Alberta Politics
The entrance to the University of Calgary (Photo: University of Calgary).

University of Calgary acted like ‘Big Oil U’ in 2015 controversy, paper by B.C. academic researchers concludes

Posted on January 10, 2019, 1:09 am
7 mins

It’s not every day you see terms like “corporate obstructionism” and “institutional corruption” used to describe the way things are done at one Canadian university in a peer-reviewed academic paper written by scholars from two other institutions and published in a respected academic journal.

This is one reason I think the stuff may be about to hit the academic fan when the conclusions of University of Victoria sociology professor Garry Gray and University of British Columbia PhD student Kevin D. McCartney start to sink in on this side of the Rocky Mountains at the University of Calgary.

PhD student Kevin McCartney (Photo: University of British Columbia).

The conclusions of Dr. Gray and Mr. McCartney are also unlikely to be popular with corporate media, in particular Postmedia’s Calgary Herald.

Their paper – Big Oil U: Canadian Media Coverage of Corporate Obstructionism and Institutional Corruption at the University of Calgary, hot off the presses at the Canadian Journal of Sociology – certainly doesn’t mince words, as the title alone suggests.

The backstory, extensively covered by the CBC in 2015, involved a modest $2.25-million endowment by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. to be paid over a decade to what was then called “the Enbridge Centre for Corporate Sustainability” within the U of C’s business school.

When Enbridge, the company that then wanted to build the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline, was accused of trying to use the university “as a PR machine for themselves,” as one unhappy U of C academic put it at the time, and senior university administrators appeared to go along with the corporation, claims academic freedom was being undermined and the mission of the university subverted soon went public.

The CBC journalists’ exposé was based in significant part on freedom of information searches that pried revealing U of C correspondence from the hands of reluctant university administrators. As was said in this space at the time, the contents of the correspondence that the network’s investigative reporters uncovered showed administrators willing to uncritically accept almost any corporate instruction, regardless how questionable it seemed from the perspective of maintaining the university’s independence.

University of Victoria Professor Garry Gray (Photo: Twitter).

Taking their cue from those 2015 CBC stories, Mr. McCartney and Dr. Gray reached conclusions about corporate, university and media activities unlikely to surprise anyone who has paid attention to news coverage of the Canadian fossil fuel industry in the context of growing public concern about climate change.

The authors’ analysis of 70 news stories from various Canadian news sources published in the aftermath of the CBC’s initial reports argues there was a parallel effort by the Calgary-based energy company and the Calgary university to frame the central issues of corporate obstructionism in public post-secondary institutions and what they term “institutional corruption” as if they were part of the university’s mandate and purpose.

Moreover, they argue, there was a “stark contrast” between the way corporate and non-corporate media covered the controversy – with the CBC and non-commercial media emphasizing the debate about academic freedom and the proper role of public institutions while corporate media “sought to defend the integrity of the relationship between the university and Enbridge during the investigative process.”

“Corporate media sources also attempted to downgrade the seriousness” of concerns the university’s president was at the same time a director of an Enbridge subsidiary, they said.

The two B.C. researchers argue corporate news coverage of the 2015 controversy at the U of C should be seen in the context of a historical tendency to downplay the social and environmental impacts of fossil fuel development on Indigenous people, and similar history of emphasizing the impact of climate change on business interests over its long-term consequences for the environment.

“We place this academic scandal in the context of global carbon capitalists making strident efforts to shape and manage social change efforts around energy, and equally, the deeply Canadian tension between the recognition of a climate crisis and the centrality of carbon extraction and transportation to the Canadian economy,” the researchers wrote.

“Such tension is the foundation of institutional corruption,” they continued – defining “institutional corruption” as violations of public trust embedded in the structures, norms and practices of any professional environment.

In their conclusions, Mr. McCartney and Dr. Gray observed that “the profit motivation of corporate media, their advertising license to do business and use of official sourcing were clear when compared to how non-corporate media treated the same controversy.”

As for the university, they said, the willingness of administrators “to sell the legitimacy of the university to corporate interests” and of academics to contribute by “producing research under the guise of apolitical scientific progress” show how “normalized functions of an institution cause harm and break public trust.”

Finally, they said, the trend of corporate donations switching from a pure philanthropy model to a role that involves more day-to-day involvement in what universities decide to do shows how “fossil fuel companies are leveraging publicly funded centres of education and learning to promote a carbon-intensive future.”

This, they concluded, “is the very definition of corporate obstruction in democracy.”

