Questionable Brampton University plan goes dark after $600K handed to Brown and Santos associates

·14 min read

More than two years after the City of Brampton announced its plans to build a local university from scratch, evidence of progress has been hard to find. A handful of documents have been produced and some polling completed, without anything to indicate the poorly conceived plan is any closer to becoming a reality.

However, there is evidence that shows the City has spent more than $600,000 on contracts for Brampton University that were awarded to firms associated with the very politicians who aggressively pushed the idea.

“We don’t have a full university of our own in Brampton,” Ward 1 and 5 Councillor Rowena Santos said in a 2019 City of Brampton video promoting the plan.

“We’re proposing a new, innovative solution: BramptonU, a City-led effort with the goal to get provincial approval to launch our own, fully accredited university,” Mayor Patrick Brown added.

Brown and Santos have been at the forefront of the elusive university project. They have talked about it repeatedly in videos and at council meetings, without ever explaining how they actually planned to fund the massive undertaking, how it could even be achieved without an existing university partner or how the Province would approve the idea without the decades of operational post-secondary experience typically needed before an institution can become a degree-granting university.

Brown has made sure no money for his “BramptonU” plan would be included in any of the four budgets he has controlled, cutting spending to the bone to ensure four consecutive budgets would not be expanded, without explaining how he intends to fund his many promises, such as the university he has trumpeted.

Despite the lack of a cohesive understanding of the foundational requirements to create a degree-granting university, a process that takes decades, consultants with direct ties to Brown and Santos received hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to come up with material for the plan.

The Academy for Sustainable Innovation and Stakeholder Research Associates, both won contracts to work on BramptonU in November 2019. Two men, David Wheeler, a co-founder of the Academy for Sustainable Innovation; and Rob Godfrey, a senior associate with Stakeholder Research, have direct connections to either Brown or Santos.

Over three years, between 2019 and 2021, the two firms received a total of $606,780 from the City of Brampton. The Academy for Sustainable Innovation was paid $101,381 and another $505,399 went to Stakeholder Research Associates.

“Through previously approved Council direction, staff will utilize an existing available funding source of up to $300,000 from the Office of the CAO towards further examining, developing and establishing a Brampton University,” a September 20, 2019 staff report stated.

“Staff will return to Council on a regular basis with updates as the process unfolds and develops.”

The report requested that two “qualified and experienced” organizations be hired, one to coordinate advocacy and public engagement and one to outline potential academic programs that a new university would offer in line with the future economy.

ASI’s website includes the following description of the work it provides: “At the Academy for Sustainable Innovation ASI, we believe resilient organizations and people have the capacity to lead Canada’s transition to a low-carbon socially inclusive economy.

That’s why ASI is exclusively dedicated to promoting the adoption of capacities, practices and mindsets of Transition Leadership across the Canadian economic landscape.”

Two months after the staff report requesting council approval to hire two companies for the university work, Wheeler was introduced by newly hired CAO David Barrick, who had been recruited to Brampton by Brown that fall, during a November 25, 2019 council workshop on the university plan.

In the slide document, the presenting consultant is listed as “Dr David Wheeler Academy for Sustainable Innovation”.

The ASI logo is included in the bottom corner of every page in the presentation document.

It states that Stakeholder Research Associates and Academy for Sustainable Innovation were “appointed” for the university planning work outlined in the September 2019 staff report.

The 20-slide presentation by Wheeler is a combination of material copied from other sources, background on Wheeler and vague bullet points such as, “Youth mentorship and engagement” as one of the descriptions of the work ASI does, and, “Deliver current undergraduate programming into Brampton using existing resources with the enthusiastic encouragement of the City” under the heading, “Academic Outreach”.

Wheeler’s “Timeline” stated a “Blueprint” would be provided by April of 2020 and “Implementation” would commence in May 2020.

Wheeler suggested BramptonU could open by 2026. It’s unclear how this date was put forward, as it would take decades to launch a new degree-granting institution without an existing university partner, and even with one, it would likely take at least a decade, assuming funding could be secured.

There has been little public information about the work Wheeler did after the workshop presentation, and currently he is not listed on the ASI website as an employee. His name is not presently included anywhere on the organization’s website.

