Mount Allison University held its first formal gathering in more than six months last Friday to announce the establishment of the new Frank McKenna School of Philosophy, Politics & Economics.
The School, which should be up and running next year, was made possible by $5 million in private donations including $1 million from McKenna himself.
In a brief speech, the former New Brunswick premier and current deputy chair of the TD Bank referred to a question he gets asked about such donations.
“Why would you donate a million dollars? Just think of all the wine you could drink with a million dollars, all the steaks you could buy,” McKenna said as his Mt. A. audience laughed.
“It’s so simple,” he added. “I had the greatest gift you could ever have in life from New Brunswick, the gift of opportunity, and I vowed that I would spend the rest of my life trying to respect that gift and paying it forward.”
Mt. A. President Jean-Paul Boudreau thanked McKenna, adding that the multi-disciplinary school would train students for a wide range of careers partly through internships in the public and private sectors.
“McKenna students, as they will be known, will become university and provincial ambassadors,” Boudreau said. “The province, the country and the world need culturally sensitive, global citizens with experience in applying theory to practice in real-world settings.”
Boudreau also thanked the inaugural founders, adding that fundraising would continue.
“We will continue to grow the McKenna School for years to come,” he said.
In an e-mail to Warktimes, Mount Allison Students Union President Jonathan Ferguson welcomed creation of the new school saying it would benefit the existing philosophy, politics and economics program as well as other academic departments at the university.
“We are excited that this project is going forward and being worked on – it’s incredibly positive news!” Ferguson wrote.
Jamie Brownlee, author of the 2015 book Academia Inc., How Corporatization is Transforming Canadian Universities, says that over the past several decades universities have increasingly turned to private donations to make up for shortfalls in public funding.
Brownlee, who teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, says it’s one way that wealthy people like Frank McKenna and the inaugural founders of his school can assert their influence over higher education.
“I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable that in exchange for monetary donations, corporations or wealthy individuals receive something from the university,” he said during a telephone interview.
“They like to get their names emblazoned on university buildings and have academic programs named after them,” Brownlee added. “It’s not really transforming the university in any fundamental way.”
But, he warned that donors are increasingly demanding more say in university teaching, budgetary decisions, hiring and research.
“Does this donor funding have strings attached and if so, what are they?” he asked.
Brownlee says those details are spelled out in donors’ agreements and it’s crucial that universities make them public.
However, in response to an e-mail from Warktimes, Mount Allison communications officer Laura Dillman wrote: “Gift agreements are considered private documents between the University and the donor(s) at Mount Allison.”
Brownlee says Mt. A. should be pressed to release the donors’ agreement especially in light of Frank McKenna’s past pronouncements supporting higher student tuition fees, legislating striking professors back to work and viewing universities as “profit centres.”
James Turk, Director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, is also a strong advocate for making university donors’ agreements public.
“I think it’s totally inappropriate for Mount Allison University to fail to disclose to the university community and the public the terms of a donor agreement that could have an impact on the academic program and nature of the university,” he said during a telephone interview.
“Mount Allison is a public university and needs to be transparent in these matters as many other universities are,” Turk added.
He said, for example, that the University of Toronto has agreed to make the terms of agreements on donations over $250,000 available to the public for the last 20 years.
“I want to make clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a university, especially when it’s being underfunded by the provincial government, to accept donations from corporations or donors,” Turk says.
Bu he adds that it’s only OK if the university doesn’t give the donor any say over the academic program or research that the donation is funding.
“The only way to know whether a donation is acceptable or not, is to read the fine print in the contract with the donor,” he says, “and if the university is not prepared to make that donor agreement available, it makes me, for one, immediately suspicious that there’s something in the agreement that the university doesn’t want the public to know.”
Note: When James Turk was serving as executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) in 2013, he compiled a comprehensive report on university collaborations with donors called Open for Business: On What Terms?
In 2014, Jamie Brownlee submitted a PhD thesis entitled: Irreconcilable Differences: The Corporatization of Canadian Universities.
Read the Mount Allison news release announcing the Frank McKenna School of Philosophy, Politics & Economics here.
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times where this story first appeared on Sept. 28, 2020.