Is UBC Becoming Corporate U?

Examining the aborted UBC-Wurldtech deal and asking, Is academic freedom becoming a quaint notion of a bygone era?

Capital Ideas: Is UBC Becoming Corporate U? | John Bucher

Examining the aborted UBC-Wurldtech deal and asking, Is academic freedom becoming a quaint notion of a bygone era?

This month UBC was to open a big new research centre, the Global Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security, a partnership between some very large corporations, the university, and a 17-person Vancouver tech company called Wurldtech Security Inc. Wurldtech is in the business of protecting the operation of what it calls the “smart grid” – critical systems like traffic lights, electricity, and waste­-water treatment. The big money is in safeguarding oil and gas delivery, and so two of the world’s largest energy companies – Royal Dutch Shell PLC and BP PLC – were partners standing behind Wurldtech.

Alas, a deal that glittered with economic potential for all involved, was, as of press time, dead. “That it didn’t work out is disappointing,” says Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic initiatives. “But UBC is very interested in these kinds of partnerships in the future.”

What killed the centre, whose establishment would have cost up to $10 million, wasn’t acrimony between UBC and Wurldtech, but insufficient lab space at UBC.

The proposal brings to the fore serious issues about corporate involvement in universities. In the Wurldtech deal, each party had a unique ante: the energy companies were to supply the startup money, Wurldtech the proprietary know-how, and UBC the labs and researchers. The plan was that together the partners would produce knowledge about how to protect crucial infrastructures from external threat and internal malfunction. It’s important, necessary work. But when corporations pay the academy’s bills, it also raises difficult questions. Are researchers, for example, free to reach independent conclusions? And what is the fate of academic disciplines – philosophy, literature, anthropology – whose product has little commercial value?

Once upon a time, the corporation and the academy had different aims. One produced knowledge through research and distributed it – freely – in the public domain; the other produced a commodity for sale on the open market. Keeping church and state separate, so to speak, was a mission of the Canadian communications theorist Harold Innis, and on the matter he was unequivocal. “To buy universities is to destroy them and with them the civilization for which they stand,” he wrote in 1946.

But in these modern times, has Innis’s absolutism grown quaint? Paul Bowles, who heads the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C. (CUFA), agrees that cosiness between corporations and universities is on the rise. To his view, it’s a development that threatens the open inquiry of researchers, the very essence of scholarship. “This isn’t the beginning of the slippery slope,” Bowles says. “We’re already on it.”

An ugly infringement on academic freedom took place in 1996, where University of Toronto clinician Nancy Olivieri was overseeing an experimental-drug trial funded by the Canadian pharmaceutical company Apotex Inc. When Olivieri came to believe the drug, which was designed to address a rare blood disorder, was dangerous and wanted to make her concerns public, Apotex withdrew its funding, invoked a confidentiality agreement in the research contract and threatened the doctor with legal action.

Whatever the potential hazards of commercially funded research, Brent Sauder, UBC’s point man during the Wurldtech negotiations, claims the school needs more of it, not less. “I would strongly suggest that in Canada we do not have enough industry-supported research,” he says. For Sauder, if “pure curiosity” research isn’t balanced with applied research, the academy loses relevance and competitiveness.

Speaking about the aborted Wurldtech venture, Sauder slips into the argot of the businessman, talking of efficiency, mobilization of resources, and cost efficiency. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Over three decades, as public money to Canadian universities has ebbed, schools have been obliged to get leaner with budgets. They’ve also opened themselves to business partnerships, particularly in disciplines near the marketplace, like technology, agriculture, and bioscience.

Depending on your perspective, this creep toward academic commercialization is good or bad. It bodes well for universities as economic drivers but ill for them as centres of broad and free inquiry. It may not be that the corporate university is the university of the future, says CUFA’s Paul Bowles. “But when corporate money shapes the agenda, traditional research gets lost in the shuffle.”