The Canadian Corporate-Academic Complex

We need to defend professors and graduate students against powerful corporations—and their own universities.
By James Turk

As universities more aggressively embrace corporate values, corporate management practices, corporate labor-relations policies, and corporate money, faculty associations face troubling challenges. The new reality is particularly hostile to academic freedom, and we see that hostility in the actions of corporate funders and university administrators, often simultaneously.

Two cases in Canada exemplify both the challenges faced by faculty and the new approaches that the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is taking to defend its members, protect academic freedom, and ensure the integrity of academic work.

A Seemingly Endless Fight

In the mid-1990s, Nancy Olivieri, a distinguished hematologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, discovered that a new drug for which she was conducting clinical trials appeared to lose its efficacy over time. The pharmaceutical company that co-sponsored the trials (along with the Medical Research Council of Canada) disputed her findings and the need to inform patients and the scientific community. When Olivieri, complying with a Research Ethics Board directive, moved to advise patients of her findings, the company terminated the trials. They also threatened vigorous legal action if she communicated the risks she had identified to patients or anyone else. While Olivieri’s university failed to offer her appropriate support, the hospital set up a committee to investigate her behavior, removing her as director of the red blood cell program, issuing directives that prohibited her or her colleagues from discussing their concerns publicly, and filing a complaint against her before the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons. Later, CAUT and one of its member associations, the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA), learned that the university and the pharmaceutical company had been in discussions about a multi-million-dollar donation to the university that would also benefit the hospital.

While Olivieri’s support came initially from four senior colleagues, UTFA eventually became aware of her situation and stepped in to help. In response to the hospital’s gag order, UTFA president Bill Graham arranged a press conference to publicize Olivieri’s situation. UTFA also filed a grievance on her behalf. However, when Olivieri left for a trip to one of her research sites in Sri Lanka, the hospital moved in to oust her from her lab. Two of her graduate students alerted UTFA, and Graham joined them in occupying the lab so that it could not be dismantled.

UTFA then arranged for two of the world’s top hematologists— John Porter from University College London and Alan Schechter from the National Institutes of Health—to come to Toronto to review Olivieri’s program. They issued a report that found that “Dr. Olivieri’s program of clinical research by any criteria is outstanding.” UTFA also brought in the Regius Professor of Medicine from the University of Oxford, Sir David Weatherall, and the head of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, David Nathan, to press the University of Toronto’s president to resolve the situation. These actions led to the first of several settlements.

In the meantime, while the College of Physicians and Surgeons was investigating the hospital’s allegations against Olivieri, someone was sending hate mail and making hate calls to her supportive colleagues. When the hospital’s investigation of these disturbing communications went nowhere, Olivieri’s colleagues and UTFA were able to discover the culprit—a distinguished professor of medicine and former co-researcher of Olivieri—by matching his DNA to that on the stamp of one of the letters.

CAUT not only assisted UTFA in these actions but also created an independent committee of inquiry to investigate the affair and recommend what actions should be taken. Unlike the traditional investigatory committees long used by CAUT and the AAUP, this independent committee operated entirely autonomously. CAUT learned of the committee’s findings only when its 540-page report was issued at a public press conference two years later.

The Olivieri Report vindicated Olivieri, as did the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons, helping CAUT and UTFA negotiate a second settlement for Olivieri. Although this was a substantial settlement, the drug company has nonetheless to date avoided paying by continuing to engage in legal actions against Olivieri. In 2005, Olivieri was the subject of a viciously critical book by a U.S. physician. With the assistance of CAUT, Olivieri has sued the author and the publisher, Random House, for defamation. The case is still in process. Olivieri’s case also was the inspiration for John Le Carré’s bestselling novel The Constant Gardener.

What started as a drug company’s attempt to suppress unfavorable findings about its new drug grew into an unwanted fifteen-year battle for Nancy Olivieri. She has survived with her research, her university appointment, and her academic freedom intact. But she has faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and spent a large part of her time defending herself and her academic work. UTFA also spent hundreds of thousands in legal fees to assist Olivieri; the association broke new ground in defending a member by organizing a press conference in defiance of a gag order, occupying a lab so it could not be dismantled, and bringing in world-renowned experts to counter misinformation being spread about Olivieri’s work.

The Olivieri case was also a learning experience for CAUT. It initiated a new approach to major academic freedom cases. CAUT covered hundreds of thousands in legal fees, arranged media coverage in Canada and internationally, helped underwrite costs incurred by UTFA, launched an eight-year campaign to highlight the importance of academic freedom within schools of medicine, and began a new tradition of independent inquiries.

Farmers and the Market

A thousand miles away in Winnipeg, between 2002 and 2004, University of Manitoba professor Stéphane McLachlan and his doctoral student Ian Mauro faced a challenge directly from their own university administration. After completing a research project on the effects of genetically modified crops on farming and publishing the results, they compiled their findings in a documentary film. The intention of Seeds of Change: Farmers, Biotechnology, and the New Face of Agriculture was to make McLachlan and Mauro’s findings accessible to the farmers who had participated in their research.

However, the university obstructed the film’s release. Citing a decades-old intellectual property policy, university officials declared that the university was a partial owner of the rights to the film, effectively blocking its release. They expressed concern that the film contained controversial statements about the biotechnology industry and stated that they feared litigation from Monsanto. The university refused to allow release of the film unless McLachlan and Mauro indemnified the institution against all lawsuits. It later was learned that while they delayed the release of the researchers’ film, university officials were negotiating with Monsanto to locate the company’s Canadian corporate headquarters in the industrial research “Smartpark,” where it is today.

Working with the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, CAUT pressed the university to allow release of the film, but to no avail. Because there was no dispute about the facts related to the university’s obstruction of the film’s release, it would have been pointless to establish an investigatory committee (which would have only created further delays). So, after another attempt to reason with the university administration had failed, CAUT decided on direct action.

The National Farmers Union was soon to have its annual convention. CAUT made arrangements to hold the world premiere of Seeds of Change at a featured event during the union’s convention. (We even arranged with an organic farmers’ organization to provide popcorn for the audience.) Immediately thereafter, CAUT assisted McLachlan and Mauro in a cross-country tour, showing the film in major cities across Canada. The tour culminated in Winnipeg, where CAUT rented the Winnipeg Art Gallery auditorium for a showing of the film and a talk by Nancy Olivieri on the importance of academic freedom. More than five hundred people attended.

These two cases, and dozens of similarly challenging cases, have forced CAUT to find innovative ways to defend academic freedom in today’s corporatized academic environment. Our biggest regret is not the unprecedented number of cases we are having to defend but the many other instances that never come to our attention because the costs of speaking out carry such a high price for academics.

James Turk is executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. His most recent book is Universities at Risk: How Politics, Special Interests and Corporatization Threaten Academic Integrity. His e-mail address is [email protected].



Thank you very much for publishing this article and demonstrating the value of direct action. 

D. L.


A very important  article on a very serious issue; I will certainly be buying the book.