Who runs the University, really? On donor influence and the culture of advancement at the University of Toronto – Girish Daswani


Neoliberal reforms and government budget cuts in higher education in the 1980s have left Universities in North America more dependent on high tuition fees and donor funding. Since then, there has been an increased dependence on international students and on external sources of funding including philanthropy and gifts of charity. This has meant that certain interested and invested groups have had a stronger influence over what the University is, what it can do or even dream of becoming, including what can/not be said as well as what types of academic subjects can/not be taught. In the United States (US), for example, the Olin foundation has financed conservative intellectual activity in universities through a focus on Law, Economics and Business programs. This trend has had serious repercussion for academic freedom and for limits being placed on critical thinking around many important issues. The suppression of anti-racism lessons in US classrooms, what has been mistakenly referred to as Critical Race Theory, is one recent example. Another taboo topic that academics have been silenced on is Palestine. If “The Question of Palestine” is also about the issue of representation, then, denial, blocking, silencing, are some strategies that conservative and Israeli-Zionist lobby groups have used to influence public opinion – thereby turning Palestine’s presence into an absence. Therefore, when a major Canadian donor recently responded to a request by a Zionist lobby group to influence the University of Toronto’s (UofT) job offer to an academic who makes questions about Palestine visible, the rescinding of the job offer by the Law Department made to the unanimously chosen candidate, Dr Valentina Azarova, was described as a serious encroachment on academic freedom and led to a censure of UofT by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. This post unpacks the entanglements between donor culture and occlusion within academia. It does so through a study of the advancement culture at UofT. It takes as its starting point the recent censure of UofT and the case of donor influence at the UofT Law School. Through a focus on socio-cultural and historical connections, this post speaks to the influential role that donors have at UofT as well as to a wider advancement culture that many universities have come to take for granted, yet whose underpinnings can, and do, contribute to the reproduction of Orientalist mechanisms of Othering within their own institutions.   

When the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censure of UofT was announced in April 2021, several questions surfaced regarding the influence of donors in the internal decisions made by academic departments and how the personal biases of a donor (and the networks or groups they affiliate with) caused a breach in academic freedom. If you haven’t heard of this story yet and wonder what led to the censure, here it is in a nutshell: On September 4, 2020, a phone call was made by a federally appointed judge David Spiro (in response to a request by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) to UofT’s central Advancement office. This action led to another phone call to the Division head of Alumni relations of the Law School, which led to a conversation with the Dean of the Faculty of Law, and to the eventual rescission
 of a job offer made to Dr. Valentina Azarova (who works on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories) for the position of Director of the International Human Rights Program.

This sequence of events revealed many previously occluded aspects of donor influence on academic affairs at the UofT. It also exposed the close lines of communication that exist between the Advancement office and academic administrators. In an episode of The Global Lunchbox podcast “Panic! At the Law School – The University of Toronto Hiring Scandal Explained”, UofT Law Professor and former Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Denise Réaume said that she found it “shocking… that there was that much bowing down to donors in the advancement office.” In that same episode, Political Science Professor Ruth Marshall added that “it’s hard to know how big a role advancement really does play if you don’t run into them directly… the answer is far too big and far too uncontrolled.” Réaume and Marshall both have a point in foregrounding the importance of advancement’s role at UofT. After all, how was it possible that, within 48 hours, a phone call by an alumnus and wealthy donor led to the recission of an offer to the search committee’s top candidate, someone who was at the final stages of negotiating their contract?

As an anthropologist who studies the University and who has been following this unfolding story closely, my curiosity shifted to the organizational culture of the advancement offices (divisional and central) and the ethical dimensions of charity. After all, this is not an isolated incident. Elite universities in the United Kingdom such Cambridge and Oxford have been making Faustian pacts with philanthropists and donors of questionable ethics and business practices for a while now, and recent scandals in the United States (e.g. University of Northern Carolina-Chapel Hill) reveal how donor influence directly impacts job security and academic freedom. If UofT is not unique in many ways, what is distinct about it and how do we make sense of this recent episode of donor influence? As a result, I’ve been wondering: What are some of the more mundane practices and routine work of the advancement office at UofT? What are the established lines of connection between the central advancement office, the divisional heads of alumni relations, and academic administrators such as Deans? How do they co-ordinate their operations? Upon interviewing a former employee of the advancement office at the UofT, many previously unknown aspects of these operations became visible to me. One point warrants highlighting. “Donors have a lot of influence”. But what exactly does this influence look like? And why was this observation not properly articulated or fully elaborated in the report commissioned by UofT in the aftermaths of the dehiring of Dr Azarova?

