by Canadian Research Chair at University of Regina, Shadia Drury.

    The snake oil, that is at the foundation of this stream of economic thinking, is based on the false notion that only private enterprise has any right to run anything – that anything connected to government is ipso facto no good – is the kind of sham ideation that has given us securitized debt obligations, deregulated self-regulating investment brokerages, and other forms of industrial insanity that have proven to have no merit over the past decade.

    The parliamentary research in the 1930s that led to the nationalization of the Bank of Canada in 1938 gave us a span of 36 years when Canada was able to generate public credit to governments and municipalities and not have to be obliged to borrow from private lenders. This gave Canada the ability to undertake many projects like WWII, the Trans Canada Highway, Medicare, CPP and many infrastructure projects that made Canada a wonder of a country. It also, during those years, was able to keep its national debt in the range of $20 billion. When the conspiracy of “privatization of everything” emerged in 1974 – the Bank of Canada was told that from now on, government and municipalities would ONLY borrow from private lenders. Then our national debt ballooned in less than 20 years to $600 billion, and the grand total of interest to private lenders amounted to over $1.1 trillion from 1974 to 2012.

    The forces of democracy have got to organize and rescue Canada from these discredited misanthropes that believe that the public sector has no business having anything to do with enterprise. This is a predatory and destructive influence, and we need to ask the Haskane School of Business to carry on from their excellent Corruption Conference they held around 2009, and demonstrated the deception that has created so much damage to the commercial standards, that govern our economic transactions. We need to develop a comprehensive return to public regulation, that puts the criminal code and the common law of contract as our primary regulative tools; and we need government to assert its self, to its potential in conducting internal infrastructure projects, and maximizing the economic worth of our crown corporations – such as expanding postal banking to levels greater than when it was abolished in 1968, and we need to get governments to partner with worker co-ops where ever possible, and actively help build the social economy. 1worker1vote.org

    Reply
  3. Jay Sommers

    November 13th, 2015

    The really sad thing is that many Albertans probably think this is exactly what their universities should be doing.

    Reply
    • Expat AlbertanA

      November 13th, 2015

      Quite the contrary. If my experience at the University of Alberta was any indication (granted, back in the Plasticine Age) Albertans tend to be suspicious of any kind of scholarship that cannot be connected to an identifiable job, vocation, or profession. Admittedly, this makes it difficult for those who take up humanities and the arts (two very worthwhile areas of study, even if their economic payoff tends to be indirect), but on the plus side, it makes Albertans equally suspicious of places like the School of Public Policy, that don’t seem to train people to do anything but agitate.

      Reply
  4. Karen

    November 13th, 2015

    Excellent piece Dave.

    One of the sad parts about the Calgary School academics is that their work is more ideology than fact. Yet academics across Canada seem strangely hesitant to ever publicly call them on anything or deal with them as the ideologues they are apparently happy to be. They’re still respected faculty. They get published in academic peer reviewed journals. It’s decidedly strange.

    What I will never understand is why Canada has so many publicly funded University yet so many of their academic staff just doesn’t seem interested to engage in public policy when the topic is even slightly controversial or anti-corporate but that answer, I suspect, is a whole other piece in itself.

    Reply
    • November 13th, 2015

      It is a mystery, Karen – and I think it will remain so, until we have a highly motivated and mobilized citizens’ movement for a social economy. This could be non-partisan. Canada’s history is not to slam social economy ideas just for ignorant right-wing doctrinal reasons. Our CNR that united the country was a public enterprise. The RB Bennett government commissioned a parliamentary study on the merits of creating and nationalizing the Bank of Canada back in 1933 and it was a Liberal government that followed through on the decision to do so in 1938. The NDP ought to be making a high priority of getting all parties and all sectors of society to understand and support the whole range of economic democracy measures.

      Reply
  5. Lars

    November 13th, 2015

    It goes on. I’ve always wondered why there never seemed to be any fallout from the University’s involvement with the climate change denial group “Friends of Science” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_F._Cooper).

    Reply
  6. Athabascan

    November 13th, 2015

    David, do you realize that every time you refer to these Calgary school political fanatics as ‘political scientist” you are actually giving them the legitimacy they crave?

    There is no such thing as a political ‘scientist”. They are in fact political analysts. You cannot call yourself a scientist of something if that something is not a science.

    Politic, economics, or business are not sciences.

    Words have meaning.

    Reply
  7. pogo

    November 13th, 2015

    The push-back from the forces that have been unleashed by meddling, continued with tragic consequences. Pointless conflict continues to mark our species.

    Reply
  8. Val Jobson

    November 17th, 2015

    Not sure which on air report you were looking for; maybe the Current?
    http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-november-2-2015-1.3299525/enbridge-u-of-calgary-relationship-challenges-academic-integrity-1.3299557

    These articles have some sound clips I’m not going to go through right now:

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/enbridge-university-calgary-inquiry-1.3289259
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/big-oil-u-beware-companies-bearing-gifts-1.3294674

    Or maybe it was a statement by Enbridge you heard:

    http://blog.enbridge.com/2015/November/UCalgary-Centre-for-Corporate-Sustainability.aspx

    “…In 2012, when Enbridge’s partnership with the U of C was announced, we committed to donating $2.25 million over 10 years. We continue to support the center through a speaking series and a scholarship fund. We also directed some of our funding to the university’s School of Public Policy…”

    Reply

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