On August 29, U of T announced that it would return a controversial donation from Amazon of approximately $600,000 that the university did not originally disclose to the public. The donation, which the Faculty of Law accepted in December 2021, was originally reported by The Logic on August 15, 2023.

Among other things, the money helped fund the salary of a staff member tasked with organizing a webinar series. The webinar sessions included speakers sympathetic to Amazon’s stance against anti-monopoly legislation, which could reduce the company’s profits.

In an email obtained by The Logic, a U of T staff member mentioned choosing speakers for the webinar from a group of speakers that they referred to as “Amazon’s list.” The faculty did not inform participants or speakers involved in the programs funded by Amazon’s donation of the online shopping giant’s involvement. 

Following these revelations, multiple organizations, including the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), criticized the university for lacking transparency and violating academic freedom. 

The donation

In both Canada and the United States, consumer advocates have criticized Amazon of unfairly profiting from its large market share and engaging in practices that discourage competition.

In October 2021, Canadian Competition Bureau Commissioner Matthew Boswell gave a speech highlighting anti-competitive practices from large online shopping companies. He indicated that the bureau — a government agency tasked with maintaining market competition to promote lower prices and better products for consumers — planned to strengthen laws that would aim to protect competition. 

According to The Logic, U of T Assistant Dean for Advancement Jennifer Lancaster emailed members of the Faculty of Law a few days after the speech. In emails obtained by The Logic, Lancaster wrote that she’d been in conversations with an Amazon employee and that the corporation was “focused on being more proactive on thought-leadership, including supporting research on immerging [sic] issues in competition/anti-trust.” She described Amazon’s desire to start a “long-term relationship” providing annual funding, with the potential for increased amounts in the future.

In December 2021, the U of T Faculty of Law accepted a $600,000 donation from Amazon. In a statement about the corporate gift released on August 18, 2023, three days after the Logic article’s publication, Faculty of Law Dean Jutta Brunnée wrote that the faculty had used the gift to fund stipends for six student research assistants; pay the salary of a staff member coordinating a webinar speaker series; and cover event expenses.

According to The Logic, the entire $600,000 donation went to the Michael J. Trebilcock Law and Economics program. Brunnée wrote in a statement to The Varsity that the faculty has not received funding from Amazon since the initial donation. 

The speaker series

A third of the money was allocated to a speaker series run through the Faculty of Law and the Future of Law Lab, a U of T-based interdisciplinary initiative. The series, entitled “Competition Law and the Future of Markets,” featured five talks, with three hosted by U of T Law and the other two by the University of Southern California (USC) Gould School of Law. An additional talk posted by USC on YouTube appears on the university’s playlist featuring the webinar series. Videos of the five talks posted on YouTube have received a combined total of 784 views, as of September 3.

According to Brunnée’s public statement, Amazon did not place any restrictions on how faculty could use the gift, and the faculty members made all decisions about its use; although Brunnée clarified in a statement to The Varsity that Faculty of Law staff had spoken with Amazon about ways the faculty might use the donation.

However, in an email obtained by The Logic, the director of the Future of Law Lab, Joshua Morrison, mentioned a list of potential speakers that they called “Amazon’s list.” U of T planned to pay part of Morrison’s salary from the donation, according to The Logic

The speaker series included many speakers critical of expanding competition legislation. One speaker mentioned Amazon by name and characterized the Competition Bureau as participating in a “name-and-shame” campaign against the commerce giant. According to The Logic, two of the 13 speakers in the webinar series appeared on the list Amazon provided to Morrison.

According to reporting by The Logic, Amazon’s then-public policy director for Canada, James Maunder, discussed doing work with two other speakers in a private meeting. 

In a statement to The Logic, an Amazon spokesperson wrote, “We contribute to policy dialogues on a wide range of topics, and we always respect the independence of our partners.”

Private disclosure 

The university did not disclose Amazon’s involvement in these webinars to its participants or speakers. In her August 18 public statement, Brunnée wrote that “communicating the source of the funding could have created a misperception that some perspectives would be prioritized over others. I recognize now that more information may have been preferred to enable some of our participants and invited speakers to fully evaluate their engagement in these activities.” 

Brunnée wrote in her statement that Amazon “did not seek recognition for the gift” but that she made the final decision not to disclose the gift. However, The Logic reported that Amazon stipulated in the legal document concerning the donation’s terms that U of T should not give a press release or encourage publicity about the donation.

According to the university’s Provostial Guidelines on Donations, the vice president, advancement must give the Business and Academic Boards a list of all donations greater or equal to $250,000 four times a year. In a statement to The Logic, a university spokesperson wrote that the relevant boards received a report in March 2022 that included Amazon’s gift. However, the boards reviewed the reports in private, meaning that the public had no way to access the list of gifts. 

In the August 18 statement, Brunnée wrote that U of T had used less than half of the donation.