The Cromwell Report: Unanswered Questions

When UofT came under scrutiny for its mishandling of what should have been a confidential hiring process, UofT’s President Meric Gertler commissioned retired Supreme Court Judge Thomas Cromwell to investigate and produce an “independent review” (March 15, 2021) on the search process and how it unfolded. In the opening pages of this report, Justice Cromwell states that he did “not draw the inference that external influence played any role in the decision to discontinue the recruitment of the Preferred Candidate.” Upon reading the full report, this statement could be seen to be in stark contrast to the many facts he presented. For example, Justice Cromwell acknowledged that an email was sent to David Spiro with the headline “U of T pending appointment of major anti-Israel activist to important law school position,” which advised a “quiet” approach, in place of potential protests that would “do major damage to the university” including affect future funding-raising opportunities. Cromwell also narrates the Dean of the Law School’s sudden interest in and concerns over a temporary “independent contractor agreement” and the candidate’s immigration status (after being informed of the donor’s concerns). This was later used as the main reason for rescinding their offer. One of Cromwell’s recommendations was that the University reaffirm a fundamental principle, that:

“[A]ttempts by anyone – including lobby groups, corporations and donors – to attempt to block, prevent or disqualify an applicant in a merit-based hiring process on the basis of the candidate’s religious or political views, their scholarly or other public work or their social activism must be firmly rejected” (p. 69).

Cromwell failed to mention that judge David Spiro “is a member of Toronto’s wealthy Tanenbaum family that has given tens of millions of dollars to the university and, its affiliated hospitals.” Neither did he address the already established lines of connection between the central and divisional advancement offices and academic administrators such as Deans. The Cromwell report shed little light on how university culture works, nor did it solve the problem of the contested hire; as Masha Gessen states in their New Yorker article on that story, “[] instead of resolving the conflict”, the Cromwell report “inflamed it”.

Reading this report led me to think about what seemed occluded from view, namely the increasing corporatization of public universities such as the UofT. One reason why donors (and the office of Advancement) matter so much is the shrinking of government funds for Canada’s public universities since the 1980s. Between 1983/4 and 1994/5 government funding to post-secondary education was reduced by over $13 billion nation-wide. A purported “crisis” of fiscal austerity led Conservative leaders (including Mike Harris, then-Premiere of Ontario) to reduce “university operating grants as part of a broader effort to shrink the public sphere and redirect higher education toward prescribed economic goals.” In other words, since the 1980s, governments in Canada “have been preoccupied with how to reshape universities to contribute to corporate profitability and national competitiveness, and how to create enough “human capital” to facilitate economic growth.” The defunding of higher education by the Ontario government has led UofT to increase fees and international student enrolments, as well as to also seek alternative sources of revenue.

According to UofT Professor of Criminology and Sociolegal Studies Mariana Valverde:

[G]overnment grants form an increasingly small share of total university revenue (24 per cent in Ontario, according to the University of Toronto, and likely to fall further under the current Ford government).”

Quoting from the 2018 Alternative Funding Sources Advisory Group Report, Valverde points out that “in early 2018 no less than 63 per cent of U of T’s revenue consisted of “tuition and fees”—this figure was only 40 per cent ten years ago.” The report suggests that to stay competitive in a globalized world, UofT requires “a constantly refreshed pipeline of ideas” in order to “maximize opportunities for investment by industry, donors and governments.” It adds that “[d]ivisions should be encouraged to contribute to the pipeline through the appropriate alignment of incentives and assignment of risk” and that these “pipelines” should be promoted “through a cohort of expertly trained staff such as industrial liaison officers or business development professionals.”

While this recommendation distinguishes between investments from industry, governments, and donors, it is important to understand how they are interconnected. As Jamie Brownlee has noted: “Governments have provided tens of millions in taxpayer dollars to support contentious donor agreements, such the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto” and another “trend is the appointment of executives from management consultant firms (that specialize in the privatization of public services) to university board” (Brownlee 2016). So, in the language of UofT’s advisory group report: What kind of “pipeline” is advancement?

In fact, “pipeline” was a term used by my interviewee when describing the role of advancement in facilitating financial flows into UofT. Made up of business development professionals and professional fund-raisers, UofT’s Advancement office focuses on cultivating donors and encouraging financial gifts from alumni. Consisting of a central office as well as divisional offices (e.g., Law, Medicine, Arts and Science, Engineering, including Colleges and Schools), each division has a director as well as several groups, such as research, alumni relations, development, all comprised of staff and administrators. There is a communications team that puts together information on existing and prospective donors and the “packages” that would be given to the potential donors. The central advancement office also outsources work to Grezenbach Glier and Associates, a “global philanthropic management firm” based in Chicago and London, which works closely with Vice President Advancement David Palmer and provides the UofT Advancement office with “Alumni Engagement” and “Advancement Services” to develop “strategies to acquire new annual donors, steward and retain donors, and upgrade donors to higher levels of giving.”