“The City does not currently have consultants retained for BramptonU and does not have any plans to retain them at this time,” a spokesperson for the City of Brampton told The Pointer, confirming that its agreements for the university plan have expired.

“I am Councillor Santos' former professor at the Schulich School of Business and have been an occasional mentor to her ever since,” Wheeler told The Pointer.

“It was just fortuitous that we had this connection as it was conversations with Councillor Santos led to me writing a blog arguing for a new approach to developing post-secondary education in Brampton in January 2019,” he said.

“Following the publication of the blog, and interest in the ideas being expressed by the Mayor and his staff, I visited the City. In this visit Councillor Santos unfailingly introduced me to other councillors, and indeed the mayor and his staff, as her mentor; this was always clearly and squarely on the table.”

Both Santos and Wheeler have affiliations with the NDP. Santos worked for the Ontario wing of the party between 2006 and 2018 (when she successfully ran for Brampton City Council) and Wheeler ran for the party in Nova Scotia in 2017. Santos flew to Halifax to assist with his campaign that year.

The Academy for Sustainable Innovation was co-founded by Wheeler and won a contract to work on the BramptonU project through a competitive tender. This, Wheeler says, was after the organization reconfigured to register for charitable status, at which point he left his governance role.

“It was the new manifestation of ASI that won the Brampton contract, and at that point I was merely a contractor,” he said.

Santos did not respond to questions.

A staff report into the project at the beginning of this year said the City had received “confidential correspondence from the Province regarding the BramptonU proposal” and had been asked to keep it “in the strictest of confidence”.

“Seems strange anything would be kept confidential when the Mayor and some Council members have been announcing this for many many months, and UGH (University of Guelph Humber) is mentioned in our Business Attraction video,” Councillor Jeff Bowman told The Pointer. “With the move of funding for the CFI (Centre for Innovation) to 2024 in the budget, I don't quite know where it leaves that situation right now either.”

Under questioning from Councillor Martin Medeiros earlier this month during the 2022 budget process, staff were unable to offer any details about BramptonU. Medeiros was particularly critical of the plan during budget deliberations, branding it effectively dead.

“It seems that BramptonU is pretty much not an option,” he said. “Working on a university file is not a normal business for municipalities...”.

It was an idea that was announced with much fanfare in 2019, including a town hall attended by governing Progressive Conservative MPPs.

At least publicly, the winds have come out of BramptonU’s sails.

Rob Godfrey, the son of Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey, worked with Brown when he was a member of the Ontario legislature. Brown’s own political memoir describes that Godfrey was with the then-PC leader as allegations of sexual misconduct (which he denies) broke. The fifth chapter of Brown’s book, entitled Take Down: The Attempted Political Assassination of Patrick Brown, describes Godfrey in a huddle of close allies at his home.

“A small group had gathered at the apartment: John Sinclair, executive director of PC caucus services; Goldy Hyder, my debate coach and CEO of Hill+Knowlton Strategies; lawyer Mike Richmond, my long-time friend; Walied Soliman, my campaign chair and friend; Rebecca Thompson, my director of communications; Rob Godfrey, son of former Blue Jays’ President and CEO Paul Godfrey and a supporter; and my sisters, Fiona and Stephanie,” Brown writes.

The Hill Times reported in 2018 that Godfrey was part of Brown’s campaign team when he briefly ran again to lead the PCs, before withdrawing.

Stakeholder Research Associates, which received more than $500,000 in public money to work on the BramptonU project, lists Godfrey as a senior associate.

“He has counseled candidates on numerous election and leadership campaigns and is a go-to person for communications and fundraising support for many current members of the Ontario Cabinet,” his profile on the website reads.

The company that employs Godfrey as a senior associate was given $137,112 in 2019, $288,914 in 2020 and $79,373 in 2021 by the City of Brampton. Brampton’s registry of conflict of interest statements, which it must keep under provincial rules, does not feature any declarations by Brown and there are none by Santos regarding Wheeler’s work.

Brown did not respond to questions, including inquiries around a potential conflict of interest.

A request to speak with Godfrey was sent through Katharine Partridge, managing partner of Stakeholder Research Associates Canada. She forwarded it to him, but Godfrey did not respond.

