The Benefactor Wall
Does corporate investment in business schools compromise academic freedom and research integrity?
Although shrinking with time and circumstance, my MBA-acquired intellectual property inhabits prime cerebral space. There, in the deep folds of the cortex, the forces of theory and practice, numbers and narrative compete for mental supremacy. It can’t make for easy combat. Armed with formulas, spreadsheets and case-study conclusions, the synapses fighting for the free market are poised to wield the upper hand. But the underdog synapses struggling for socio-economic equity carry the business- school equivalent of Aesop’s Fables. Here are a couple of my favourites.
First, the day my professor of organizational theory invited the local Frito Lay plant manager and a high-ranking civil servant to address our class. While handing out more bags of potato chips than any 7-Eleven could stock, Mr. Frito Lay delivered a slick presentation on building teamwork among spud peelers. Mr. Bureaucrat, meanwhile, was pensive and modest as he shared stories of managing education and health-care budgets worth billions.
Afterwards, the potato guy was mobbed by students thrusting their résumés into his well-manicured hands. The other guy hovered in the background with only our professor for company. Over a bag of ripple chips, I contemplated the shape-shifting power of packaging and presentation—potato-chip production had been elevated to a calling more noble than educating the young or healing the sick.
A couple of months later, the CEO of a major financial institution was invited to speak on the issue of bank mergers. Cuddling a logo-clad teddy bear, Mr. CEO boasted of his company’s efforts to combat child poverty. He pledged that no child be left behind in an era of trade liberalization (note the savvy link to the bank merger issue). Then, with an abrupt toss of the teddy, he launched a fiery defence of front-line layoffs and corporate restructuring. The crowd rewarded him with a standing ovation. Slipping out the side door, I wondered whether some of the children living in poverty weren’t the very offspring of his company’s offloaded and underpaid front-line workers.
Questions about the relationship between the classroom and the boardroom loomed large during my B-school tenure. Signs of corporate influence over case-study selection, focus-group exercises and speaker series existed but were not flagrant enough to trigger any blowing of the scholarly whistle. Still, the scent of compromise lingered in the halls and I worried more about what I couldn’t see than what I could.
The increasingly cozy ties between corporate Canada and those being trained for entry into its inner sanctum strikes many as practical and efficient. Corporations, they argue, should invest in the education of its next generation of leaders through scholarships, research chairs, technology, and alpha-dominant bricks and mortar. And, in exchange, corporate logos decorate donor walls, and business executives-cum-benefactors attend gala receptions. Sure, the fanfare surrounding such quid pro quo philanthropy may be excessive but this very exposure brings deals out of the back room and into the scrutiny of the public domain.
For it’s the deals that stay behind closed doors that alarm the nearly extinct camp of purists. They argue that any external influence over research and teaching threatens academic freedom. Of course, back room deals, telling glances and whispered codes are difficult to trace. But if an algorithmic model were simulated to narrate the story of corporate involvement in Canadian business schools, it would be built around the facts, supplemented with controversy, and interspersed with conjecture.
Here’s what we know to be true.
Over the last decade, several business schools have profited from the sale of their names to corporate Canada’s wealthiest. At last count, of the 34 universities offering MBA programs, 12 sport surnames distinct from their parent institutions. Think Ivey (University of Western Ontario), Schulich (York University), Rotman (University of Toronto), Molson (Concordia University), Asper (University of Manitoba), Sauder (University of British Columbia), Haskayne (University of Calgary) and, most recently,
Desautels (McGill University). Of the 22 schools that have kept their maiden names, some have done so on principle while others are eagerly awaiting corporate courtship.