In a public memo (March 2021) in response to Cromwell’s report, UofT President Meric Gertler stated that UofT would:

“review all existing policies related to its advancement activities and clarify them as necessary to address explicitly the issues noted in Mr. Cromwell’s report. We will also ensure that our advancement professionals and other professional/managerial staff are aware of the relevant policies and fully understand their implications in practice.”

When the UofT Governing Council met on June 24, 2021, they discussed the CAUT censure and the Cromwell report. As reported by Sabrina Macklai, Gertler stated that:

“the University is currently undertaking a “comprehensive review” of its advancement policies and guidelines, including working with all university advancement professionals to ensure that their practices are “fully informed by the findings of the Cromwell report.” …[And] the University is taking additional efforts to ensure all their advancement staff have this understanding as well as knowledge of professional and ethical guidelines relating to advancement, including the need to maintain appropriate confidentiality during hiring searches.” 

Gertler told the Governing Council that Vice President (Advancement) David Palmer was leading these discussions with other advancement professionals across the university and having mandatory meetings with UofT’s advancement staff. In other words, to solve its problems, Advancement was tasked with conducting its own “comprehensive review”. By placing blame on advancement staff (and not on leadership), Gertler projected a lack of awareness of the established institutional and connective tissue that tied advancement (and the Vice President of Advancement) to the President’s office. These statements also made it seem as if Gertler was unaware of how advancement operates and that he was somehow removed from its inner working. Yet what Gertler does not mention is the existing connections between himself and the Advancement office. In this post, I pay attention to these often-neglected connections and the extensive reach that the Advancement office has in the university. I contend that Gertler’s public statements claim his ignorance of a process he is very much a part of. It is precisely this process, what one could call an institutional habitus, that this blog post explores.

This research was conducted as part of a larger project called “Discovering University Worlds,” funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In this work, we seek to learn more about the many worlds of our own institution, by foregrounding the everyday experience of people who work or study in it. Drawing on a Schutzian phenomenological sociology, I understand UofT’s institutional habitus as part of a “taken for granted” aspect of university culture, what we could understand as a system of typifications that enables us to see the university world in an orderly and, mostly, consistent fashion. Such knowledge is commonly there in the background – something we take as self-evident – and involves the morally binding accommodative work that we trust others to do. As a result, my work focuses on the everyday and routine work of advancement staff and their everyday relations with academic administrators as well as donors. This type of research is only possible because of years of organizational work by colleagues and students at UofT, which has allowed me to access longer-term knowledge about university financing and donor politics. These critical interventions have included some of the largest sustained campaigns (including more recently Censure UofT) on our campus and provide insight on the regime of donor power at UofT.

It is with such considerations in mind that I met with a former employee of the Advancement office. During our conversation, which took place amidst the censure of the UofT by the CAUT, I posed questions such as: What is the organizational work culture at advancement like? What are the strategies for identifying donors, for winning them over, and for getting donors to give (more)? How is the success of the central advancement office dependent on long term and ongoing relationships with Divisional heads, Deans, and the President of the UofT? These questions, which are addressed neither by the Cromwell report nor by Gertler’s response, pertain to an existing University culture that often gets taken for granted or simply erased.

A View from Within: Inside UofT’s Advancement Office

The Advancement offices are tasked with bringing external revenue into the university. They do so through donations from alumni that pay for infrastructural projects and academic programmes, as well as for creating student scholarships and for hiring faculty – especially within professionally oriented divisions such as law, computer science, dentistry, pharmacy, medicine, and engineering. Made up of career administrators who are hired from outside of the university to govern with a corporate, managerialist approach, central advancement’s executive is made up of 7 people who, together with their research team, work closely with the divisional heads of Alumni relations. Divisional heads are also managerial staff who are expected to regularly report to the central office. It is the job of Assistant Vice President of Divisional Relations and Campaigns (who is currently Gillian Morrison) to maintain close surveillance over them through “mentorship”. Phone conversations between divisional heads and Morrison are frequent and sometimes daily. They meet every other month (face to face), and Morrison meets with all divisional directors every 3 months. On these occasions, they talk about specific donor cases and ways to increase outreach, about how they are working with their respective deans, and how to solidify relations with existing donors. In this way, the central office can oversee and monitor whether monetary goals and targets are being met and whether divisional heads are working well with their faculty deans.

