Concordia Won’t Retract Asbestos Report

Student Union Pushes for Transparency

John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. File Photo Shaun Michaud

Concordia’s undergraduate student union is calling on the university to retract and publicize the findings of an internal review of a report on communications best practices for the asbestos industry.

The report, titled “Lessons from the Quebec Asbestos Industry” claimed that facts proposed by the asbestos industry could not trump “strongly held feelings” developed from arguments made by opponents, leading to the closure of Quebec mines.

Conflicts of interests weren’t identified, but the report’s author, John Molson School of Business lecturer John Aylen, has worked as a spokesperson for the industry in the past.

A motion asking Concordia University to disassociate itself from the case study and formally retract the document from the public domain passed at a Concordia Student Union council meeting on Nov. 11.

CSU President Terry Wilkings wants the university to disclose the outcome of an internal investigation and explain the steps being taken “to ensure future reports under Concordia University eliminate gross factual errors.”

Wilkings made a comparison with climate science, which has a fringe group of scientists disputing climate change. “I can’t imagine the university citing academic freedom to support climate-change-denying science,” Wilkings said.

“When the academic integrity of this institution is put into question we need to address that in an open manner,” he said, referring to the investigation, whose findings were not publicly released.

“The university has acknowledged that mistakes were made,” Concordia President Alan Shepard said. The university has promised to review the way it handles issues of conflict of interest. “That is our job, to ensure a fair-level playing field.”

The university removed the study from the website when it received initial complaints from human rights advocate Kathleen Ruff in a letter signed by professors and doctors from across Canada.

Wilkings said that even though the document is no longer on the website, it has likely been circulated among specialists and he hopes the university will formally retract it. The report was presented at a national public relations conference held in Montreal.

“I’m not the arbiter of people’s academic work,” Shepard said, calling it the role of peer reviewers to criticize faculty research. “I don’t think the academic community wants—and I certainly don’t want—where the president gets to decide this is a good idea or this is a bad idea.”

The university should not censor or denounce the work of any faculty member, Shepard said. “I’m not the thought police.”