Ensnared by corporate power

November 12, 1999

Philip Fine reports on an Ottawa union conference on commercialisation

Universities will lose their role as impartial observers of society if they continue on the commercialisation road, Canadian academics were warned last month.

A group of 150 academics were told at a Canadian Association of University Teachers conference that corporate money has brought secrecy and dictated the research agenda over the past decade.

CAUT executive director Jim Turk said there are four ways commercialisation is affecting campus life. They are:

Benefactors are dictating research and teaching. Telecommunications giant Nortel signed an agreement two years ago with the University of Toronto that allows the company to be consulted on appointments to chairs and tenure appointments. Other similar agreements are in place.

The private sector is appropriating what many believe should remain public knowledge. Academics such as York University's Paul Axelrod, who has written widely on the history and political economy of higher education, talked about the frustration facing those whose research may not be valuable to corporations.

"Those who teach or research in the arts are put on the defensive, as in 'What are you contributing to the economy?" he said.

Universities are being run like corporations. Many contracts between university and industry are signed in secret.

Wayne N. Renke of the University of Alberta said his institution's management went over the head of its senate in building a Can$13 million Telus-financed distance-learning centre. "Our administration has lately taken some important steps in much the way a corporate executive might not consult staff when making business decisions."

Campuses were becoming sites for marketing products.

Coca-Cola and Pepsi have signed scores of deals with universities giving exclusive contracts in exchange for a usually undisclosed amount of money. Coca-Cola's representatives seemed to want a larger presence after approaching editorial staff of the University of Ottawa's student newspaper suggesting they write more about the Coke Fun Team when reporting on sports events.

The CAUT is hoping the activists will go back home to their universities to begin forming coalitions to fight what attendees see as a growing threat.

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