Trouble in Toronto

Depending on whom you ask, York University's $30 million partnership with a think tank is either a sensible agreement or an attack on academic freedom.

March 26, 2012

At stake is a $30 million donation, 10 faculty research chairs, funding for 20 graduate students and, some fear, an entire country’s academic freedom.

Toronto’s York University, Canada’s largest, accepted a $30 million gift last year from a nonpartisan think tank funded by Jim Balsillie, whose former company created the Blackberry mobile device. Ontario’s government agreed to match that gift, which would go toward creating a research center dedicated to international law. (All figures in this story are in Canadian dollars, which are currently trading almost equal to U.S. dollars.)

Despite assurances by the think tank, the Centre for International Governance Innovation, that academic freedom at the public university won’t be affected, the national professor’s union and more than 200 York faculty members fear otherwise. The key complaint about the gift has little to do with the money, but instead with the fact York agreed to give the think tank a formal role in selecting faculty -- a break from the tradition in Canada and the United States of not letting donors decide who's hired.

The contract, said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, gives CIGI undue influence over who gets hired and what is studied at the new center. And while similar contracts at U.S. colleges have raised eyebrows, it’s a particularly sensitive issue in Canada, which is considered to have one of the world’s strongest records on academic freedom.

Since signing the contract last year, York and CIGI have agreed on several additions designed to clarify safeguards for academic freedom and appease their critics. While the revised agreement received the unanimous support of a university senate committee, Turk and others remain outraged. The concerns don't stem from fears of a specific political agenda on behalf of CIGI, Turk said, but rather that giving them an academic role would establish a dangerous precedent. 

Professors have circulated an open letter expressing their misgivings that has garnered more than 200 signatures, and CAUT has opened a censure case. If completed, Turk said it would be only the second time the union has seen a censure of this sort through to formal closure in 30 years.

As it stands now, a committee made up of two York professors and two CIGI officials would approve a shortlist of what chairs the university could hire for the new center. But if there are disagreements, the committee will agree on an independent review board of scholars not affiliated with York or CIGI to decide whose name goes on the shortlist. That's a change from a previous agreement in which the independent review wasn't binding. CIGI spokesman Fred Kuntz said that adjustment should dispel fears that his organization wants to infringe on academic freedom.

“As a research center, of course, we consider academic freedom a very important value and we respect that,” he said.

As evidence of that respect, Kuntz cites a current CIGI partnership with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in which CIGI provides space and funding for an international affairs program administered by the two colleges.

Turk mentions that same partnership as a reason he’s concerned about the York agreement. Though Kuntz tells it differently, Turk said CIGI has interfered in academic affairs with Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier, including the allegedly forced removal of the center's director because of dissenting views. As a result, both universities are also going through a censure process by the faculty group. Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier have contested the allegations of CIGI interference.

William van Wijngaarden chairs York’s senate and was part of the unanimous committee vote in favor of the partnership. While he said healthy discussion is positive and protecting academic freedom is a must, van Wijngaarden sees benefits from the agreement.

“This looks like a very positive opportunity to get some excellent professors in the area of international law,” the senate chair said.

The partnership will now be reviewed by the law school faculty before another round with a senate committee. Provost Patrick Monahan said in a statement that “academic freedom will be fully protected,” but that he welcomes further discussion.

For CIGI’s part, Kuntz said his organization respects the process and is content to wait it out, though he’s confident the center will move forward. While he won’t rule out further adjustments to the contract, he maintains that both sides benefit from CIGI having an active role in the new center.

“We certainly want to be reasonable,” Kuntz said. “It’s hard for me to predict what kinds of accommodations might be required.”

But unless CIGI is willing to give up any semblance of influence over academic programs, Turk perceives a larger threat. If one donor is allowed that privilege at one university, he said, others may follow and the country would suffer as a result. “If this goes through, it’s a game-changer in Canada,” he said. “If York opens the door to the precedent that if you give us enough money, you’ll have say over academic matters, it’s going to be very hard for other universities to tell donors that’s not possible.”


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