Apart from finding ways to attract donor money from among its respective alumni, divisional heads help identify potentially rich and influential alumni and report these findings back to the central office. During this interview, it was made clear to me that identifying donors was not simply about locating individuals who could give “gifts” of money, but also about their “potential worth”, including how donors were connected to other (potential) donors. Even if generating external funding through donor money is the work of the Advancement central and divisional offices, this goal cannot be achieved without the explicit support of academic administrators especially divisional deans. Divisional deans are important as they offer advice on effective strategies to increase donations and often travel with the central and divisional advancement executives on international fundraising trips. Their participation provides credibility when making the “ask” from donors. They also suggest which faculty the Advancement office could reach out to when promoting “innovative research.” Department Chairs, and star faculty or students, can be recruited into advancement campaigns. Oftentimes, selected faculty and students are invited to share more about their work with prospective donors through curated stories organized by the divisional heads of advancement. Until the pandemic hit, this involved an expectation of participating in photo shoots and in sharing biographies. All this is meant to personalize the academic researchers and student body in each department or division and to attract ongoing monthly donations.

Donors can also include existing faculty members, who sometimes give large gifts. One example is of the Lupina Foundation started by Peter Warrian (a senior research fellow at the Munk School) and Margaret Hovanec in 2000. Faculty members who become regular donors (amounts of at least $50,000 and more were mentioned) become influential in their own divisions. Their opinions (in the direction of research or the division) are taken seriously since, as the former employee told me, it is “hard to say no to them”. At the time of the interviewee’s employment, financial gifts ranged from “low-level” monthly donations to “upper-level” regular contributions (e.g., $1,000/month) to “major gifts” made by donors (at least $25,000). For example, a minimum of $25,000 was needed to set up a student scholarship. When a bigger “ask” is being made (e.g., $1 million, considered a “principal gift”), divisional heads work closely with and are coached by the executive director from the central office. Divisional heads are responsible for identifying Canadian alumni and work closely with their administrative staff and deans to carry out their work of attracting donors. They are expected to “work” their alumni by regularly contacting them and co-organizing campaigns (handled centrally by the communications team). Alumni relations administrators are expected to “check for the net worth of parents and relations” of UofT graduates in order to determine their “potential giving level”.

Identifying major donors often include strategies of distinction and cultivation. Alumni can become donors and donors can become “influencers”. “Influencers” are described as alumni who are doing something above and beyond the rest and “changing lives”. When alumni who have the potential to become major donors are identified, these files are often co-managed or taken over by members of the executive team who would cultivate these relationships and take (partial) credit for these donations should they come to fruition since these portfolios become “personalized” as belonging to someone. Many major donor files were passed on to the Vice President of Advancement, David Palmer, once they surpassed a certain amount of money and these donors went into his personal portfolio. Palmer would only handle a file if there was the possibility of raising $5 million or he would come in at the “final ask” for minimally $1 million, when this was coupled with the potential to influence other major donors. According to the former employee, if David Palmer identified major donors as his or took over a major donor from his team, this became “David’s donor” and went into his personal portfolio.

The former employee emphasized that the work environment at Advancement is a highly stressful one. The organizational structure is hierarchical and shares many similarities with the corporate sector. Divisional heads of alumni relations are under constant pressure to meet their financial goals and it is the job of members of the executive team in the central office to provide a supportive role and to ensure that their fundraising program reaches new heights. The Vice President Advancement is the person in charge of all operations and to whom everyone at the central office is accountable. The central advancement support team (research, alumni relations, and development staff) prepares binders with specific information on major donors and identifies opportunities. The process of locating and meeting with potential major overseas donors often happens just before international graduation ceremonies.

One example is the 20th Anniversary Gala of the University of Toronto (Hong Kong) Foundation held in 2015, which simultaneously became a push for major donors. Pre-pandemic, international trips such as this one required the involvement of executive directors from the central advancement team as well as administrative faculty such as Deans and (sometimes) Chairs of departments. They would make multiple trips a year, travel Business Class, and stay in the nicest hotels. David Palmer would go along on these international trips to add pressure or to make the potential donor feel more important. In an interview from 2019, Palmer emphasized the importance of “face to face” meetings and “forming a relationship” with donors since this was how “you find that kind of special connection that will cause someone to come forward in a very generous way.” Before departure, binders would be prepared by the advancement support team. These included itineraries (where they are staying, layout of hotels, and daily schedules including breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings with potential donors as well as travel routes), speaking notes (talking points that would appeal to individual donors, including what not to talk about i.e., scandals), as well as data on all the donors and their networks (potential donors and their relations and connections to existing donors). Outside of Canada, the Asia-Pacific region, and the United Kingdom (UK) were the main destinations for soliciting donor funding. To highlight the ways in which donors are identified and solicited I provide some context on the example of Hong Kong.     