We should stand by for a brisk response from the U of C, I would wager.

12 Comments to: University of Calgary acted like ‘Big Oil U’ in 2015 controversy, paper by B.C. academic researchers concludes

  1. Bill Malcolm

    January 10th, 2019

    Very interesting indeed. So even the UC administration and some portion of the academics are quite willing to twist reality for money.

    The Post Media circus will engage their “journalists”, another group often willing to write anything for money (look at advertorials) to refute by any means possible the actual truth. Silver-haired ex-prof UC administrators, caught with their palms held out, will react with outrage that their morals are being questioned. The presses at the Fraser Institute will be ramped up to smokin’ hot by Koch decree to spew disinformation. Anything to avoid any stain on their bought-and-paid-for “independent” academic spew.

    Will be a fun ride as the acceptors of oil money stand in front of cameras looking startled and peeved. “Moi? I must protest! I’m lily-white!” Then they’ll trot out the steve and Jason show to assure Albertans nothing untoward happened. And probably get away with it, unfortunately.

    Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    January 10th, 2019

    (cue action music)

    Something anti-oil from BC?! We need Jason Kenney’s ministry of truth to ride to the rescue!

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      January 10th, 2019

      This is an excellent question that deserves a serious reply. This would be good work for all those supportive Postmedia political columnists. They could even paint what they learn in a highly positive light. How would Mr. Kenney’s “war room” reply to this research and its authors? DJC

      Reply
      • Don Salter

        January 12th, 2019

        Postmedia should be broken apart. The role of media is inform the public so that they public can defend their interests. If Postmedia was a non biased entity, I would defend their right to the freedom of the press. But their name is not even emblematic of their function. They are corporate-media, and corporate media is simply propaganda. As history has taught us, propaganda destroys democracies by robbing the individual of the very important right of being informed and therefore make moral and ethical choices.

        Conservatives are no longer civil servants who wish to maintain the order in society, in line with the thinking of Edmund Burke. Instead they seem to be the servants of plutocrats. Whether this is the chicken or the egg result of a corporate media, may be hard to determine. But the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, and the Citizens United ruling, seems to be suggesting that those with the most power, are making a concerted effort to control the message.

        Reply
  3. Geoffrey Pounder

    January 10th, 2019

    Then there’s the Bruce Carson affair.
    Bruce Carson was a former senior policy adviser to PM Harper, a Conservative campaign strategist, and a key player in the federal govt’s pro-oilsands PR strategy. Also an adviser to CAPP. Nicknamed The Mechanic.
    Enough material for a dozen dystopian novels.

    “Over a thousand researchers at the University of Alberta work on oil sands research. At the University of Calgary the controversies involving the oil industry could fill a book.
    One example came to light through a court case in which the director of the Canada School of Energy and Environment (CSEE), Bruce Carson, was charged with illegal lobbying. Court documents exposed the deep state network that tied together senior oil executives, university officials, federal and provincial civil servants, and politicians from Ottawa, Alberta and across the country. I examine the entanglements of this case at length in Oil’s Deep State.
    The six-person CSEE board included the presidents of the universities of Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge; the chairs of the boards of governors of the universities of Lethbridge and Alberta; and a future chair of the University of Calgary. At least two of them had strong ties to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and the Alberta PCs, both of which formed governments that were aggressively advocating oil sands, pipeline and fossil fuel development.
    The CSEE, based in Alberta’s universities, had $15-million in federal funds and overlapping staff and board members with a multi-million-dollar oil industry group called EPIC. One of CSEE’s board members was paid $10,000 a month by EPIC, while Carson was paid over a quarter of a million dollars annually by the CSEE and simultaneously collected $120,000 per year from EPIC. The police investigation into Carson showed that CSEE worked closely with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers on drafting reports to politicians, and led working groups that included top federal and provincial civil servants. Carson was the only person charged with a crime, but the web around the case reached many of the country’s most prominent corporate, political, university and bureaucratic leaders. At the centre of it all were the interests of the oil industry.
    Kevin Taft, “A Captive State” (Alberta Views, Sep 20, 2017)
    https://albertaviews.ca/a-captive-state/

