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Two major security companies to sponsor new program, prompting skepticism 

Photo by Lindsay MacMillan

The launch of a new program within the Centre for Continuing Education has prompted a discussion about transparency at the University of Ottawa.

The centre unveiled the Security and Policy Institute of Professional Development at the Chateau Laurier on Sept. 10.

The new program is described as “an innovative and independent forum that fosters an exchange of knowledge and a discussion of substantive issues with top security experts,” according to a press release from the university.

The program will focus on four fields of study: cyber security, geopolitics, Canadian policy influences, and the corporate sector.

Student representatives were surprised by the launch because there was no consultation with the Board of Governors (BOG), faculty, or students.

Anaïs Elboudjaini, a graduate student representative on the BOG, said in a statement that she was “shocked” to hear of a new institute without any discussion.

The Centre for Continuing Education offers accelerated courses to students at the U of O and members of the surrounding community.

Serge Blais, the centre’s director, said that because the centre is open to non-students, program development does not require approval by the BOG.

“We want our course development to be efficient to fit the needs of the workplace, so our program creation follows a quicker, more streamlined path than a credited program through the BOG,” he said.

The launch has also garnered criticism because it is sponsored by two major intelligence companies, Symantec and VCE.

Anne-Marie Roy, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO), said the federation is concerned that “either the university is taking funds it said it didn’t have from students, or that non-transparent private sector influence was present on campus.”

The influence of the private sector “risks placing the needs of students beneath the needs of corporations,” said Roy.

“We’d like to have more discourse on that topic,” she said.

A report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) in 2013 said that of the 12 campus-corporate partnerships present in Canada, only half protect the university’s control over academic matters like program content and hiring, and only two are available to the public.

James L. Turk, executive director of CAUT, said in a 2012 Financial Post interview that private interests in universities are “the most important issue facilities are facing right now.” But as governments cut funding, more universities may have to turn to private funding to stay afloat.

Upon launching, the SFUO and the Graduate Students’ Association (GSAÉD) requested that the centre halt all activities until it released the details of the new program’s aims, finances, and connections with private investors.

“There was a little bit of private funding for the actual launch, to show how serious the program is—it made sense to have businesses dealing with online security sponsor it,” said Blais.

“It may have looked like we were trying to hide something.”

However, he denies the allegations that these sponsorships will influence the curriculum.

“We’re totally self-financed through course fees. The university, government, and corporations don’t give us money besides what they pay to have people attend,” he said.

“Neither company has any say in creating course content or approving instructors,” Blais continued. “If a sponsor was to ask me to teach about their products in the program, I would politely say thanks but no thanks. We’re very mindful of that.”

The SFUO and GSAÉD met with Blais on Sept. 11 to discuss their concerns.

He learned from their meeting that the centre “could have been more proactive in informing the student body, creating more of a dialogue with students in general,” according to Blais, “but now we know for next time.”