Big Oil U: Canadian Media Coverage of Corporate Obstructionism and Institutional Corruption at the University of Calgary

By McCartney, Kevin D.; Gray, Garry | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Big Oil U: Canadian Media Coverage of Corporate Obstructionism and Institutional Corruption at the University of Calgary


McCartney, Kevin D., Gray, Garry, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Introduction

Since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, corporate sponsorship inside universities has become both common and normalized in Canada with governments continually reducing the proportion of funding they provide cultural institutions and universities (Gray and Bishop-Kendzia 2009; Tudiver 1999). These reductions have forced, or in neoliberalism terms 'responsibilized', universities to pursue elevated levels of private and corporate sponsorship (Gray 2009; Rose and Miller 1992; Slaughter and Leslie 1997; Toepler 2001). However, during these shifts in the funding environment, businesses also started to subtly shift their funding approach from a pure philanthropy model (with no strings attached) to a funding partnership model which involves greater involvement in the day-to-day decision making processes inside universities (Gray 2013a; Krimsky 2003; Croissant and Restivo 2001; Iley 2000). Though rarely free from local and politicized controversy, the solicitation of corporate funding in Canadian universities generally does not gain national media attention (cf. Olivieri 2003). However, a recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) investigation into a $2.25 million endowment to be paid over 10 years by Enbridge Inc. (Enbridge) to the University of Calgary (UofC) has sparked a national conversation about the appropriateness of corporate sponsorship, highlighting the uneasy relationship between academic freedom and return on funding partnership investments.

In this article, we explore how the initial focus on academic freedom in the CBC investigation of the university-industry relationship between Enbridge and the UofC turned into a larger debate about the nature of corruption and obstruction. We also examine the differences in how the public non-corporate media and corporate media treated accusations of ethical misconduct by the Enbridge and UofC partnership. While the CBC and other non-corporate media pursued a frame of individual ethical misconduct resulting in constrained academic freedom, corporate media by contrast 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 conflict of interest charges against Dr. Elizabeth Cannon who was serving as both the President of the university and as a Corporate Director for Enbridge Income Fund Holdings Inc.

Both non-corporate and corporate media sources largely avoided the question of whether UofC's other research endowments and sponsorships, which totalled $360.5 million in 2015-16 (University of Calgary Community Report 2016), involved other conflicts of interest and similar patterns of corporate involvement. In this article, we examine the Canadian media coverage of the Enbridge endowment at the UofC within the dual contexts of institutional corruption (Gray 2013b, 2015) and corporate obstructionism (Carroll and Sapinksi 2016: 32-33; Carroll et al. 2018). That is, we place this academic scandal within 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. Such tension is the foundation of institutional corruption. Institutional corruption has been defined by Gray (2013b) as those violations of public trust "embedded within the structures, norms, practices and scripts of professional environments" rather than acts of novel, willful, and unlawful harm. Institutional corruption therefore requires a shift in focus towards examining "influences that implicitly or purposively serve to distort the independence of a professional in a position of public trust" (533). Our study examines one such moment of distorted independence and the role of those internal to the University of Calgary in making it both possible and normal. …

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