The tricky business of funding a university – by James Bradshaw (Globe and Mail – October 17, 2012)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

When billionaire entrepreneur Ned Goodman announced a major gift this week that will stamp his name on Laurentian University’s new School of Mines, he made it clear how he wanted it spent: directly on student experiences, and not on the school’s fixed costs.

Mr. Goodman’s gift (the amount was not disclosed) will go toward a $20-million endowment for the school, which will fund bursaries, scholarships, study abroad and career placement opportunities, and identify possible new degree options in areas of industry demand. The Dundee Corporation chief executive officer will have a seat on the school’s Global Advisory Council, which oversees how endowment funds are spent, but has no say over hiring or curriculum.

Laurentian, in Sudbury, has watched other Ontario universities face harsh criticism over donor agreements deemed by some to give private funders too much sway over academic matters. President Dominic Giroux hopes Mr. Goodman’s advisory role will keep him connected to the school while respecting academic boundaries.

“[The agreement]… is a useful construct which avoids getting into research integrity matters or academic freedom, but also allows industry to know tangibly the impact of their investment,” Mr. Giroux said.

In September, mounting backlash over excessive donor involvement prompted dozens of academics and administrators to gather for a one-day conference in Waterloo aimed at coming to grips with the new realities of private-sector funding. In a climate of limited resources and rising costs, Canadian university leaders are seeking deeper ties with business and wealthy individuals to help launch new initiatives and provide enriched student experiences. Private partners, however, have increasingly demanded ongoing input in how their money is spent, presenting universities with ethical questions.

“Donors are less inclined to give an undirected gift than ever before,” said Nicholas Offord, a fundraising consultant and former executive director of development at Montreal’s McGill University.

“The conversations now are much more about, ‘How can I help the university address important social causes that matter to me?’ ”

Business has had a foothold on campuses for decades, with corporations funding contract research by professors on projects of mutual interest. Firms tapped technology transfer offices established by universities to help professors take inventions to market. And their donations have put corporate brands and donor names on everything from lecture halls to research chairs.

In the past, those relationships were typically executed at arm’s length, insulating academics from donors’ interests. The deals struck today are often more complex, the donors less passive, and some schools have landed in hot water in their eagerness to do new things, and to keep benefactors from taking their precious dollars elsewhere.

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