Monday, April 16, 2012

York (Canada) Spurns $60 million! Skies Fall!! Newspapers Aghast!!!

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is a private think tank devoted to the study of democratic institutions and governance issues worldwide, and affiliated with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Endowed by Jim Balsillie, a co-founder of Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry), it has an impressive staff of scholars, many of them academic, some others private scholars who have produced books, films, etc on relevant topics.
Over the last week, CIGI has been caught up in a small but violent media storm in the Canadian press. At issue are a centre for international law that CIGI (and Balsillie) wanted to establish jointly with Osgoode Hall, the law school at York University, Toronto. The proposed endowment was $30 million from Balsillie, matched by Ontario: ten research chairs, twenty graduate fellowships, and international reach in vital issues such as “trade and finance rules, intellectual property law and environmental norms” (to quote Balsillie). (Some details here.)
But then . . . the faculty at Osgoode Hall declined the endowment. They turned down $60 million!
According to the newspapers, their behaviour is bizarre, myopic, retrograde, unionist . . . and this includes  even generally progressive newspapers such as the Toronto Star, in which we find this statement by Fred Kuntz, vice-president of CIGI for public affairs (and formerly a distinguished journalist and editor of the Star):
Jim Balsillie does not assert his own policy views on global affairs (I’m assuming he has them) into the research activities, nor do other members of the operating board. The entire bugaboo is a fiction. Signed agreements and protocols in place for the York proposal guaranteed academic freedom under York’s existing policies and practices, and left all faculty hiring decisions, curricula and student admissions solely and rightly in the hands of York . . .
The controversy has handed the opponents of the humanities and social sciences a big stick. Writing in the Globe and Mail this morning, the former oil executive Gwyn Morgan (who has written that a humanities PhD equips you only to wait at tables) writes:
How can it be that, in the name of “academic freedom,” those appointed to lead our publicly financed universities are rendered impotent by their own employees? Where else in the private or public sectors do employees decide who else is hired and what the organization delivers, while being free to spend most of their time doing what they choose?
Professors given a say in the appointment of other professors? Unthinkable!
But didn't Kuntz tell us that hiring was "rightly in the hands of York?" Hoping to resolve the contradiction, I wrote James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, to ask why his organization disapproved of the CIGI/Osgoode Hall arrangement. He replied:
In the case of York, the agreement provided that the program would be run by a steering committee made up of two representatives of CIGI and two of York. As all decisions of the Steering Committee had to be unanimous, the CIGI was given voice and veto power over:
(1) the research areas for each chair,
(2) the specific financial terms and expectations for each chair, including their research plans,
(3) the short list of the candidates from which the University will hire. 
In the face of massive opposition, the university modified #3 so that, in the event that CIGI disagreed about who could be on the short list, the matter would be referred to an outside group of "experts", chosen by the Steering Committee, that would make the final decision. That was the only change.
So did the proposed agreement guarantee academic freedom, as Kuntz writes? Perhaps, in a certain sense, it did. That is, CIGI did not seek to influence or censor what professors write. But this was never the issue. The issues were: CIGI’s attempts to monitor hiring, and its right, under the agreement, to cut off funding at any time for any reason. Kuntz was in a sense right to say that hiring decisions are “in the hands of York.” But he fails to mention CIGI’s control over the shortlist–indeed, over the whole project.
The proposed CIGI/Osgoode agreement has the support of some respected academics, including Patrick Monahan, an eminent constitutional scholar, former Dean of Osgoode Hall, and presently Provost of York University. Perhaps Monahan thought that CIGI’s rights to monitor shortlists could be managed and channeled in a constructive manner. But the fact remains that this is not an issue just of academic freedom. The issue is, rather, academic autonomy in certain critical areas of university governance. Oil executives and newspaper editors do not understand these issues. They are immersed in institutions that are managed for a determinate goal. They do not understand the culture of independent creation that informs a university. They have no idea why this culture is important, or how much it has contributed to the atmosphere of free inquiry that so benefits universities in the great democracies of the world.
It is sad that the misrepresentation of this issue can put this culture in danger. It is also frightening that research funding has become such a potent instrument of interference and control in Germany and other European countries.

(Crossposted from NewAPPs)