The University of Saskatchewan’s main campus is situated on Treaty 6 Territory and the Homeland of the Métis.

Corporate involvement in university governance is a disturbing trend

By in Opinions
With increasing corporate involvement in university affairs, it’s hard to ignore the implications.
With increasing corporate involvement in university affairs, it’s hard to ignore the implications.

The “revolving door” in American politics allows people to move between the private and public sectors and to influence public policy in favour of the businesses with which they are involved. This phenomenon is one of the most universally recognized signs that the American system is corrupted and broken.

Dick Cheney’s political life is a perfect example of the revolving door. He was secretary of defence under George H. W. Bush. Afterward, Cheney left public service to become chair and CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oilfield service companies. When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Cheney left Halliburton to serve as his vice-president.

Halliburton profited enormously from the privatization of the second Iraq war. In fact, Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root may have defrauded the U.S. government of hundreds of millions of dollars related to one of its Iraq contracts.

Did Cheney’s place first in Halliburton and then Bush’s administration allow him to influence these decisions? Even without hard evidence it stands to reason that it did.

The University of Saskatchewan is (obviously) not the U.S. government. But there is a similarly dangerous pattern developing here of people moving from the private sector to powerful positions in the university. It is a situation that bears close examination.

In the last few weeks, four new members of the U of S Board of Governors have been announced, as has current University Secretary Lea Pennock’s replacement.

The four new board members are Grant Isaac, Lee Ahenakew, Kathryn Ford and David Dubé. Isaac works at Cameco and Ahenakew is employed at BHP Billiton, which tried to mount a hostile takeover of PotashCorp in 2012. Ford has practiced law in Saskatoon since 1977 and owns her own firm. Dubé is the CEO of Concorde Group, a property and business management company in Saskatoon.

Pennock’s replacement will be Elizabeth Williamson, who currently works at Cameco.

Dubé, Isaac and Williamson are problematic appointees because of their financial ties to the university. Cameco has been a generous donor to the U of S, and Dubé has made donations to the Huskies football team totalling in excess of $1 million.

I know if I had donated over $1 million to an organization I would probably feel some entitlement to direct its operation, whether I realized it or not.

The university’s Board of Governors makes major financial decisions on campus. Allowing people and companies that clearly have a personal stake in the university’s financial situation to direct the university is an affront to the university’s independence.

Overlap between the public and private sectors is necessary to some extent, especially at this level. Having someone who works in the  private sector sit on the university’s board is not in and of itself dangerous. However, a public institution — which the U of S is — is very different from a corporation, especially where finances are concerned.

Corporations are run with the explicit goal of making money. Public institutions are not.

Public institutions provide services that can best be dispensed if people are not concerned with also bringing in profit. Things like building roads and educating the country’s young are too important to mix with profitability, because profit will inevitably take the front seat. It is worth questioning how a board filled with corporate-minded people may play into the administration’s current push for “prioritization” of programs and services on campus.

Program prioritization visionary Robert C. Dickeson, on whose model the “TransformUS” initiative is based, advocates a distinctly cutthroat, corporate approach to university management, and individuals from the private sector will likely see the merits thereof.

It is possible that Isaac, Williamson and even Dubé have only the university’s best interests at heart. It’s almost certain they think they do. But they are trained to think in terms of profitability. When there are millions of dollars at stake, which there are for Cameco and Dubé, they understandably have strong motivation to ensure the university is moving in a direction they are happy with.

Private investment is a necessity with our current post-secondary funding model, but that doesn’t mean the university should accept private parties directing its priorities.


Photo: Raisa Pezderic & Jared Beattie/The Sheaf

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