Courting Alumni: The 2015 Hong Kong Gala

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQqKScTjlNg (embed this)

The Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering has lots of influential alumni, many of whom are based in Asia, especially in Hong Kong and Singapore. In 2012, the UofT website posted on the Asia-Pacific launch of the Boundless campaign (celebrated in Hong Kong) and remarked that the UofT was “home to more than 10,000 international students with about 75 per cent of them coming from the Asia-Pacific region.” On that occasion, David Palmer announced two significant gifts to the Boundless campaign, including $2 million from Daisy Ho (Deputy Managing Director of Shun Tak Holdings Ltd), who is all in one a UofT alumnus (MBA, 1990), major donor, executive for the Boundless campaign and member of the Dean’s Advisory Board of the Rotman School of Management. In attendance were Mr. Koh Yong Guan, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Canada and Dr. Lap-Chee Tsui, Vice-Chancellor, and President of the University of Hong Kong.

In 2015, UofT held the 10th Asia-Pacific Graduation Ceremony, which saw in attendance UofT representatives including President Meric Gertler, David Palmer, then Dean of Engineering Christina Amon, UTSC Principal Bruce Kidd, (Acting) Vice Principal Academic and Dean Bill Gough, then UofT Chancellor (and former Canadian Conservative party politician) Michael Wilson and others (see photos on Flikr). This event was shared on the website for Engineering Alumni and Friends since members of the UofT Engineering Alumni Association’s Hong Kong chapter attended the Gala.:

“The University of Toronto (Hong Kong) Foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary with a gala event in Hong Kong on November 28, marking 20 years of opening doors for exceptionally talented young people from Hong Kong whose families lacked the financial resources to send them overseas to study at Canada’s leading university”

These alumni relations (and donor networks) were already very well established, especially with the Hong Kong Foundation (which provides financial assistance to students from Hong Kong to attend UofT), and which was founded in 1995 (that is two years before the handover of the British colony to China) by a group of alumni who contributed to the Foundation’s endowment. Two overseas student scholarships were named after the men who provided UofT with “generous gifts” – the Fung Yiu King Memorial Scholarship and the Cheng Yu-Tung Scholarship. Since 2007, Daisy Ho has led the Foundation and chaired the overseas scholarship committee. Advancement Vice President David “Palmer noted that in the 20 years of its existence, the Foundation has raised $7.4 million in donations and matching support for students and today offers four annual scholarships.”

In 2015, the Advancement office decided to make further inroads into Hong Kong. That year alone, David Palmer and members of his team made five trips to countries in Asia. I was told that a dossier of approximately 150 names of alumni as well as known and potential donors from Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Malaysia (including in the Chinese Canadian diaspora) was put together by the research team. All targeted alumni were contacted before the trip. This included many prominent financial and business leaders, the Canadian consulate general in Hong Kong, the Canadian ambassador in China and the Canadian high commissioner in Singapore.

In one example, Advancement Research was able to identify four generations of the Hong Kong Lo/Law family, beginning with the late Law Ting Pong and his spouse Chor Si Law. Drawing on information available in public sources, research staff showed that the Law/Lo family originated in Shunde (a district located in the Guangdong Province) and migrated to Hong Kong several decades ago. The family became a business conglomerate that participates in several industries, including textiles and garments (Bossini, Crystal Group), hotel management (Park Hotel Group) and realty investment (Park Capital Group) and development. Advancement research covered four generations of the Lo/Law family, including names, date of birth, connection to UofT, where they graduated from, whether they have given money to UofT and, if so, how much, as well as names of spouses and children. It paid attention to the division of family estates, and the “estimated net worth” of each individual. For example, the public sources consulted showed that Law Kar Po, the fourth of six children and Chairman of Park Hotel Group, is estimated to be worth US$5.3 billion.

“Boundless” Philanthropy and Shifts in the Funding Landscape

In effect, through philanthropy Ontario’s public colleges and universities have become “privately-funded institutions”. The role of advancement has been about an investment in personal relationships with rich donors that are necessary to compensate for the lack of federal and provincial funding. These investments, which involve the co-operation of the office of the President as well as department faculties, divisional heads, and other private institutions, are made through elite networking, the establishment of universities as brand names, and the creation of an expansive managerial class of administrators. Through advancement UofT has become an institution in which ideas (academic knowledge) are in service of attracting more money from donor investors. While UofT may not be the financial sector, the university is nevertheless financializing its research, its faculty and even its students (in seeing them as potentially wealthy alumni). It has become a place where “[m]anagement consultants and Wall Street brains seek to convince the social sector that they should guide its pursuit of greater equality by assuming board seats and leadership positions” (Giridharadas 2018: 27). Take for example the “portfolio” of Michael Sabia who was named Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in 2019 and who had discussions with UofT on whether the Munk School should become a “free-standing faculty”. This trend of appointing high-profile business executives to university leadership is not disconnected with who UofT’s donors are and how they are recruited.

