Get dirty money out of McGill

Get dirty money out of McGill

A ttractive, no-strings-attached, well-connected, and willing to please for a small price. This may sound like a personal ad, but is in fact the message McGill sends out to potential donors, regardless of their STI status. And yet, the rush of investment from large donors is not raising the eyebrows that it should be.

Campaign McGill was launched in October of 2007, and in mid-October of this year proudly announced that it had surpassed the $500-million mark and was well on its way to reaching the goal of $750 million.

The administration’s desire to attract research dollars has gone so far as to influence its policy review processes.

Earlier this month, the administration introduced its draft of Regulations on the Conduct of Research policy in which sections requiring transparent reporting on research receiving military funding were removed. The administration has cited the need to remain in-line with other research-intensive universities, presumably in order to competitively attract donors.

The administration has also shied away from commitments regarding the adoption of policies that would ensure innovations created at McGill are accessible and affordable for those in developing countries. Again, fears of losing research dollars have dominated discussions.

It appears that McGill is trading in its ethics for big bucks.

Back when she was a prude
In November 1993, “Class A” (most heinous) war criminal and Japanese fascist Ryoichi Sasakawa approached McGill about a possible donation. At the time, Sasakawa’s foundation had already made donations worth millions of dollars to various prestigious universities, including Princeton, Berkeley, and Oxford. However, both the University of California at San Diego and University of Chicago refused his money.

The McGill administration was urged by multiple faculty members to be wary of Sasakawa’s donations. McGill geography professor Audrey Kobayashi, renowned for redressing injustices to Japanese-Canadians during World War II, advised the McGill administration to inform itself of Sasakawa’s political history.

“I would hope that the McGill community would educate itself about money from this source and other sources acquired by unethical means or from organizations that support what we in our society agree to be unethical,” said Kobayashi at the time.

By the end of the month, Vice-Principal (Fundraising), Michael Keifer told Senate that McGill had declined the invitation to discussions with Sasakawa’s foundation.

“Before knowing what we now know about Sasakawa we said we would be happy to meet them, but that has changed,” Keifer said in Senate.

Professor Emeritus Samuel Noumoff, who was involved in the faculty opposition to the Sasakawa donation, is still proud of McGill’s decision at the time.

“Fortunately, McGill had the courage at that point to say ‘Thank you, no,’” Noumoff said.

Ignorance, indifference, or denial?
In October of this year, the president of Nestlé Nutrition Canada, Marilyn Knox, co-chaired the Global Food Security Conference at McGill with Munroe-Blum. According to Carole Dobrich, coordinator of the Goldfarb Breastfeeding Program at the Jewish General Hospital and president of the Infant Feeding Action Coalition (INFACT Quebec), this was a direct conflict of interest, as Munroe-Blum formerly served on the Nestlé Canada Advisory Board.

In a letter written in August to Munroe-Blum, Dobrich and others asked Munroe-Blum to “immediately and publicly disengage yourself and McGill University from this and any other affiliation with Nestlé Canada.”

The letter cited Nestlé’s unethical practices including “unethical marketing of infant formulas and repeated, systematic violations of the UNICEF/WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk substitutes and subsequent resolutions; the use of forced child labour in their cocoa supply chain in West Africa; and controversial water pricing and the privatization of public water resources,” among others.

Munroe-Blum dismissed INFACT’s concerns in a September 9 email to the group.

“One of the objectives of this conference is to bring the private sector to the table and to engage with them…. We are happy to have a distinguished senior Nestlé Canada executive attend the conference and act as the co-chair of the proceedings,” wrote Munroe-Blum.

INFACT members were dissatisfied with Munroe-Blum’s response and called it a blatant denial of Nestlé’s role in perpetuating global food insecurity.

“The biggest concern is that you have the principal of McGill placing the university at a conflict of interest. We simply have to ask, ‘Is this a good thing?’”

Donations as redemption
Large donations from private corporations, often seen as the corporatization or privatization of education, are problematic. Good research can come out of funding from private companies. However, it is often difficult to disentangle companies’ true motives.

One can easily argue that Nestlé’s involvement in the Global Food Security Conference was a public relations tactic. And McGill agreed to let them put on the show.

Another example of McGill’s donor relationships with potentially unethical corporations is a $3-million gift received from the Rio Tinto Alcan Canada Fund in 2008, which allowed the creation of the L. Yves Fortier Chair in International Arbitration and International Commercial Law. This money will allow McGill to train international commercial lawyers who will be well-versed in the various legal cases Rio Tinto faces.

In 2000, victims of Rio Tinto’s mining operation on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, filed a lawsuit under the Alien Tort Claims Act in U.S. federal court against Rio Tinto. Specifically, they alleged that improperly dumped waste rock and tailings from the Rio’s mining operations had detrimental effects on the environment and the health of the residents.

After nine years, this case has still not been resolved, and the U.S. federal appeals court is reviewing whether Rio Tinto must face claims of human rights violations. Other cases surrounding Rio Tinto have arisen elsewhere. In 2008, the Norwegian government publicly condemned Rio Tinto’s unethical practices by selling close to £500 million, in Rio Tinto shares.

It is clear that Rio Tinto has a lot of cleaning up to do, and one option for doing this might be donating to universities. While the Norwegian government is disassociating itself from the company, Munroe-Blum continues to serve on the board of the Canada Forum of Rio Tinto-Alcan.

Noumoff, for one, argued that large donations from unethical sources affect every member of the University community.

“No matter what view, one [would be] gaining their salary as a result of unethical investment. And that’s an unethical issue that every member of the staff [has] to cope with,” said Noumoff.

Current donations policy
According to Derek Cassoff, director of communications of the Development and Alumni Relations Office at McGill, decisions regarding donations are largely made by the academic provosts and deans, and proper considerations are given to ethical concerns.

“All the gifts do not run through the Senate or the Board of Governors. It’s usually the academic provost that conducts the negotiations with large donors,” Cassoff said. “In some cases the donors request to remain anonymous…but we’re very prudent when we enter in a relationship with a potential donor. If there’s any concern that the donor is unethical, we wouldn’t want to do business with them.”

Noumoff believes that better documentation would help McGill make better ethical choices.

“First, it is very important to document the nature of the investment or the donations. Second, [McGill should] document the charges that are made against those companies or those individuals…. If the documentation is sufficient [to suggest unethical practices] then one would request the Board examine it, present briefs, and report,” said Noumoff.

Richard Janda, McGill law professor and co-author of Corporate Social Responsibility: A Legal Analysis, agreed that transparent criteria for assessing donations are necessary.

“There’s an imperative for the University to establish criteria and policies such that its reputation is not harmed by the origins of its money. And any origin of money that could display taint, influence, divert free and open inquiry should not be accepted.” said Janda. “Universities are supposed to be leaders with respect to matters of social concern, and I think that this is an example where we could do that.”

Janda also explained that policy regulations on military research, as well as global access policies, can demonstrate that McGill is mindful of both the potential harmful applications of its research, and its positive spillovers.

For Dobrich, it’s a matter of moral responsibility.

“Sometimes we get lost in the big hype of everything else, sometimes we’ve got to look at what’s right and ethical, not how far we can push the money buck,” Dobrich said.

If Sasakawa offered to support Campaign McGill today, would he be refused?