University of Toronto Returns Secret $600,000 Amazon Donation

The University of Toronto’s law school is returning a $450,000 USD ($608,000 CAD) donation from Amazon and revising its disclosure guidelines. The move comes after the school faced criticism for not being transparent about the donation, which was used to fund an anti-trust-related webinar series, reports The Globe and Mail.

“We acknowledge the important questions raised about the lack of full transparency pertaining to the gift, and the perception of external influence on our academic activities,” said Jutta Brunnée, the dean of the faculty of law, in a public statement. “For that reason, I have decided, together with President [Meric] Gertler, to return the gift to Amazon.”

The donation was initially reported by The Logic on August 15, revealing that Amazon had some say in the selection of academics for the webinar series. Despite this involvement, the source of the funding was not publicly disclosed, sparking concerns among academics and associations about the impact on academic integrity.

David Robinson, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), expressed his concerns in a letter to President Gertler. “A failure to disclose that Amazon not only sponsored but also selected seminar speakers would constitute a serious violation of basic standards of academic integrity and academic freedom,” Robinson stated.

In response, Brunnée said that all academic decisions related to the gift were made in alignment with approved academic priorities. She also noted that the donation was disclosed in a quarterly board report in March 2022, although it’s unclear whether that report is public.

Amazon spokesperson Julia Lawless said that the company respects the independence of its partners and that the disclosure of charitable gifts is typically left to their discretion.

Robinson pointed out that the university’s policy requires the disclosure of donations above $250,000 and called for a clear statement from the university to clarify the situation. The Amazon donation was reviewed in private, or in camera by the school’s academic board.

In addition to returning the donation, Brunnée announced that the university will introduce new guidelines to ensure future corporate donations are publicly disclosed. “The university is also commissioning an independent survey of best practices among postsecondary institutions with respect to recognition and disclosure of corporate giving,” she added.

“To date, the gift has supported stipends for six student research assistants; venue, travel-related and hospitality expenses for events; and communications costs. It has also supported a staff position to coordinate, among other things, an online speaker series,” wrote Brunnée.

The University of Toronto Faculty Association echoed CAUT’s concerns, stating that the allegations threaten to undermine academic and public trust in the institution. They have requested an urgent meeting with the university’s provost to discuss the situation further.

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