Ed Broadbent speaks of corporate responsibility

Speakers in a roundtable discussion on “Universities and Corporate Responsibility”, held last week at York, explored what duties, if any, universities should have for promoting corporate responsibility. Ed Broadbent, former federal New Democratic Party leader and current member of York’s Board of Governors, was a member of the panel.

The following account was sent to YFile by fourth-year York student Stefanie Arlotto, who is majoring in French and political science.

A roundtable discussion on “Universities and Corporate Responsibility” was held at York March 20, chaired by Prof. Darryl Reed, Business & Society Program, Division of Social Science, Faculty of Arts. The goal of the forum was to see whether universities should promote corporate responsibility.

On the panel were Ed Broadbent, York Board of Governors; Andrew Wickens, assistant VP, campus services & business operations; Janice Newson, York professor of sociology; Walter Whiteley, York professor of mathematics and statistics; Bill Woof, a York PhD candidate in philosophy; and Ian Thomson, member of the Maquila Solidarity Network/Ethical Trading Action Group.

Here are some highlights of the discussion.

Woof felt York should develop and implement a clear and comprehensive code of conduct that would oblige all of York’s stakeholders to adhere to certain labour, environmental and humanitarian standards in their policy-making and practices. He said such a code would formally outline the principles that make the crucial connection between York’s mission statement – which proclaims the University’s commitment to academic freedom, social justice, collegial decision-making and accessibility – and its various policies relating to the university’s dealings with the corporate sector.

Broadbent agreed certain practical measures should be taken in developing a code of conduct, such as establishing more responsible procurement policy, creating guidelines for corporate donations and setting up mandatory courses for both the undergraduate and graduate business programs. These courses would deal specifically with issues of corporate social responsibility and the business sector’s role in the promotion of social justice.

Thomson spoke of the “No Sweat” campaign designed to help ensure that workers producing any merchandise with universities’ logos are guaranteed fair wages and appropriate working conditions.

Reed commented briefly on a similar campaign around coffee, which is designed to encourage the purchase of coffee that is produced under ecologically and socially responsible conditions.

Whiteley spokeof the need for more active proxy voting of pension funds. He said he is hopeful this will happen at York now that a new standing sub-committee on proxy voting has been established by the board of trustees of the pension fund.

Wickens outlined some of the steps that York has already taken in these areas – such as York’s “buy Canadian” policy and initial efforts to promote Fair Trade coffee. However, he said that York could and should do more, and he expressed a willingness to work with all members of the York community interested in these issues. While pointing out that there is some tension between providing goods and services at prices people want and providing “fair” goods and services, Wickens noted that education and public awareness campaigns could go a long way to easing this tension.

Another key theme, highlighted by Newson, was the importance of maintaining, or “reclaiming”, the public nature of the university in the face of what many see as a “corporatization” of the institution. Several speakers discussed the need for a stronger emphasis on collegial decision making and transparency as the sine qua non for effectively promoting greater corporate responsibility.