11/30/2017 11:38 EST | Updated 12/03/2017 12:23 EST

Professor criticizes N.S. university for awarding billionaires honorary degrees

ANTIGONISH, N.S. — A professor is criticizing St. Francis Xavier University for awarding honorary degrees to two controversial billionaires who made donations to the school's Brian Mulroney Institute of Government.

Peter McInnis, chair of the school's history department, says there appears to be a quid pro quo arrangement whereby some large contributors to the Nova Scotia university are rewarded with honorary doctorates

"Our tradition at St. F.X. is one of community activism and progressive social justice," he said Thursday. "Some of these donations are at odds with that. Some of this money has been hidden from usual sources of taxes and other kinds of obligations all of us have as citizens."

McInnis questioned the "moral efficacy" of the donations, and said there should be greater scrutiny of the possible strings attached to donations and how honorary degrees are conferred.

Victor Dahdaleh and Wafic Said received honorary degrees from the Antigonish, N.S., university within months of major donations to the Mulroney Institute.

An investigation by the Toronto Star and CBC/Radio-Canada said the two men gave a combined $5.5 million, and both operated corporations in tax-free offshore jurisdictions.

Dahdaleh was charged but acquitted in Britain on bribery and corruption charges in 2012, while Said is a colourful and well-connected former arms broker.

"All Canadian universities are now faced with the predicament of less federal and provincial money, so if you want to fundraise for large capital projects like the Mulroney Institute, you're going to have to seek private donors," McInnis said, noting that going after "big value donors" is understandable.

However, McInnis said sometimes funds come from sources that are problematic and need to be scrutinized more closely.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who fundraised $100 million for his alma mater from private and public sources, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

He took part in the ground-breaking ceremony for the 95,000-square-foot Mulroney Hall in September. The public policy institute will be dedicated to the study of government, Canada-U.S. relations, and global affairs for undergraduate students.

Mulroney said at the time that the institute was made possible by the "unparalleled generosity and support of benefactors" from the private sector, as well as $5 million from the province and another $30 million from Ottawa. Fully $10 million was raised for scholarships and bursaries.

Kent MacDonald, St. F.X. president and vice-chancellor, said in an emailed statement that Mulroney took on the fundraising challenge at the university's request.

"Although most fundraising campaigns at Canadian universities have a significant administrative overhead cost, in this case, every dollar raised by Mr. Mulroney flowed directly to St. F.X., ensuring millions of dollars in administrative savings," he said.

MacDonald said Wafic Said has supported the development of academic programming and capital infrastructure at St. F.X., including an endowed chair position that will be focused on women's empowerment and leadership.

Victor Dahdaleh's donation will "open doors to students" and has increased access for underrepresented students including Indigenous people and African-Nova Scotians, he said.

"The granting of honorary degrees at St. F.X. follows a process that is very rigorous and well defined by our senate," MacDonald said. "St. F.X. is proud of the contributions of all individuals who have received an honorary degree from our university."

McInnis, a member of the university’s senate, said nominations for honorary degrees can be "shrouded in mystery" in order to maintain confidentiality.

"Decisions have to be made at a meeting and often there is no real deliberation," he said. "While you can say it has been reviewed by the senate as a kind of oversight body, it's a fairly perfunctory process and it should be subject to greater scrutiny."

— By Brett Bundale in Halifax