Donations are driving universities forward

Policies need to be in place to make sure academic voices aren’t lost in the shuffle

Two professors at the University of Toronto are concerned that philanthropic gifts are doing more to determine academic priorities than the school’s own academic faculties. And their concerns aren’t completely unfounded.

Following a large donation to the Munk School of Global Affairs, the university included in the donor agreement a line that announced “international studies is a top academic priority of the university.”

But according to professors Paul Hamel and John Valleau, that was never discussed in the traditional academic circles.

“Who decided that?” Hamel asked the Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto.

“Departments will put through their academic plans that they have an idea and we find ways of doing it. An academic priority is identified on the ground,” Misak added to the newspaper. “The idea that donors are driving academic priorities is crazy, just crazy.”

But the shift towards making philanthropy a significant source of income for post-secondary institutions is still new. Only in 2007, the head of fundraising at the University of Ottawa speculated that donations could become a permanent fixture of university priorities.

“It’s become a permanent feature of how universities do their job,” David Mitchell told The Globe and Mail. “The machinery of fundraising has come of age at universities in the last generation. I don’t think it is about to end.”

And since then, the amount of donations accepted by universities has been growing steadily.

While still representing a low total number in their overall budgets, donations now represent the second-fastest growing income source for universities, growing an average of nearly 11 per cent a year between 1997 and 2007.

And with hundreds of millions of dollars lining up at their door, it’s hard for universities to say no. That’s the problem Hamel and Valleau are now worried about.

While the University of Toronto’s donor agreement specifically affirms the academic freedom and freedom of speech of their faculty, that these two professors are concerned is reason for concern itself.

The way academic priorities are decided needs to be transparent to the academic community. It’s through this transparency that faculty can feel free to bring forward their own priorities and contribute in innovative ways to the university community.

If professors feel that priority setting is solely the domain of higher bodies, disenfranchised faculty will begin to wear down the institution’s morale.

It’s important to remember that donors don’t always get to set the priorities. As Ron Joyce, co-founder of Tim Hortons, told The Globe and Mail: “There is no such thing as a bad cause really, but you have to focus your efforts,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I have an obligation to give something back.”

Universities have a strong history in Canada of academic independence, important discoveries and developing brilliant minds. Donations are a necessary part of this process, but shouldn’t determine priorities. The University of Toronto needs to demonstrate to its academic faculty that this is still the case, or they will face increasing scrutiny from disenfranchised academic leaders.

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