Two years ago, a Dalhousie engineering student named Stephen Thomas started noticing the Shell Oil logo popping up all over campus, and so submitted a Freedom of Information request seeking the details of a $600,000 grant from the oil company to university.

Thomas sent me a copy of the 2011 agreement; you can read it here. Some of the particulars included:

Shell Spring Field Excursion:
— Opportunity for two Shell representatives to participate in each trip.

Field Trips / Field Schools:
— Opportunity for Shell representative to attend. Shell is responsible to pay the costs associated with the Shell employee’s participation.

Teaching Facility Improvement Fund:
— Shell’s name/logo displayed in the room

Hard Hats:
— The Shell logo will be displayed prominently on the hard hats.

Additional Recognition:

• Gift and its impact on engineering students will be profiled in the Faculty of Engineering’s alumni magazine.
• The Shell SELF program will be featured on its own webpage within the Faculty of Engineering’s website, promoting the gift and the successes of the sponsored students.

Further, the agreement spelled out that Earth Science department profs and administrators now work directly for and under the direction of Shell Canada:

A committee, the Earth Sciences Shell SELF Committee (ESSSC) to be formed within the Earth Sciences department to steer and allocate funds across the department. The committee will consist of the Department Chair (currently R. Jamieson), one of the Associate Chairs (currently J. Gosse or M. Gibling), one additional faculty member decided upon by the department (position would rotate yearly (Sept-Aug); initially G. Wach for continuity with present system), and department Administrator (A. Bannon). The committee will invite, receive, review, and rank proposals 3 times a year, solicited from across the entire department, including student societies. Recommendations for funding will be made in advance of the academic term for which the funds are requested. All projects recommended by the committee must be within the criteria identified above, and be sent to Shell’s Science CAP team members for approval.

At a May 11, 2015 meeting of the University Senate, Environmental Science prof Tarah Wright raised the following issues with university president Richard Florizone:

Tarah Wright

1) Shell is given authority on certain academic matters: Their gift allows them to participate in the “judging” of — and the power to reject — Senior design projects in Mechanical Engineering and Earth Science classes. I should note that these projects are part of official undergraduate classes and not a stand alone competition or extracurricular activity.  

2) Also, some core courses in Earth Science and Engineering have sections of the class now sponsored by Shell and branded as such in the syllabi — for example an Earth Science Field Course now has a section titled the “Shell Spring Field Excursion.”

What is also disturbing is Clause 6.0 that stipulates that neither Dal nor Shell will talk about the agreement without the other’s consent — which could be viewed as an attempt to interfere with academic freedom at the University.

By September 2011, Wright was prepared to make a motion at Senate that would establish a Senate committee that would be “charged with identifying potential academic integrity issues associated with the acceptance of charitable gifts to the university.”

But for reasons I can’t now determine, Wright never presented the motion; instead, the university’s Vice President of Advancement Peter Fardy addressed the Senate. From the minutes of the meeting:

Peter Fardy

The gift commitment process that is followed at Dalhousie was outlined by Mr. Fardy, noting that gifts apply to personal and corporate gifts. It was emphasized that donors are engaged for strategic purposes which advance the objectives of the university. Donors are secured who have alignment with the goals of Dalhousie. Normally the Dean of the area of the donor’s interest will facilitate negotiations and discuss how the donation might take shape. If there is no alignment, then the gift is not accepted. If there is intersection between the donor and the school, a contract or gift agreement is reached. The specifics of agreements are personalized to the particular donor, their level of market sophistication, etc.

The specifics of the contract review process were discussed as well. Focus is placed on ensuring the donor is unable to dictate research outcomes and that outcomes can be published. There are also efforts to reduce liability to the university in situations where funding is terminated with just cause.

So, basically: don’t worry your pretty little heads about this, Senators.

Still, Fardy was tasked by the university’s Board of Governors to develop a university gift policy. He brought a draft of that policy to the Senate on Monday. Understand that the Senate had no input into the creation of the policy, and will have no voice in its adoption or implementation — Fardy was delivering the document from on high, a fait accompli that Senators couldn’t influence.

Senators weren’t happy about this. Senator Françoise Baylis pointed out that it was the Senate itself that raised the gift issue, and so the Senate should have been involved in the plan’s writing.

