Ontario Universities Face Censure Over Ties To Think-Tank Run By Rim Co-Founder Jim Balsillil

April 2012

In a rare move, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has served notice it intends to censure three Ontario universities in relation to their joint collaborations with a private think-tank established and chaired by Jim Balsillie, co-founder of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd.

The union’s academic freedom and tenure committee has informed the faculty associations at York University, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University of its unanimous decision to put forward a censure motion for CAUT’s executive committee to consider at its general meeting on April 26. “Our overriding concern is that any collaborative agreements signed between universities and third-party donors maintain, protect and ensure the academic integrity of the university and that it not compromise its academic integrity in order to get the money,” Jim Turk, CAUT’s executive director told the National Post.

The CAUT, which represents 66,000 professors, librarians, researchers and other academic professionals at 122 Canadian universities and colleges, is alarmed by a series of deals between Mr. Balsillie’s Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the universities to establish a school in international relations and research chairs in international law. The faculty union argues that the agreements appear to afford Mr. Balsillie’s private think-tank veto power over the hiring of faculty and the ability to influence curriculum and research — areas that have traditionally been the exclusive domain of academia.

“CIGI has no business at the table deciding what areas the chairs will focus on, and who should be hired, much less have a veto,” Mr. Turk said.

An outspoken defender of academic freedom, CAUT hopes its professional rebuke will motivate the universities to renegotiate or amend portions of their agreements with CIGI before the union’s next general meeting in six months.

Such a rebuke is an extreme step and intended to ostracize the offending institutions. The censures are widely publicized in academic circles in Canada and abroad. Academic staff are discouraged from taking jobs, conducting research, accepting awards and even attending conferences at schools that have been formally criticized.

“Censure is a move of last resort,” says Len Findlay, chair of CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee. “Nobody takes any pleasure in it. It’s a belated move that is meant to get their attention and express the gravity of the concern.”

Only 12 Canadian universities have been censured by CAUT since 1968, with the most recent in 2008.

Two of the universities in CAUT’s crosshairs told the Post they are prepared to discuss their deals but see no reason to modify them.

“We don’t believe that they have a proper factual basis to proceed with censure,” says Patrick J. Monahan, York’s vice-president academic and provost. “We have negotiated a series of agreements with CIGI that we think clearly address the issues of academic freedom.”

Geoff McBoyle, vice-president and academic provost at Waterloo, adds: “More and more donors these days wish to be involved in where their money is going, and once they give their money they can give suggestions.

“And within the general agreement that is what we follow, but we are very concerned at the same time with maintaining the academic freedom and integrity of the institution.”

CAUT is concerned about a $60-million deal signed by CIGI and York University last year to create a school of international law. Through CIGI, Mr. Balsillie has committed to donate $30-million to create 10 research chairs and 20 graduate scholarships over the next 10 years.

The collaboration, which also includes $30-million from the Ontario government, has raised eyebrows in the academic community, especially after the University of Ottawa passed on the opportunity and opposition from Osgoode Law School faculty at York forced the university to relocate the program to other faculties.

According to the agreement, a five-member steering committee comprised of two members from Mr. Balsillie’s think-tank, two from York and the executive director of the program will establish the 10 research chairs. Among the committee’s responsibilities, “establishing the specific financial terms and expectations for each of the chairs, including their research plans and research support.”

And all decisions made by the committee require unanimous approval.

York amended its previous protocol agreement on March 9, which among other things, eliminates CIGI’s ability to veto the hiring of faculty from a short list of candidates.

“We think this [partnership with CIGI] is a model approach because it brings significant resources to the university and yet preserves university autonomy — and that is what our senate committee on academic policy thought about,” said Mr. Monahan.

However, CAUT said the amendments don’t go far enough.

CAUT also has issues with a similar arrangement between CIGI, Waterloo and Laurier that created the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo in 2007.

Officials at Laurier did not respond to calls.