A list of documents gathered by the City of Brampton in response to a freedom of information request for all contracts awarded to companies associated with Wheeler also included both the Academy for Sustainable Innovation and Stakeholder Research Associates.

“Having been a public servant, in Canada and the UK I am acutely aware of the need to avoid both perceptions of, and actual conflicts of interest,” Wheeler said. “In this case all of the contractual work I did on the BramptonU project went through the City's formal processes, so no conflict of interest ever arose. Councillor Santos had no role in the specification or award of any contracts; this was all done by officers of the Council acting under instructions (I believe) from the full Council. I do understand that Councillor Santos has had the fact that she had no conflicts of interest confirmed by the relevant body in the Council, something which you may wish to corroborate.”

The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act references the “importance of certainty in reconciling the public duties and pecuniary interests of members”, and highlights that councillors should “perform their duties of office with integrity and impartiality in a manner that will bear the closest scrutiny”.

Since the progress of BramptonU stalled, it is unclear exactly what residents of Brampton are getting from the project. The city, home to more than 700,000 people, is somewhat unique for its lack of a major university campus, something that was at the heart of the push for BramptonU.

A plan for Ryerson University to expand to Brampton was scrapped when the Progressive Conservatives cancelled $90 million in funding for the planned downtown campus shortly after taking office in 2018. Sheridan College and Algoma University have footprints in the City and Guelph-Humber is in discussions over a possible expansion, but councillors, led by Brown and Santos, pushed hard for a university of their own.

It was always going to be a hard sell. Algoma, the youngest university in Ontario, first applied to become accredited as a university in 1994 and did not have its wish granted until 2007, and that was after decades of operating as a college first, a typical prerequisite for new universities. But since the Liberals took power in 2003, after the Algoma transition was already in the works, the Province has used a model for post-secondary expansion that requires partnership with an existing university.

There is no indication the City or its mayor consulted with the Province prior to initiating the BramptonU plan pushed by Brown and Santos. It’s unclear if they are even aware of the basic requirements to create a brand new university.

A spokesperson for the City sent The Pointer several PDFs in response to a request for documentation produced by the project. It included three chapters from the City’s university green paper, the summary of limited engagement sessions, a briefing note from an Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference and a January staff report.

“We believe the teaching and learning goals for Brampton University cannot be limited to offering programs and services merely ‘as good as’ established Ontario universities,” one section of the university green paper reads. “A higher level of ambition is required if the City is to meet its social, cultural and economic goals, and indeed the aspirations of the provincial government for more relevant programming for the 21st century which delivers for families and employers.”

One of the key facts in the paper is a goal for BramptonU to launch as an independent institution by 2026. That timeline is effectively a dream, as it would be next to impossible for a fully-functioning new university to be opened in four years.

Beyond the decades of post-secondary requirements, Brown has failed to budget even one cent of costs for the massive project.

Asked if the Province had earmarked any funds to help make this a reality, a spokesperson for the City of Brampton admitted it had not. Queen’s Park itself has had very little to say about the project.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities said it had “received a letter from Mayor Brown outlining proposed steps towards establishing a new university in Brampton through a special purpose”. The Province suggested this was the only document or correspondence it has received.

“I am concerned that progress has indeed come to a halt,” Bowman told The Pointer. “It has been several months since we have heard anything about it or the report that we paid consultants for.”

Bowman referenced early plans to explore a medical school with Ryerson University and the University of Guelph Humber as factors that further complicate the issue.

Stakeholder feedback also appears to have been limited.

A total of 65 businesses were contacted in December 2020 to discuss the possibility of BramptonU in a conversation organized by Stakeholder Relations Associates, the company that employs Godfrey. The response was lacking, with just 15 businesses (or 23 percent of those invited) attending the virtual presentations and a further three “participating in an individual discussion” about the project.

The City has since ended its consulting agreements for BramptonU without any tangible progress, with no money budgeted for 2022, while a Twitter account set up especially for the project has fewer than 150 followers and has not posted since August 2020. Google Chrome even warns users that the BramptonU website could be attackers trying to mimic the City of Brampton’s official web page. The BramptonU website lists the first quarter of 2021 as the last official update on the project.

— With reporting from Nida Zafar

Email: isaac.callan@thepointer.com

Twitter: @isaaccallan

Tel: 647 561-4879

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