Academics urge funding review after Toronto returns Amazon cash

University returns $450,000 gift to retail giant after investigation suggests company looked to buy credibility for fight against government regulations

September 8, 2023
A man monitors the addressing process of a parcel inside an Amazon warehouse to illustrate Academics urge funding review after Toronto returns Amazon cash
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The University of Toronto’s secret acceptance of funding from Amazon has been denounced by Canadian faculty as the latest example of the long-running problem of corporate donations being used to corrupt academic independence.

University of Toronto leaders admitted that they had accepted from Amazon $450,000 (£360,000) for the Faculty of Law, after a media investigation described the donation as part of a strategy to give the company academic credibility amid a political battle with the government over antitrust laws.

Toronto’s dean of law, Jutta Brunnée, said she and the university’s president, Meric Gertler, had refunded the money after considering the matter and agreeing that it raised “important questions” about transparency and undue academic influence.

Professor Brunnée also promised in a written statement that the university would disclose all future philanthropic donations, and would commission an independent survey of best practices among post-secondary institutions to guide its future policy on the topic.

According to David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), such steps are good but are not nearly enough given the extent of the problem across higher education.

CAUT has analysed the situation in the past and found numerous examples similar to the Toronto-Amazon case, Mr Robinson said. Both parties benefit in such arrangements, with the companies gaining academic allies in policy battles and universities getting funds and reputational boosts while faculty gain political prominence, CAUT has said.

The Amazon case comes as the company – the world’s second-largest retailer after Walmart – has been facing political pressure in countries that include Canada and the US over its size and influence. The US Federal Trade Commission has sued Amazon for misleading its customers, and the federal Competition Bureau in Canada has long been under pressure to limit its market power.

Amazon’s gifts to the University of Toronto were uncovered by The Logic, a business-oriented trade publication, which used a public records request to learn that the donation was being used to finance a “partnership in research, thought-leadership and training” that included money for visiting scholars and students. The Amazon funds included a salary contribution for a university staff position to coordinate, among other things, an online speaker series.

Even as it agreed to refund the money to Amazon, the university did not make completely clear what had happened. Professor Brunnée said in her statement that the gift “adhered to the university’s policy on donations” and had been included in a quarterly report to the university’s governing council. Yet the university declined to say if that report was public, and Professor Brunnée admitted that she had not disclosed the Amazon funding even to all participants in events that the company’s money supported because she did not want it to hinder “open discussion and debate that reflects the full range of perspectives in the field”.

Such secretive corporate donations have “been a constant problem in Canada over recent decades”, Mr Robinson said. “I would hope the university uses the embarrassment of this incident to conduct a broad and independent review of how donations are solicited, what role the fundraising arm of the administration plays, why policies are not always strictly followed, and why academic staff are so often kept out of the loop.”

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