Leonard Diepeveen

Senator and English prof Leonard Diepeveen particularly pressed Fardy on the academic integrity issue, to which Fardy issued a boilerplate response about being open to input. I was sitting off to the side so couldn’t see Diepeveen’s face, but Fardy then angrily yelled out, “I don’t appreciate having eyes rolled at me!” This is about as heated as things get at Senate meetings, and chair Kevin Hewitt called for order. Diepeveen later told me that he sent Fardy an email apologizing for questioning his integrity.

But I was curious about what caused the commotion, so after the meeting I approached Fardy and asked for a copy of the draft policy. He refused to give it to me, saying that the policies only become public after the Board of Governors approve them.

Well, I said, this confuses me. Meetings of both the Senate and the Board of Governors are open to the public, and reporters are often present. Clearly, the purpose of making the meetings open to the public is to maintain some sense of transparency and is at least a nod to public oversight. But, I told Fardy, I can’t make sense of or properly report on controversies like the one playing out before my eyes on the gift policy if I can’t see the actual proposed policy.

Fardy held to his guns. Keeping draft policies from the public “is good governance,” he told me.

I reminded Fardy that the university is a publicly funded institution, and so the public should have the right to know what policies the university is proposing — before they are adopted.

To this, Fardy angrily stormed out of the room.

I also asked several senators if they could give me a copy of the draft gift policy, but they also declined, saying they didn’t know if Senate policy allowed it. They’re right to be confused: unlike, say, a city council agenda packet, the Senate agenda on the internet does not include attachments of the documents being discussed.

However, I managed to get a hold of the draft policy from another source. You can read it here.

If you do read it, ask yourself: Why should this be withheld from the public? I can’t think of any reason whatsoever. There are none of the usual excuses for public agency secrecy — no personnel issues, no potential lawsuits, no labour union negotiations, no real estate haggling.

The only thing that explains why Fardy wouldn’t want this document to be made public is a default expectation of secrecy — there’s no actual reason to keep it from the public except for a general disdain for the public’s right to know.

This is how the various governance bodies at the university — the Senate, the Board of Governors, and the administration structure with its various VPs like Fardy — think. It’s where they’re coming from. You, public, have no right to know what they’re doing with your money.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. It is time for openness and transparency (O&T) legislation to be implemented by the provincial authority. FOIPOP and other information gathering processes have resulted because O&T does not exist as a common practice and these information gathering processes cost a lot of money because of the redactor policies associated with these processes. Those that spend taxpayer’s money or administrate programs and projects within institutional, commercial, non-profit, charitable and government facilities/organizations that are classified as being “for the public”, should be bound to clearly understood O&T policies that are reasonably enforced.

  2. The Senate is a very diverse body at Dalhousie and I can say from attending Senate meetings as an observer for about 2 years that there are many good, honest people working for openness, inclusivity and transparency at Senate. The universities upper administration does not value that same openness.
    Not sharing a policy that deals directly with academic freedom with the body in charge of maintaining academic freedom is ludicrous.
    It seems that some of Dalhousie’s gifts already break the policy and its claim that gifts should not threaten the “institutional autonomy”. Lest we forget Shells threat of holding back future gifts if the university decided to divest from fossil fuels. From the Senate report on Fossil Fuel Divestment: “A senior executive at Shell (who fund the Campus Ambassador Program (CAP) that continues to benefit the Faculty) told me directly that the company is monitoring the university divestment movement closely and would look unfavorably on any university that divested in regard to future investment. Certainly, Dalhousie’s divestment would send a clear signal that the university is not supportive of the oil and gas industry and could well lead to withdrawal or nonrenewal of investment by oil and gas companies in Dalhousie activities.” Chris Moore, Dean of Science.

  3. It’s the Presbyterian and Catholic obsession with secrecy that has bedevilled public life for several centuries. Universities need to realise that taking public money means being open to public scrutiny.
    Maybe he thinks he can pull a Phil Jones, the University of East Anglia scientist who conspired to flout the UK Freedom of Information legislation and had his knuckles rapped the UK Information Commissioner.
    Just call him ‘Farcical Fardy’.
    Keep up the good work.