TOPPLING THE IVORY TOWER

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By Dominique Blain

It’s Tuesday, 7:55 a.m. and Sheldon Levy, vice-president of finance and strategy at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, has a call to make.

Levy has to call me. That is to say, he doesn’t have to call me. Rather, he is choosing to call me. Ryerson’s future president is going to be spending the day on the road and yet he found time to answer questions from a reporter who will only pester him more once he settles in at Ryerson.

Meanwhile, Eyeopener editor-in-chief Joel Wass is sending an e-mail to Debbie Chant, director of the president’s office, detailing the questions he will ask Ryerson president Claude Lajeunesse. When they meet for Friday morning’s meeting, Lajeunesse will be demonstrably frustrated with questions about the accountability and transparency of Ontario universities. “There is no problem of access to information in universities,” he says, letting his voice rise with passion.

“To claim that universities are not transparent, that there is a problem with access to information in universities, is to not recognize reality.”

However, the reality is that when the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations decided to test freedom of information (FOI) in universities in 2004, Ryerson, as well as 12 other institutions, scored a big fat F. Only seven universities received a passing grade. One school that passed the test is UOIT – the semi-private institution where Levy works.

“It was just business as usual,” he tells me from his cellphone. “It wasn’t a big deal.” But the fact of the matter is, sharing basic information apparently was a big deal to Ryerson and other universities.

From Coca-Cola to SuperBuild, contracts that affect Ryerson students, staff and faculty are kept behind locked doors in locked filing cabinets in locked offices. And the people holding the keys are staunchly keeping their hands in their pockets. “(University administrators) should not be the gatekeepers to the information,” says Jesse Greener, Ontario chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.

Governments have been attempting to make their information more accessible to taxpayers since the early ’80s. These endeavours have resulted in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which allows any member of the public to petition any branch of government for any matter of information.

And yet, for reasons that are tenuous at best, Ontario universities have been, de facto, exempt from the demands of other government agencies. Which means stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, taxpayers – don’t have the same rights when it comes to universities as the rest of government.

“Outside of the (Council of Ontario Universities), I think you’ll find a majority of observers and stakeholders would say that freedom of information should apply to universities,” Greener says.

One such observer is Alasdair S. Roberts, a Canadian specialist on freedom of information and an associate professor at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “Universities exercise a significant amount of influence,” Roberts says. “But there is really no way of enforcing your right to information. There are two problems: You get transparency either because there’s a legal remedy or because there’s a strong political voice (pushing for it). But universities are not covered by law. (And) there’s no constituency pushing aggressively for their rights.”

Thus universities could remain exempt from legislation for a long time. Qaid Silk, manager of research, analysis and policy at the Council of Ontario Universities, disagrees with the use of the word “exempt.” He says that, while universities are treated differently under FIPPA, they still “very much want to ensure access to information.

And we very much want to protect privacy. We’re not saying we want something different.” Yet it is undeniable that universities are, in effect, getting something different. Abiding by a self-written protocol – each university administration was expected to write an FOI protocol based on the council’s guidelines – instead of actual laws frees them from legal repercussions.

“The guidelines are just that – guidelines,” Greener says. “They’re not anything enforceable. There’s no guarantee that those guidelines (will be followed). They don’t mean anything.”

To top it off, any appeals filed against the university regarding FOI are judged by the university’s board secretariat – the university can’t be independently petitioned. The repercussions could be so dire as to affect curriculum, Greener says. “There’s been a level of privatization in our jurisdiction that’s been unparalleled in other provinces,” he says. “This is not a coincidence.”

Contracts with Coca-Cola, Rogers, Aramark, Toronto Star, CIBC, Starbucks et al delineate agreements that remain secret (despite ardent questioning from student press).

The public is forced to rely on the ethics of the administration and board of governors, something that has had many institutions and companies in trouble in the past – most recently witnessed in the fiasco of the York University land deals uncovered by the Toronto Star. As Hugh Gunz, an expert in professional ethics at the University of Toronto, says, “It’s the other stuff that you have to worry about, the stuff they don’t want to tell you.”

But the road ahead is not so full of holes as the road travelled: Bob Rae’s postsecondary review made transparency and accountability one of its major issues, and MPP Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina) is actively trying to ensure that taxpayers will no longer have to, as he says, “jump through hoops to find out from university administrators how public money is being spent.”

And then, with a new president come new precedents. Sharing information, Levy says, “is just a good way of doing business. It battles the perception that it’s us against them. Because it’s not; we’re working as peers – or at least, we should be.” The interview ends with Levy’s invite to “Call me anytime.” Shall do, Mr. Levy.

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