In a letter to U of T President Meric Gertler sent on August 24, David Robinson, the executive director of CAUT, wrote that failing to disclose Amazon’s involvement in sponsoring the seminar and selecting speakers represented “a serious violation of basic standards of academic integrity and academic freedom.” 

“Disclosure of financial interests and funding sources is a fundamental requirement of all academic research,” he wrote.

In an August 28 statement to its members, UTFA President and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Professor Terezia Zorić, together with UTFA Vice-President, University and External Affairs Jeff Bale, characterized the allegations as “very concerning.” They wrote that the alleged actions would “appear to violate several University policies designed to ensure the fundamental principles of integrity, autonomy, and academic freedom.” 

In an email to The Varsity, Zorić specified that U of T’s actions appear to have violated the Provostial Guidelines on Donations and the university’s commitment to principles expressed in U of T’s Statement of Institutional Purpose; its Policy on Ethical Conduct in Research; its Provost’s Statement on the Role of Advisory Bodies; and its Principles of Good Governance.

The Provostial Guidelines on Donations lists 15 guidelines. Guideline 2 prohibits the university from accepting gifts when doing so would compromise academic freedom or autonomy.

In a post on X, the platform formally known as Twitter, CensureUofT called the situation “another donor influence scandal” at the Faculty of Law. CensureUofT is a grassroots group of U of T faculty originally formed in response to the Azarova scandal, in which the Faculty of Law allegedly rescinded a job offer to Dr. Valentina Azarova after a university donor privately complained about Azarova’s advocacy against Israel’s policies in occupied Palestinian territories. 

In her public statement, Brunnée insisted that the Faculty of Law followed the donation guidelines and made decisions “in accordance with the University’s fundamental commitment to academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”

The future of funding

The incident comes as funding from domestic tuition fees and direct provincial funding has shrunk. At the Governing Council’s March 2023 meeting, the university criticized Ontario’s decision to continue the freeze on domestic tuition for a fourth year, expressing concern about the budget. In a June 20 meeting of the Business Board, the university noted that operating grants from the provincial government have lagged behind growing expenses. 

In a 2021 article published by University Worlds, a collective of U of T students and faculty that research the school, UTSC anthropology professor Girish Daswani noted that a lack of government funding has left North American universities “more dependent” on donations. 

“This [reliance] has meant that certain interested and invested groups have had a stronger influence over what the University is, what it can do or even dream of becoming, including what can/not be said,” wrote Daswani.

Between May 1, 2022 and April 30, 2023, the university raised $256 million in pledges and gifts, representing roughly eight per cent of its total operating revenue for that year, which includes core teaching and administrative expenses. Of these, 22 per cent — $56.32 million — came from corporations. To raise money, the university operates central and divisional advancement offices, which network with donors and encourage financial gifts. 

The university has long denied claims that its reliance on donations threatens academic freedom. In a 2011 article written by philosophy Professor Cheryl Misak, who served as provost at the time, she argues that donations do not threaten academic freedom as long as departments set academic priorities, which “is certainly the case at the University of Toronto.” 

She also highlighted the many divisions instrumentally funded by philanthropy. “These donors have enabled the University to achieve its aspirations for greatness in a financially constricted time,” she wrote.

Returning the gift

On August 29, Brunnée released a second statement affirming that the faculty had followed all policies and announcing that the faculty would return the donation it had received from Amazon. She also wrote that U of T would introduce new guidelines requiring the disclosure of all donations that corporations make to the university. The university also plans to commission an independent survey of how colleges and universities best recognize and disclose corporate donations and may update their gift acceptance policies based on this review.

In an email to The Varsity, U of T law student and Students’ Law Society president Justin Kim wrote that he contacted many of his classmates about The Logic’s allegations and found that most students he talked with “are ambivalent about the faculty’s acceptance, use, and subsequent return of the donation,” although some students brought up concerns about transparency and whether the faculty followed necessary procedures. 

Kim wrote that he believes that Brunnée’s statement “adequately addresses” the concerns raised in the UTFA’s public statement. “After all, there were no restrictions on how the money was used,” he wrote. He told The Varsity that the donation incident does not alter the way he views research or events from the Faculty of Law. 

Unanswered questions

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Robinson said that he hopes the university will release a clear statement clarifying what happened and conduct an independent assessment of the incident.

Zorić wrote in her email to The Varsity that the UTFA is scheduled to meet with the provost on September 8. “We were pleased to see that the University will return the funds to Amazon,” she wrote. However, Zorić indicated that the UTFA wants clarity on how the university decided to accept the donation without disclosing the funding to participants in the funded programs. 

Although the university could take steps to improve its policies, Zorić believes that U of T’s existing policies as expressed are sufficient. She views the larger issue as a lack of enforcement. 

“When the law school and advancement office are repeatedly involved in such scandals, and nobody is held accountable, any serious attempt to prevent their recurrence should focus on the organizational culture and power dynamics that enable them,” she wrote. “We hope that the University Administration will be willing to recognize that and then work with us constructively towards addressing these problems.”