More clarity needed on donor agreements, U of Manitoba faculty association says after grad speech controversy

The union that represents faculty at the University of Manitoba is calling on the school’s administration to be transparent about agreements made with financial donors after tension between a philanthropist and the university over a valedictory speech.

“The university community has never seen those documents saying what the donors get,” said University of Manitoba Faculty Association president Orvie Dingwall.

“We know that they get their name on the college or on the building, but we don’t know any of those other details.”

In his speech at a May 16 convocation, valedictorian Dr. Gem Newman urged his fellow medicine grads to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war, sparking reaction that has included questions about free expression and how much influence donors should have over institutions.

The reaction included a letter sent by Ernest Rady to the U of M that said the speech spread “hateful lies” and disparaged Jewish people as a whole.

Rady, a U of M grad and businessman, and his family made a $30 million donation to the school in 2016 that led the U of M’s medical school to be renamed the Max Rady College of Medicine, in honour of his father.

An older, balding man in a suit smiles with his head slightly turned over his left shoulder
Ernest Rady wrote a letter to the U of M after the speech demanding a video of the speech be removed from the university’s YouTube page. (Thomas Fricke/University of Manitoba)

Rady’s May 20 letter said as a donor, he makes “it a point not to intervene or tell an institution what it should or should not do,” but that “in this instance, by remaining silent, I would be complicit.”

He demanded a video of the address be removed from the U of M’s YouTube page, which the university subsequently did. It later said Rady wasn’t the only person to make that request.

Dingwall said the U of M’s faculty strongly supports free expression and academic freedom on campus — and she said money should never get in the way of that.

She has confidence the university administration is “careful” when it comes to accepting donations.

But if any agreements are made with people making financial contributions, they should be openly disclosed, she said — something the faculty association called for even before the reaction to Newman’s speech.

“We all should know exactly what’s in them,” she said.

A woman wearing a pink blazer and white shirt underneath is pictured in a front of road backed by skinny, leafy green trees and green grass on a sunny day.
Orvie Dingwall, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association, said the union wants the school’s administration to be more transparent about any agreements it makes with financial donors. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News, the university said donors “do not gain influence over the operations of a faculty or the university broadly, no matter how significant their gift.”

However, the school does enter agreements with donors to ensure clarity and transparency on the terms of the gift and the relationship, said Stephanie Levene, U of M’s associate vice-president of donor relations.

“These agreements serve to protect and reinforce institutional autonomy,” Levene said in a Friday statement to CBC.

They contain a clause that states “academic freedom of [the university’s] faculty members shall be maintained to the fullest extent.”

But Levene said those agreements are not made public because they contain personal information, protected by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and making them available “without the explicit consent of each donor” would violate that legislation.

A three-storey brack and tyndall stone building with four pillars in front of its entrance and a rainbow crosswalk in the foreground is pictured.
The University of Manitoba says its donor agreements contain a clause stating ‘academic freedom of [the university’s] faculty members shall be maintained to the fullest extent,’ but said it doesn’t make those agreements public due to privacy legislation. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Donations vary year to year, but make up less than three per cent of the U of M’s total revenues, and 0.2 per cent of its operating budget, the university said.

Dingwall acknowledged the donations are important, but said given that the U of M is a public university, the faculty association advocates for increased and stable multi-year funding from the Manitoba government.

“Then we don’t have to worry about undue influence from donors.”

Other donors weigh in

Another major U of M donor has also expressed concern over Newman’s remarks.

The university’s dental school was renamed in honour of Dr. Gerald Niznick, after he made a $7.5-million donation in 2018 to his alma mater. 

Now based in the U.S., Niznick, the president and CEO of Paragon Implant Manufacturing, told CBC in email he’s confident the medical school “will take all appropriate steps within their power to assure that such an affront to their Jewish students is never repeated.”

He called Newman’s comments “inappropriate and unprofessional” and also said they were “inaccurate and extremely naive.”

However, he said they won’t affect his commitment to the U of M. He and his wife have committed another $5 million to a new building at the university, which should break ground this year, he said.

In response to a request from CBC, the president of the Asper Foundation — another major U of M benefactor — said as a donor, the foundation expects recipients to fulfil the terms of the program or gift provided.

“Aside from that, we expect an academic institution to follow the law and uphold its own values,” Anita Wortzman said in an email.

“We support free speech, but we, as should everyone, expect an academic institution to immediately take action against hate speech” and “ensure that information that is shared in the campus community is based on truthful verified facts,” she wrote.

‘I regret not walking out’: fellow grad

Meanwhile, reaction from students to the speech has been mixed.

Dr. Stefon Irvine, one of the graduates in Newman’s class who was present for the speech, previously told CBC that from his perspective, “there wasn’t any students that were graduating that were upset with what was being said.” He said convocation ceremonies should reflect principles like freedom of speech.

In his address, Newman told fellow graduates to demand a ceasefire in Gaza and accused medical associations of “deafening silence” on the humanitarian crisis there.

The conflict began after an Oct. 7 cross-border attack led by Hamas on southern Israeli communities that killed 1,200 people and saw more than 250 taken hostage, according to Israeli tallies. Gaza health authorities say Israel’s responding assault has killed more than 35,000 people.

The Israeli military operation has also triggered a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, displacing roughly 80 per cent of the population and leaving hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation, according to United Nations officials.

Newman also said in his speech that he was certain that “some of you here today are worried that you might face censure for speaking about the genocidal war that Israel is waging on the people of Palestine.”

WATCH | An excerpt from Dr. Gem Newman’s May 16 valedictory speech:

A late March report from a UN special rapporteur said there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the threshold indicating the commission of the crime of genocide…has been met.”

Israel has strongly denied accusations of genocide.

Newman’s remarks didn’t sit well with Gregory Jackson, who was part of the 2024 Max Rady College of Medicine graduating class.

In a letter shared with CBC, Jackson said the valedictory address and the aftermath compelled him to speak out, saying he was “truly shocked, disheartened and embarrassed by what unfolded and its impacts on our community.”

“I regret not walking out during the valedictorian’s speech,” he wrote.

He declined an interview, but said his letter was intended to dispute the notion that the class was unified with respect to Newman’s speech.

“Boisterous cheers from emboldened supporters drown[ed] out the gasps and stunned silence during the valedictorian’s address, turning a day that should have been shared joy into a day of shared embarrassment,” he wrote.

A woman wearing glasses, a light blue shirt and dark blue pants is pictured on a university campus in front of brick and stone buildings.
University of Manitoba graduate student Jocelyn Zambrano told CBC she worries the reaction to the speech could have an effect on other students who want to speak on controversial issues. (Josh Crabb/CBC)

Jocelyn Zambrano, a graduate student from Ecuador doing a master’s in microbiology at the university, said she understands the perspectives of both Newman and donors like Rady.

When asked by a CBC reporter at the campus for her take, she said she thinks the university had the right to remove the video, but worries it could have an effect on other students who want to speak on controversial issues.

“I think what happened with the video definitely makes you think of whatever controversial situation that you want to mention or that you want to talk about,” Zambrano said.