Profs: academic freedom at risk

Fears of undue donor influence prompt calls for censure of universities

Less than a year after the protest against Peter Munk’s donation to build the Munk School of Global Affairs, agreements between three Ontario universities and a private thinktank chaired by former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie have brought questions of academic freedom again to the fore.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is seeking to censure York University, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University over concerns that the institutions’ partnerships with Balsillie’s Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) may threaten academic integrity.

“The [York–CIGI] agreement is the most egregious we’ve seen,” said Robert Ramsay, professional officer at CAUT.

York’s $60-million agreement will see CIGI contributing $30 million over the next 10 years to create an international law program with 10 research chairs and 20 graduate scholarships at the university. The other $30 million will come from the Ontario government.

CAUT argued that the York–CIGI agreement, signed in August 2011, offers the thinktank an “unprecedented level of influence” over the recruitment process and the priorities of the program.

The agreement states that CIGI will appoint two of the program’s five-member steering committee, which is responsible for “establishing the specific financial terms and expectations for each of the chairs, including their research plans and research support.”

York must only appoint or renew chairs recommended by the steering committee, according to the agreement. All decisions require unanimous approval by the committee.

Fred Kuntz, CIGI’s vice-president of public affairs, adamantly rejected CAUT’s claims and denied that the thinktank has veto power over the academic matters of the program.

“The reason we want to partner with universities is because of their free and independent thought. If we weren’t interested in academic freedom, we wouldn’t go near universities,” he said.

Following the agreement, CIGI and York established protocols outlining that both the protection of academic freedom and recruitment process of the program will be governed by York’s existing policies, according to Kuntz.

CAUT’s academic freedom and tenure committee put forth the censure motion, which seeks to initiate academic boycott. Despite extensive media coverage of the faculty union’s rare move, Ramsay said there is a chance a formal censure could be avoided.

CAUT’s executive committee will consider the censure motion on April 26 and decide whether to initiate a six-month-long process, during which it can work with different parties involved.

“Only if that negotiation over six months is not fruitful would the question of actually imposing the censure come before the council in November,” Ramsay explained. “There is a chance the problem will be solved.”

Kuntz said while CIGI is expecting opposition, it remains optimistic about the outcome.

“Partnerships are always somewhat more difficult than just working in isolation, but the rewards are greater too.”

While both York faculty and the media sift through the discrepancies between CIGI’s and CAUT’s arguments, the finance of the agreement is also being called into question.

A recent commentary by Osgoode Hall tax law professor Neil Brooks, circulated amongst disgruntled York faculty and CAUT members, shows that as much as 83 per cent of the funds to the York–CIGI collaboration could come from public money once tax credits available to Balsillie are taken into account.

Brooks wrote that Balsillie’s $30-million contribution would cost him $16 million, after deducting 46 per cent of charitable tax credit. A large contribution like this is usually made not in cash, but in shares of publicly traded corporations, which, Brooks suggests, would likely be RIM shares. When such shares are donated, the capital gains tax on these shares — estimated to be $6 to $7 million — will be forgiven.

“In sum, the actual cost to Mr. Balsillie is likely about $10 million. The remainder of the $60 million contribution comes from Canadian taxpayers,” Brooks wrote.

Kuntz rejected the idea that the fund is a donation to York and said, although Balsillie is the founder and chair, CIGI, a registered charity, relies on donations from many other donors.

“There’s so much misinformation circulating,” he said. “It’s not about Jim Balsillie. It’s about an organization that’s trying to do something great … Something we are trying to build in Canada is being put at risk.”

CIGI also launched the Balsillie School of International Affairs in 2007 in a three-way partnership with Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier.

Kuntz also suggested that CAUT has been running “a campaign of untruth” in an effort to unionize university teachers, especially those from the University of Waterloo.

“I don’t like how a union cynically distorts the truth and launches a campaign of lies to increase its membership,” Kuntz said. “I’m sorry, but that’s evil.”

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