When Rod Cumberland, a deer scientist and critic of industrial forestry practices, was fired by the Maritime College of Forest Technology, many people pointed out that a JD Irving representative sits on the College’s board of directors. Critics of the firing suggested that having industry representatives making governance decisions for an educational institution can lead to conflict of interest situations.
Last Christmas, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) launched a national campaign to highlight the current state of post-secondary education in Canada. CUPE, which represents many college and university workers across the country, raised concerns about the “corporatization” of universities, where large private donors exert undue influence over the research priorities and governance. This trend creates a vicious cycle where universities spend both public and private funding on research that benefits industry and appoint more and more industry leaders in order to solicit more research support from industry.
Even without direct conflicts of interest, the dominance of representatives of the corporate world in governance positions in a university might represent a wider problem: educational institutions primarily serving corporate, rather than societal, interests. An example is the Maritimes College of Forest Technology’s teaching that supports spraying glyphosate on Crown (public) lands. JDI is a company that reaps significant benefit from the spraying of glyphosate. On the other hand, many thousands of people in New Brunswick have signed a petition opposing the practice for health and environmental reasons, and some, including Rod Cumberland, have scientific proof that the practice is harmful to deer populations. In this example, the College’s teaching supports the corporate interests.
How do corporate perspectives maintain dominance in educational institutions? Many theorists have sought to explain how dominant ideas retain their influence. In her 2013 book Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit, Mi’kmaq scholar Marie Battiste describes cognitive imperialism, a process of “white-washing the mind as a result of forced assimilation, English education, Eurocentric humanities and sciences, and living in a Eurocentric context complete with media, books, laws, and values.”
Antonio Gramsci, an influential 20th century Italian communist and anti-fascist thinker, developed the idea of hegemony. Gramsci believed that “common sense” ideas of how the world works are influenced by the ruling class, including in educational institutions. He argued that these elites prevent ideas and perspectives which might challenge their authority without having to engage in direct censorship. Gramsci’s analysis suggests that industry representatives on the governing body of a university can, “behind the scenes,” silence voices of opposition to corporate practices.
Another theorist from the last century, Louis Althusser, describes institutions responsible for passing on the ruling ideology to the public as “ideological state apparatuses” that enforce norms through the dissemination of ideas and assumptions. From this perspective, universities are powerful institutions that shape the minds of everyone connected with them.
From these different theoretical perspectives, it is inevitable that in a society with deep and persistent wealth inequality, a regulatory and tax system that favours the rich, and an economy dominated by a few powerful private monopolies, as in Canada and many other capitalist countries, that economic elites would exert their power over education and media as well as through their finances.
The University of New Brunswick (UNB) is the largest university and conducts the lion’s share of university research in the province. To what extent do corporate interests dominate at UNB? One example can be found from 2018, when the UNB Board of Governors adopted a differential fee model for the university’s various undergraduate degree programs and approved a general tuition increase. The decision was met with numerous protests by students, and the UNB Senate condemned the decision. One reason given for these unprecedented tuition increases was to increase the “prestige” of the university. Students replied that by this logic, education was only prestigious if it was only available to the rich. Gramsci and Althusser would say that what makes educational, media, or cultural institutions “prestigious” in a capitalist society is their adherence to the interests of the rich and powerful.
The NB Media Co-op’s analysis of the University’s governing body found at least half the voting members represent corporate interests and an overlap exists between private funding partners and Board of Governors appointments. Companies with executives on the UNB Board of Governors include McCain Foods Limited, Vale Canada, and OSCO Construction Group, a subsidiary of John Irving’s company Ocean Capital. Banks represented on the UNB Board include Royal Bank, one of the top owners of and investors in fossil fuels, and TD Bank, another top fossil fuel investor.
The Chancellor of the UNB Board of Governors is Allison McCain, CEO of McCain Foods Ltd., which also contributes significantly to the McCain Foundation research funding program at UNB. The Chancellor Emeritus, Richard J. Currie, has many industry connections, as a former president of Loblaws, former chairman of BCE and Bell Canada, and a former director of Imperial Oil, which also supports research at UNB. The UNB’s Office of Research Services did not respond to a request for comment on whether or not these arrangements present potential conflicts of interest.
Based on our initial analysis, the NB Media Co-op will continue its investigation of UNB’s links with corporate interests. In particular, given the NB Media Co-op’s partnership with the UNB RAVEN project (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment), and RAVEN’s focus on actions to mitigate the climate crisis, the focus will be on UNB’s links to fossil fuel investment and activist efforts to divest from fossil fuel investments.
Abram Lutes is an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project summer institute and a member of the board of the NB Media Co-op.