Kwantlen buries review of alleged ethical violations
University refuses to answer questions about Southlands review.
University refuses to answer questions about Southlands review.
By Matt DiMera
Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) quietly buried a review into allegations of ethical violations by the school and two researchers, despite earlier promising to make the results public.
In July 2010, then-KPU-president David Atkinson ordered a probe after local media outlets, including the Vancouver Sun and the Province, reported that two Kwantlen researchers had promoted the proposed Southlands development to a Tsawwassen land-planning committee without disclosing that the university had received $50,000 from the developer of that project.
The university also stood to gain use of a new research centre and a reported $100,000 additional endowment if the development was approved.
“Kwantlen Polytechnic University regrets any confusion or misunderstanding generated from its involvement with Century Group’s Southlands project,” Atkinson wrote in a July 20, 2010 press release announcing an official review into Kwantlen’s dealings with the development proposal.
“The results of the review will be made available to Kwantlen’s board of governors and subsequently made public.”
However, records obtained by The Runner show that report was completed by September 2010, but was never released.
An Oct. 5, 2011 Freedom of Information Act request submitted to Kwantlen for all records relating to the review referenced in Atkinson’s press release turned up a report titled Kwantlen Role in Southlands. The report has no attributed author.
The Southlands review was apparently completed and presented to Kwantlen’s board of governors Sept. 29, 2010 at an in-camera meeting held behind closed doors. Although a copy of the report obtained in 2011 says that it was released, no mention of the report or its release is made in the public minutes of that meeting available on KPU’s website.
No one from the university was available to answer before deadline as to why the report had never been released.
In December of 2009, two directors from Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Horticulture (ISH), Kent Mullinix and Arthur Fallick made a presentation to the Tsawwassen Area Plan Advisory Committee about urban agriculture and the proposed Southlands project.
According to minutes from that meeting, Fallick introduced the presentation, talking about “a vision for B.C. which involves creating sustainable agriculture and sustainable communities.”
In 2010, “Southlands the Facts,” a vocal opponent of the Southlands projects, filed a Freedom of Information Act request and discovered the Century Group had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with KPU, agreeing to pay $50,000 for consulting fees and if the development was approved, to provide more funding for research and to build and provide access to a new onsite research centre.
The Century Group hoped to build a 1,900-home development on 218 hectares of agricultural land, while integrating 40 per cent of the land into an urban park and farm. The contentious development encountered strong opposition within the community and has still not been approved.
When the news first broke in July 2010, Jason Dyer, Kwantlen’s executive director for research told the Province that “it is not normal for us to disclose our financial agreements.” He also insisted that Mullinix and Fallick had not been lobbying.
“Just because somebody pays the cost of research doesn’t mean the research is not independent. Costs have to be paid by somebody,” he said at the time.
Atkinson commissioned the review of Kwantlen’s actions shortly after.
The 1600-word Kwantlen Role in Southlands report was commissioned to address the public allegations that the university had acted as an undeclared paid lobbyist, engaged in unethical behaviour, failed to disclose the funded research agreement with Century Group, and sought to benefit financially from an approval of the proposed Southlands development by the city of Delta.
It completely exonerated both the university and the researchers, saying that none of their actions were problematic on their own, but that it was their combination that had “left the impression that Kwantlen researchers were acting as paid advocates for the Century Group further to its Southlands Project.”
The report mentioned that the university knew that Kwantlen’s involvement with the Century Group might prove to be controversial. It referenced a report Atkinson made to the board of governors in May 2009, saying the Southlands project had a “troubled history.”
“While there are very definite advantages in Kwantlen participating in a major project focusing on urban agriculture and sustainability, we are aware of the potential political liabilities,” said Atkinson.
“Accordingly, we have discussed this project at length with the Delta Administration, and will continue to exercise very careful diligence as the project evolves over the next several years.”
According to the report, the media reports were unfounded and all three elements of the controversy could be explained: the MOU, the $50,000 research contract and the alleged lobbying of the land committee.
It suggested that the $50,000 research fee was unrelated to the agreement between Kwantlen and Century group to provide the university with a research centre for urban agriculture and dedicated funds for a permanent research endowment, and that the presentation made to the planning committee was not a lobbying effort.
The report stated that the MOU was not a legal contract but a signal of “a genuine desire to work together on issues of common interest.” It suggested that the funding agreement was a normal part of being a university: “universities today routinely pursue such activities as a way of supporting their research activity. It might also be said that this sort of arrangement was implicit in the concept of ISH in the first place. It was further understood that, should the Southlands project go ahead, the University would benefit from a research facility to be built as part of the project.”
According to the review, the researchers had not properly informed Kwantlen about their research project, but it concluded that it wasn’t their fault because Kwantlen didn’t have a set of proper rules about externally funded research at the time. It suggested that KPU had therefore been “left exposed to the kind of criticism it eventually experienced.” It also said that hiring a dedicated research administrator would prevent future problems.
The report further concluded that the December 2009 presentation by Mullinix and Fallick had been strictly objective, and that according to the minutes of the meeting the two researchers had not claimed to be advocates for the Southlands project.
While it found that no one at Kwantlen had done anything wrong, it offered suggestions how to avoid similar situations in the future. The university now says that future memoranda of understandings will be more fully investigated, future research contracts must be approved by its internal research office, and new financial procedures have been implemented for externally funded research.
Blame The Media
The Kwantlen Role in Southlands report absolved the university of any wrongdoing and instead laid the blame for the alleged scandal on the media.
According to the review, the news reports were “unfortunate” and had “insisted on telling only one side of the story.”
It concluded by suggesting that the situation could have been avoided if the university had only had better public relations procedures in place. It said they needed to be better equipped to handle that level of media attention, but that they had just hired a new director of communications and marketing who would help Kwantlen “implement some much needed changes.”
Nearly two years after the original allegations surfaced, many questions about Kwantlen’s involvement with the Southlands development and the subsequent report remain unanswered.
Why wasn’t the report released publicly? Who authored the report? Was Atkinson involved in the probe?
None of the involved parties from Kwantlen were available or willing to comment for this story.
Neither of the two Kwantlen researchers involved in the Southlands project agreed to be interviewed. Mullinix declined to comment on the record when reached by phone and email. Fallick did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.
Dyer, who is now the associate vice president of research at Kwantlen, referred a request for an interview to the university’s spokesperson, Joanne Saunders.
Saunders, KPU’s director of marketing and communications wrote in a Dec. 16 email to The Runner that she didn’t have information to questions about the Southland’s report but would review with the president’s office. In mid-January, Saunders told The Runner that the university had no comment.
Former Kwantlen president Atkinson declined to be interviewed for this story. He left his post at Kwantlen in June 2011 and is now the president of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton. According to his office, Atkinson didn’t feel it was appropriate for him to comment.