    “The 2016 conviction of Bruce Carson on charges of illegal lobbying relating to the oil industry exposed how oil’s deep state operates. Carson had been a close adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper. Material seized by police and presented in court showed the oil industry’s sweeping strategies and remarkably close relations with political leaders, top federal and provincial civil servants, and universities. In her verdict, the judge found it was “especially egregious” that the public “had no knowledge of what was transpiring behind the scene with ministers, deputy ministers, and other very senior officials in government, both federal and provincial” as the oil industry worked to shape national energy policy to meet its private commercial interest.”
    “Kevin Taft on what turned Rachel Notley from crusading critic to big oil crusader” (National Observer, Apr 19th 2018)
    https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/04/19/opinion/kevin-taft-what-turned-rachel-notley-crusading-critic-big-oil-crusader

    The tale is too tangled to tell here, but here are some headlines:
    “Disgraced former Harper adviser continued to be consulted by ministers”
    “No answers coming as to how tainted political fixer got job”
    “Ex-PMO aide Carson left Calgary school with debt”
    “Taxpayers on hook for $15,000 in expenses by former Harper aide”
    “Calgary-based energy think-tank left on the hook for personal expenses racked up by ex-aide to PM”
    “Ex-Harper aide Bruce Carson charged with influence peddling”
    “Alberta school headed by former Harper advisor Bruce Carson ran up $1.3 million operating tab”

    Reply
  4. David

    January 10th, 2019

    Probably not so much of a surprise, the University of Calgary seems to quite comfortably inhabit its place in petro la la land. An independent institution rigorously questioning the status quo? Not so much.

    I’m not so sure these cozy relationships and a don’t rock the boat approach are serving its students or Albertans very well. If this province just becomes an echo chamber for all is oil and oil is good we will really miss out on adapting to the changing world. Whether we like it or not the world around us is changing now and if all we do is lash out about it, hunker down and tilt at wind mills like Don Quixote it will not be helpful. History is full of examples of governments and corporations that failed to adapt to the changing world around them and it seldom ended well for them.

    At this time, what Alberta really needs is a bit more independent and critical thought and a bit less group think.

    Reply
  5. Bruce Turton

    January 10th, 2019

    As one who advocates for ‘de-growth’ especially among “first world” nations and regions, I also want those who advocate against pipelines for fossil fuels to consider what work those who will lose out if and when the tar and oil and natural gas is not extracted and shipped. As well, heating homes and businesses with natural gas is not going away any time soon. The big picture is really more complicated in the struggles of those who promote ‘alternatives’ to fossil resource use versus those who “hunker down” against changes in their wariness about what might happen to their lives while “adapting to the changing world around them”.

    Reply
  6. Andy Marshall

    January 10th, 2019

    Events related above should not be a surprise. As long as I can remember, the University of Calgary has been captive to corporate interests. Just look at all the corporate self-promoting on the walls of the Faculty of Business.
    As a reporter covering the university during part of the 1990s, I recall my discomfort sitting in board of governors’ meetings, where most of the members were very corporate and cosy, and where corporate interests unashamedly prevailed in most decisions.
    It’s a while ago, but in that decade Northern Telecom, aka Nortel, had an obvious grip on the university, and proposals to expand undergraduate computer programs to accommodate Northern Telecom’s workforce needs passed in haste and with little discussion. So considerable university resources were diverted to that cause, to the detriment of perhaps more pressing academic interests. And, we should recall that the Nortel interests ended up in ignominious bankruptcy a few years later.
    With its close ties to oil and gas, the university appears to learn little.

    Reply
  7. David B

    January 10th, 2019

    I think both Alberta and Saskatchewan are getting on the wrong side of the future.

    If climate scientists are right about global warming and I trust them over oil executives and their bought and paid for media gang, the both provinces are going to be right back where they were in the early 1930’s which is have not provinces because they rode the wrong horse into the future. For my part I trust scientists over politicians and corporate executives when it comes to scientific matters.

    Universities which sell their souls to corporate interests are not worthy of being servants of knowledge. Those who opt to be servants of disinformation are only fooling themselves. I am glad they are finally being exposed for the imposters they are.

    It’s time both provinces face the future and start working toward living in the world of tomorrow. Oil has had its day. Embrace change and take advantage of new opportunities!

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      January 11th, 2019

      “…both provinces are going to be right back where they were in the early 1930’s which is have not provinces.”

      Yes, and then they will truly regret everything negative thing they said about the equalization program!

      Reply
      • Rocky

        January 12th, 2019

        Not necessarily. By then, perhaps, many of the Alberta “separatists” will have returned home to Newfoundland, the Maritimes and Ontario. Real Albertans have no qualms about cognitive dissonance.

        Reply

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