We can’t allow undisclosed donations at universities.
In Dec. 2021, University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law accepted, and then failed to disclose its use of a donation from Amazon. The University returned the approximately $600,000 donation after facing accusations of hiding the donation and violating academic freedom in doing so. Prior to being returned, a large part of the donation funded a webinar series on competition law.
Universities accepting funding through donations isn’t uncommon. Scholarships and research can be privately funded. U of T’s conduct is problematic because the donors influenced the content of the webinars they funded without student attendees’ knowledge.
Canadian consumer advocates have criticized Amazon for profiting unfairly from its large market share and discouraging competition.
In October 2021, two months before the donation, the Canadian Competition Bureau Commissioner Matthew Boswell indicated the bureau’s intention to strengthen laws that would threaten Amazon’s monopoly by protecting competition.
Along with their donation, Amazon provided U of T with a list of potential speakers for the webinar series. Several speakers criticized expanding competition legislation, with one even accusing the Canadian Competition Bureau of trying to shame Amazon.
Students attending a webinar put on by their university and featuring multiple speakers likely imagine they’ll be receiving expert and diverse opinions. Amazon’s speaker list, it appears, provided students with a singular, biased point of view. Amazon’s instructions to U of T not to publicize their involvement in the webinar concealed that bias.
Education that suppresses critical thinking nears indoctrination. Barring this audience, U of T law students, from critically engaging with the content of these webinars seems especially sinister.
The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies is a conservative American legal organization. The events it sponsors on university campuses typically boast far right speakers promoting conservative interpretations of the law.
The Federalist Society is proof of the potential for ways of thinking promoted at universities to spread beyond campuses.
Like the Federalist Society, Amazon is entitled to their perspective on competition legislation, but they’re not free to secretly promote their personal interests under the guise of assisting in a university education.
Law students are future changemakers, particularly those studying at U of T.
U of T is one of Canada’s most prestigious law schools. Its graduates are leading figures in the judicial, political, and academic realms, nationally and internationally. Influencing their opinions on competition legislation and discouraging their critical thinking is dangerous.
Disclosing where funding is coming from helps universities stay accountable in the expectation of providing as unbiased an education as possible. Privately accepting donations from organizations seeking to influence opinion or curricula is neither safe nor acceptable.
Let U of T not forget this in the future.
—Journal Editorial Board
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