OTTAWA - Carleton University says the $15-million donor agreement for its showcase school of political management, fronted by Preston Manning, does not reflect the university's academic policies and will be renegotiated.
The concession comes as the Canadian Association of University Teachers, or CAUT, prepares a broadside at what it calls "unprecedented and unacceptable" provisions in Carleton's secret deal with Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell.
The latest incident highlights what James Turk, CAUT's executive director, called a worrisome trend in which some cash-strapped Canadian universities have given up their academic independence to the highest bidder.
"The integrity of what universities are is at stake," Turk said in an interview.
"As soon as you allow people to buy positions in the university through their donations — to influence who's hired, what the curriculum's going to be, what kind of research questions are asked, what kind of answers are come up with — then really the public would lose, and should lose, its confidence in what the university is and the university would lose its distinctiveness."
Carleton quietly released the donor agreement on the Friday afternoon before Canada Day after stonewalling The Canadian Press for almost a year to keep it under wraps.
The contract reveals the Riddell Foundation effectively appointed three of five people on a steering committee. That committee was given sweeping power over the graduate program's budget, academic hiring, executive director and curriculum.
Said Turk: "That's just unheard of."
Manning, the former Reform party founder, chairs the committee, while his former chief of staff Cliff Fryers sits on it along with Chris Froggatt, the former chief of staff to Conservative cabinet minister John Baird, and two university representatives.
Carleton plans to "rework the provisions in collaboration with the donor," spokeswoman Beth Gorham told The Canadian Press in an email.
The donor agreement, said the university statement, "did not fully reflect Carleton's policies and procedures with regard to budget management and selection of staff."
The university stressed that all hiring decisions for the Clayton H. Riddell School of Political Management, which enters its second academic year this September, were made using regular, proper procedures.
"Donor participation at Carleton is not unusual," the statement noted. "But there is a difference between participation and decision-making and it's an important distinction. The university provides direction and makes decisions according to established academic policies, processes and procedures."
The political management school was launched in October 2010 to much publicity, with the stated aim of providing practical, "cross-partisan" training for aspiring political staffers.
Manning and his staunchly partisan conservative Manning Centre for Building Democracy were front and centre, while the university trumpeted Riddell's $15 million pledge as "the largest single donation in Carleton's history."
"The vision and determination of Mr. Manning and the generosity and wisdom of Mr. Riddell exemplify the transformational power of individuals," university president Roseann O'Reilly Runte said in a Carleton release at the time.
But when the particulars of the donor agreement were sought under Ontario's access to information law, Carleton refused outright. A heavily redacted version was eventually released following mediation; the case was going to arbitration when the university released the full document on the eve of a summer holiday weekend.
Private donor agreements within publicly funded universities have been making news of late over issues of academic freedom, corporate control and public policy manipulation.
This spring, the Canadian Association of University Teachers threatened to boycott Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo if they did not "amend the governance structure for the Balsillie School of International Affairs so that academic integrity is ensured."
York University's Osgoode Hall subsequently cancelled a deal with the Centre for International Governance Innovation over similar concerns.
CAUT has studied the newly released Carleton agreement and "it raises all of the same questions," said Turk.
"Arguably it goes farther than the agreement between Balsillie and Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier. It's absolutely unprecedented and unacceptable for a university to give a donor or a donor's foundation any voice whatsoever in hiring or curriculum or any other academic matter."
Turk noted the irony that the suspect agreement comes from a school designed to train future political support staff who will advise the country's leaders, but he absolved Riddell of blame.
"The bad guys, if I can put it that way in this, are the universities and not the donors. That donors would want to have influence is not surprising. But they only have influence if the universities give it to them."
And given that the Manning Centre is proudly partisan, Turk said the decision to hand over control of the steering committee to Manning and Riddell's proxies is perplexing.
"So the fact that the university then would agree to the governance of this program being in part given over to the donor just makes the whole program suspect. But in a more worrisome way it just makes the whole university suspect."
While Carleton had argued its concern in releasing the document was over Riddell's financial privacy, the redacted sections suggest otherwise.
Provisions blacked out by the university simply reveal the timetable for Riddell's publicly announced $15-million donation, along with a provision that his foundation can assess the school's performance after five years and withhold the final $10 million if it is not satisfied.
The existence, composition and function of the steering committee was entirely redacted.
So was a paragraph in an appendix stating, "This initiative enjoys the full support of Carleton University President and Vice-Chancellor Roseann O'Reilly Runte. She is working closely with an advisory group on the formation of this graduate program."
That group included Manning, former NDP national party director Robin Sears, former Liberal cabinet minister and Newfoundland premier Brian Tobin, and Christopher Arterton, an American academic with connections to the Democrats who founded a school of political management at George Washington University.
The Washington-based Centre for American Progress published a study in October 2010 that exposed numerous problematic deals involving American universities and major energy companies.
The study, titled "Big Oil Goes to College," examined 10 agreements worth almost $1 billion and concluded that almost all of them undermined the schools' independence and integrity.
In addition, news reports exposed that the billionaire Koch brothers have been giving universities funds for entrepreneurial studies provided their staunchly Republican foundation could pick the faculty and set curriculum. And since 2005, U.S. banking giant BB&T has spent millions to get colleges and universities to develop programs on Ayn Rand's books and right-wing economic philosophy.
CAUT is currently conducting a study in Canada looking at collaborative research deals between universities and third parties. It has collected between 15 and 18 such agreements and will produce a report in the autumn.
"It's becoming more pronounced in Canada," said David Robinson, the director of research and advocacy at CAUT.
"This is something that's relatively new. Unfortunately it's not isolated just to Canada. It's happening in the U.S., it's happening in Europe as well."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly identified the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Also on HuffPost