When UofT academic administrators make international trips to seek donor funding, most of these meetings are with influential alumni in business and finance. In July 2016, UofT President Meric Gertler made an advancement trip to the United Kingdom (London/Cambridge) with several people including David Palmer, Assistant Vice-President Alumni Relations Barbara Dick, then Executive Director, International Advancement Valerie Wilder Perry, and the Dean of Law Ed Iacobucci. I was told that not all were equally involved in every meeting, but that meetings involved people mainly from the financial, extractive, management, and business sectors. Just prior to this trip, in June 2016, David Palmer was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education. In a video made to celebrate this achievement, several administrators (in advancement) from other universities sing his praises. They describe him as a “soft spoken” and “focused” leader, as charismatic (“when David speaks, people listen”), and as Canada’s most “respected fundraiser.” In that video, UofT President Meric Gertler comments that “as head of advancement at UofT, David’s influence is visible everywhere” and the funds garnered from the Boundless campaign (at that time, more than $1.9 billion) as “enabling better teaching and research and improving our student experience.” During Meric Gertler’s presidency (which began in November 2013), the Boundless campaign led by Palmer (launched in 2011 and ending in 2018) pulled UofT out of a deficit and into the green (it had raised $2.6 billion by December 2018).

The funding landscape that provides the conditions of possibility for the growing importance of philanthropy driven campaigns at UofT emerged over a period of two decades. An important shift was marked with donations from Joseph L. Rotman in 1993 and 1995. $15 million was meant to be paid over a period ending in 2011, and the donor agreement included clauses that shaped institutions and academic directions at UofT in significant ways. One of the shifts was towards a new funding model: a stipulation of UofT’s agreement with Rotman was that the School of Management (which was renamed after Rotman in 1997 and which does not have a single Black faculty member among its close to 200 faculty) would become an “independent academic unit” responsible for “balancing” its own budget while providing some amount of its income to the University (personal communication, Paul Hamel). This arrangement had enduring consequences. First, the Rotman budget model depended on high tuition fees for international students that the School planned to attract to UofT – a practice that was then adopted by UofT’s Governing Council as a funding model for UofT more broadly (personal communication, Paul Hamel). Second, since the Rotman donation, the influence of donors on the academic and administrative running of the university has increased. Most obviously, Rotman became a member of UofT’s Governing Council (GC) from 1995 till 2003 and an executive member from 1998 till 2003 (for a visual explanation of how the GC works, see this and this by Valverde and Feng). Third, the ambitions of advancement expanded. As Palmer said in the 2019 interview: “The ideas that animate this place [UofT] are extraordinary. In service to those ideas, I think we have to envision an even more ambitious plan.” In this ambitious plan, a “special connection” must be established with elite donors. While UofT administrators insist that academic freedom is intact, donors potentially steer the direction of academic research by choosing where to put their money, by influencing which kinds of research become prioritized because they align with the donor’s political or personal interests and by serving on administrative boards. One recent example is the case of the $100 million gift by Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz for research in AI technology. Reisman and Schwartz are also founders of the Heseg Foundation, a charity that received the second highest total of donated funds in Canada between 2014-18, at $45.3 million. Heseg supports “lone soldiers” (described as someone who comes from another country to join the IDL) who fight for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Another famous example that has left its mark is that of Peter Munk, whose charitable donations to UofT (which started in 2010 with a promise of $35 million to start the Munk School of Global Affairs) are often contrasted with the serious environmental and societal problems his companies created as his fortune was being built. According to Linda McQuaig‘s (2013) book, The Trouble with Billionaires, Peter Munk’s donation came with strings attached to ensure that UofT would “fit with the political views and sensitivities of Peter Munk.” As with Rotman donation, the practice of spacing the donation out over time has the effect of prolonging the donor’s influence. As McQuaig writes:

“[A]ccording to Munk’s written agreement with the university, the Munk donations will be paid over an extended time period and subject to the Munk family’s approval of the school”.

