This April 19, less than two weeks before Alberta’s provincial election is expected to begin, MacEwan University in Edmonton is spending $15,000 to sponsor a pre-campaign event for three UCP cabinet ministers. One democratic governance expert is calling it “not only inappropriate but unethical.”
Business lobby group the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce is hosting the event, titled “A Conversation on the Road to Recovery.” Minister of Public Safety Mike Ellis, Minister of Municipal Affairs Rebecca Schulz and Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Nicholas Milliken “will speak directly to the business community on Edmonton’s road to recovery and it’s plans to combat homelessness and increase access to addiction services and supports.”
MacEwan claims that they chose to put $15,000 towards this UCP campaign event in order to tell the chamber of commerce audience about their new school of business building. The Alberta government announced on February 28 that they are sending $125 million to the university to expand the MacEwan School of Business.
“The fee for this sponsorship is $15,000 and gives the opportunity for MacEwan to address the audience about the new School of Business Building which will soon begin construction. Once complete, the new building will increase the number of post-secondary spaces available and help contribute to the recovery and revitalization of Edmonton's downtown,” a spokesperson for MacEwan told the Report.
Duff Conacher, the executive director of watchdog organization Democracy Watch, says he’s troubled by both the university funding a partisan campaign event and by the appearance that the event is payback for the funding.
“It smells like a returning of that favour, which is not only inappropriate but also unethical.”
“The university is essentially endorsing the ruling party and their vision by only having ministers from the ruling party speak at that event. It is completely inappropriate for a university to do that, especially for a university that claims to believe in and uphold academic freedom,” said Conacher.
The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce says they reviewed their event against Election Alberta guidelines and according to spokesperson Alexandra Hryciw they “are within the boundaries of pre-writ issuance. This event has not been designed, nor is it intended, to promote or oppose the UCP or any of the cabinet ministers in attendance. As you know, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce as an organization does not support any particular political party or candidates.”
Hryciw also noted that they hosted Rachel Notley last year, are working with both parties for a forum in May and that several other Chambers of Commerce are hosting similar events throughout the month.
Still, Conacher has serious concerns about Macewan University’s involvement as a sponsor.
“To sponsor this event is just as much support as making a donation. It’s partisan and as such it’s completely inappropriate for any publicly funded institution to do this. It’s not only saying that the university supports the ruling party but it’s also trying to buy influence if they happen to win the next election,” said Conacher.
Lorian Hardcastle, a law professor at the University of Calgary, says she’s surprised that Macewan University is hosting such a partisan event.
“I don’t know what kind of policies the Macewan has but we have policies at the University of Calgary about how the university should remain politically neutral,” said Hardcastle. “It’s surprising that a university would implicitly endorse a political party that had made such harsh cuts to post-secondary education.”
This type of political involvement by universities is not unprecedented in Alberta. In 2011 CBC revealed that universities and colleges made tens of thousands of dollars in illegal donations to the ruling Progressive Conservative party. Taxpayer’s money was used to attend numerous PC fundraisers between 2004 and 2011, including dinners and golf tournaments. A political science professor quoted in the story called it “pork-barrel politics.”
“The reason that was criticized then is the reason I'm criticizing this now. You expect publicly funded universities to be politically neutral,” said Hardcastle. “Of course they have to work with the government of the day but they don’t have to platform their campaign…This is more of the same where universities are aligning themselves with a ruling party.”
Tickets to the event are $95 for Edmonton Chamber of Commerce members, $130 for non-members. Chamber of Commerce members can get a table of 10 for $995, non-members for $1300.