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Administrators, faculty meet to discuss academic freedom

Daylong session in Waterloo, Ont., prompted by recent debates over donor influence at some Canadian universities.


In the wake of several high-profile disputes over undue donor influence at universities, some senior university administrators, faculty association representatives and scholars gathered recently to debate the impact that donor agreements and university partnerships have on academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

The research landscape at universities has changed, Martha Crago, vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University, told the conference. Universities now partner with industry but also with governments, international organizations, community groups and others, and all of these collaborations require equal vigilance, she said: “I make no distinction between public and private partnerships.” Universities have become more adept at managing these relationships, she went on, and institutions can and do say no to partnerships when donors overstep their bounds.

Rose Goldstein, vice-president research at McGill University, agreed. “We do negotiate,” she said. “Part of negotiating properly is knowing that you can walk away.” She said McGill has refused a partnership several times because the condition of academic freedom couldn’t be guaranteed.

Nonetheless, collaborations are vital to the academic mission of postsecondary institutions, said John Hepburn, vice-president, research, at the University of British Columbia. He said that Stanford University maintains close ties with California’s high-tech sector but remains a highly respected institution. “We can’t shy away from [these relationships],” he said. “We do need more dialogue.”

The one-day conference, held Sept. 6 in Waterloo, Ontario, was hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Waterloo and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Both universities have been embroiled in a dispute over the governance of the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has been sharply critical of the Balsillie School, which was established in 2007 as a joint venture between Waterloo, Laurier and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), a private think tank funded by Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie. CAUT has argued that the donor agreement and governance structure of the school, which require the three parties to reach a consensus on some issues, effectively give CIGI a “veto” over decisions involving the school’s academic programs, choice of director and selection of faculty chairs and graduate fellowships, among other things. The association of faculty unions has threatened to censure the universities – a serious move – unless the documents are amended.

Peter MacKinnon, who recently retired as president of the University of Saskatchewan, defended the partnership, arguing that the governance structure explicitly protects academic freedom. “I believe the Balsillie School documents are sound,” he said, and he called the threat of censure by CAUT “unjust.”

Professor MacKinnon said CAUT’s guiding principles for university collaborations are “an over-prescriptive directive on matters of detail” that try to deny donors any say over matters, even in an advisory role. If implemented, the guidelines would discourage university-industry partnerships, he argued. “If I were an industrial leader seeking collaboration and I was faced with these guidelines enshrined in the policy, I would head for the hills.”

He said Canada lags behind most industrialized countries when it comes to university-industry partnerships and that Canada’s economic development requires more collaboration between the two sectors. Moreover, for many faculty members, collaboration with industry isn’t optional but is essential to their ability to pursue research, he added. “We should be careful not to impede these scholars in their research and not put restrictive barriers in their way.”

One point of agreement between Professor MacKinnon and CAUT representatives is that the dispute about the Balsillie School didn’t revolve around the academic freedom of individual faculty members. Rather, argued CAUT, the academic integrity or institutional autonomy of the universities involved is at stake. James Turk, executive director of the association of faculty unions, said Laurier and U of Waterloo had compromised their academic integrity by agreeing to certain provisions of the donor agreement: “Credibility comes from the very nature of the university and the notion that universities cannot be bought. We trade on our integrity.” Agreements that give outsiders a say in academic matters undermine that integrity, he said, adding, “Then there’s no reason for our existence.”

The arguments about academic integrity and academic freedom have spilled onto other campuses. Earlier this year, York University cancelled a donor agreement with CIGI that would have created at joint graduate program in international law at Osgoode Hall because the law school’s faculty council was opposed. More recently, a $15-million agreement between Carleton University and a foundation established by Calgary businessman Clayton Riddell made headlines. The agreement, signed in 2010, established the Clayton H. Riddell Graduate School in Political Management at Carleton and called for creation of a five-member steering committee. Media reports alleged that most members of the steering committee have ties to Mr. Riddell and that the committee has the power to approve decisions about the budget, the selection of the program’s executive director and hiring of faculty.

But Peter Ricketts, Carleton’s vice-president academic and provost, attended the conference and disputed those claims. He said the steering committee isn’t involved in managing the program and has no authority over faculty hiring or other academic decisions. He said this was made clear in a revised agreement Carleton recently issued but that, too, has been the target of criticism. “Those criticisms are completely unfounded,” said Dr. Ricketts. “The academic integrity of the program is completely guaranteed.”

Canadian institutions aren’t alone in confronting these dilemmas. Robert O’Neil, an expert on academic freedom and former president of the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin state system, described several skirmishes on U.S. campuses and said that despite such examples, he supports university-industry collaborations. “We must as scholars and teachers make academic freedom mesh with industry-university collaborations,” said Mr. O’Neil, who is now general counsel for the American Association of University Professors.

Gary Rhoades, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona and former general secretary of the AAUP, praised the conference organizers and participants for openly discussing these thorny issues. In the U.S., he noted, professors have been much less vocal about criticizing university partnerships. He recommended holding regular conferences to keep the debate alive and having faculty members who aren’t directly involved in university collaborations to regularly review agreements between institutions and their partners.


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