These written agreements – also known as the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) – were signed (on 23 November 2009) by UofT President David Naylor, and David Palmer, on behalf of UofT’s Governing Council and (allegedly) without being presented to its Academic Board (Valleau and Hamel 2011). While UofT Provost Cheryl Misak responded to this claim, she also described the demand for further accountability from the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) as “attacking others who secured a major gift” (see UTFA’s response here). While UofT advertised a $35 million donation, only $20 million was committed, with subsequent amounts to follow. Without dictating academic conduct directly, the long-term rollout of this donation could translate into academic faculty being less inclined “to publish or make statements about matters which may seem opposed to the presumed interests of the Donor, and indeed a strong inhibition even against pursuing the study of matters which might lead to a dilemma of this kind” (Valleau and Hamel 2011; see Cheryl Misak’s response to this article). The School’s director was also required to report annually to a board appointed by Munk “to discuss the programs, activities and initiatives of the School in greater detail” (McQuaig 2013). Critics pointed to other acts of influence and occlusion. As Sakura Saunders, co-editor of the anti-Munk website ProtestBarrick.net, asserted: Peter Munk’s Barrick Gold is “leveraging the reputation of the university to avoid government regulation on mining abuses.” And John P. Valleau and Paul A. Hamel (2011) describe how the Canadian International Council (CIC), a “right wing ‘think tank’… with a self-interested focus on Canada’s posture in foreign policy and trade” was allocated space in the Munk School building.

Recently, in September 2020, a historic “transformational gift” of $250 million (the largest single donation made in Canadian history) was made by James and Louise Temerty to the UofT Faculty of Medicine (now called the “Temerty Faculty of Medicine”). David Palmer’s role in securing this donation was described by President Meric Gertler as “crucial.” The Temertys are also donors to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), where Palmer previously worked as a fundraiser till 2007 (before he joined UofT). This highlights the extent to which Palmer’s experience as a fundraiser and his established networks of wealthy donors contributed to his hiring. Before starting at the UofT in September 2007, Palmer was the president of ROM’s board of governors and the architect of the $300-million Renaissance ROM Campaign (that includes the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal). The campaign received donations from the likes of Peter and Melanie Munk and Alfred G. Wirth (Founder and President, Wirth Associates Inc.) – all of whom also made donations to UofT and its Boundless campaign. It is important to note that donations are not like contracts and as such cannot commonly be legally enforced; if there is a contract, it cannot be a “gift”. For example, when Palmer left the ROM, it was still owed millions in unpaid pledges left over from its capital campaign to renovate its historic building and erect the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal. This left a dent on Palmer’s campaign.

If donors can choose not to follow through with their gift, does this mean that advancement staff are beholden to them and to maintaining good relations to ensure that they continue to receive money from the donor over time? Does this explain why donors have so much influence? And does it explain why donor gifts must become personalized? As Palmer commented in his interview from above:

“Fundraising is all about narrative. It’s about finding the connection and alignments between a donor’s individual story – his or her passions, cause, motivations, or focus – and the story behind the initiative that you’re bringing to their attention. Donors give to create change and they give generously to create change at scale. That’s the business we’re in together: making this a better world for current and future generations.”

If donors give to create change, and their “passions, cause, motivations, or focus” becomes the driving force for that change, then the question becomes: What kind of “change” are they interested in and do their motivations or passions truly benefit all of us?

The Strings that Bind

If anything, the censure of UofT has revealed the importance of advancement, its extensive reach, and how we are all tied to it. This post further illuminates how donations have the effect of shaping academic practices and directing university policies. It highlights how philanthropy not only capitalizes on, but also (re)shapes the interconnected webs of relational power that tie together academic and administrative faculty and staff, from the President to the Vice President Advancement, to the Divisional heads of Alumni relations, Deans, department Chairs, and faculty. Whether we would like to admit it or not, we (at the UofT) are all encouraged – if not pressured – to brand ourselves and our intellectual ideas in a way that allows us to get grants or to convince donors to “invest” in us and our divisions or departments. With the ongoing decrease in the government funding of public universities in Canada (and especially so in Ontario), a culture of advancement, which is instrumental to the privatization and corporatization of universities, is fast becoming the new normal. This culture of advancement is becoming a taken for granted aspect of our university world; one that is branded as generating alternative funding sources thanks to which the university, faculty, departments, and institutes at best “look good”, and at worst avoid closure.

It is important to remember that until the 1980s and 1990s, even as donors gave money and shaped donations to further particular interests, they rarely interfered in administrative or academic decisions. The extent of influence today (in Canada and the US) is much more nefarious. Through routine work practices, advancement has the effect of shaping and directing academic practices. Further, by normalizing dependence on rich donors to support core university functions, de facto privatized public universities like the UofT are participating in “the fall out of neoliberalism’s upward distribution of wealth and decimation of public infrastructure” and in “obscuring the inadequate distribution of resources and concentration of wealth” (Peck 2012).

