York University has decided to walk away from its proposed $30 million deal with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the privately owned think-tank of former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie.
“It was determined that there was non-sufficient internal support [at York] to move forward and therefore the decision was made not to proceed with the arrangement with CIGI,” Joanne Rider, chief spokesperson for York University, said.
This lack of support came particularly from the Osgoode Hall Law School at York, whose main concern was that the deal inhibited academic freedom.
James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, agreed.
“The agreement York signed was a terrible one. It violated basic principles of academic autonomy and academic integrity,” Turk said. “It was the first university that I’ve known that was willing to do that in order to get money.”
He explained the issue was that the agreement would create a panel made up of half York faculty and the other half would be made of representatives from CIGI. These CIGI representatives would influence what would be studied with the research dollars.
“The university hiring processes went out the window,” Turk said. “They were letting CIGI sit at the table and have veto power over which research areas each chair would be in, their specific financial terms, and expectations for what the research plans for each chair would be.”
However, Fred Kuntz, vice-president of public affairs at CIGI, asserted these claims were false.
“Academic freedom is guaranteed under York’s existing policies and practices governing academic freedom,” Kuntz said. “We entirely yielded to their existing policies and practices. Everything that York has in place, their rules about academic freedom, applied entirely to this program without exception.”
“The only area where CIGI had a veto is over what themes our research dollars would fund. We were going to donate this money to a program to fund research chairs and all we wanted was to be able to say what are the broad themes those research chairs are about,” Kuntz explained.
“CAUT was saying CIGI shouldn’t even have a say in how their money is used at all,” Kuntz continued. “They should donate the money to York and York can decide what areas of research will be researched. Who in the world thinks that’s reasonable?”
However, according to Turk, even broadly specifying how research dollars are to be spent compromises a university’s academic integrity.
“A university is the one place in a democratic society where all sides and all questions can be looked at, but at the end of the day the academics are not beholden to any particular interests,” Turk said. “Otherwise, they just become job shops for private interests.”
“We’re happy the program is not going ahead as it was signed,” Turk continued. “The villain here is not Mr. Balsillie, it’s York. That is, the fact that a wealthy donor might want to shape how his money is spent is not a big surprise. That a university would agree to it is the surprise.”