The UofT censure is forcing us to look at this taken for granted notion whereby, as the slogan goes, “We are UofT”. Who is “we” exactly?

In making the “accepted state of affairs” into a field of inquiry, this post has asked what is the University now? In doing so, it has linked the increasing importance of private financial gifts to the government cuts in funding education. It has also shown how the University’s increasing dependence on philanthropy and corporate gifts, which consists of fostering elite social relationships over collective problem-solving, allows it to favor the private sector. This post has questioned the assumption that donations are about the disinterested sentiments of the giver (through “generosity”, “kindness” or “responsibility”). Instead, it has shown how the intensely personal is central to advancement’s work. As David Palmer suggested, it is important to link donations to the donor’s story and passions. In allowing major donors to see how their money shapes the world – i.e., in connecting the donors individual story to the initiatives being funded – advancement allows donors to see how academic projects are driven by their passions and interests. Therefore, it makes little sense to expect the donor to be hands off or disinterested in the institution or in outcomes.

Gifts imply certain obligations between the giver and the recipient. For instance, the web of relational investments and binding obligations generated by gifts can potentially allow for a phone call from a large donor to lead to a job recission. Many remain cynical and accept this as a sometimes-unavoidable consequence of unfavorable structural and financial circumstances. They ask:  hasn’t philanthropy also done the UofT a lot of good? Hasn’t charity helped universities achieve their academic goals when government funding has failed to provide? This post has not sought to challenge the university’s need for alternative sources of income nor is it questioning the fundamental role of advancement in helping universities achieve their financial goals. Instead, what seems more at stake at the current juncture are these two questions: What if the “good” of philanthropy is an accomplice to an even greater, occluded, harm? How and when do elite wealthy donors and the office of advancement become the university?

We should not hold on to common sense notions of the “good” in philanthropy. Neither should we assume that donations are given freely and without any ideological motivations or strings attached. In fact, people give because they are encouraged to see themselves as personally invested in the outcome of their gift – so it cannot be disinterested. When rich donors and society’s elites position themselves as the leaders of social change (because governments fall short), and when they claim they can reshape and curate what social change is, they potentially affect which academic department, which area of study, which research questions, which people, which conflicts, which theoretical positioning (do not) receive funding and therefore are (not) taught or researched. Ultimately, such power dynamics are at odds with the very notion of academic integrity.

What is left of academic freedom when donors hold the power – either directly or via advancement offices – to influence academic decisions and research? What does it mean for a university President to deflect their executive responsibility in a case of censure onto their institution’s advancement staff? Who then becomes the university? Being accountable to where the money is coming from, how it is spent and invested, and how these returns are being used, is essential for better transparency. But even better governance structures may not be enough to build a better university. Academic administrators and corporatized structures such as the office of advancement should not hold on to so much power. Neither should they simply dismiss critical facts to suit their branded narrative of the good. They are not able to promote nor defend the university, its students, adjuncts, staff, and faculty, while acting like they are the University. And they certainly cannot continue to ignore the CAUT censure that has already gathered international recognition and support, and whose far-reaching repercussions are the result of their own hubristic failings.


Few people know much about the everyday work of University Advancement. In North America, including at the University of Toronto, a culture of advancement has been taken for granted, hidden, and concealed, in ways that have become normalized. In Canada, withdrawal of public funds has made the culture of advancement move from the margins to the center of university life. Many academics (in part, to limit “controversy”) would rather not look at it – and, thus, at themselves – lest it strips them from their own institutional advancement. What this serves to do is to occlude an important question of how conservative ideologies and motivations increasingly become part of academic projects and research pursuits, especially when universities take lots of money from extremely rich donors who share these motivations and expect them to be replicated in academia. It leaves untouched the questions of how donor culture threatens to dictate university governance and policies and how universities ought to limit such influence. And it leaves us at a crossroad where we end up co-creating a university that cares less about academic freedom and academic integrity, and that cares more about pandering to and being silenced by the highest bidder. It is in this context that the academic exception on Palestine, which the de-hiring of Dr Azarova powerfully exemplifies, must be understood. And it is with this context in mind that those of us who care about academic freedom must generate resistance. To be better, we need to do better. And rather than looking the other way, owning up to our complicity in making the university what it is, or has become, is a first step in the right direction.


This blog post presents my personal views and perspectives and I take responsibility for its content. I benefited from the insightful suggestions and feedback of several UofT colleagues. They include Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Katherine Blouin, Deb Cohen, Paul Hamel, Mark Hunter, Tania Li, Alissa Trotz, Gavin Smith, and Marianna Valverde. This blog post could not have been written without my interviewee’s help and their courage in speaking to power, as well as to the ongoing work of other colleagues, including at Censure UofT.

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