A dispute at York University over plans to partner with a think tank founded by wireless magnate Jim Balsillie is testing the university’s authority to dictate terms with private-sector donors.
More than 200 York professors have signed a letter petitioning the university to halt progress on an agreement to fund chairs in international law, which they say gives the private Centre for International Governance Innovation “unprecedented influence over the University’s academic affairs,” until the school’s senate can alter it to better protect academic autonomy.
At least 14 York senators expect to move a motion to that effect at a Thursday meeting. But while provost Patrick Monahan now says he wants senators’ advice, he has maintained the school’s highest academic body has no jurisdiction.
“It’s not up to senate to approve the agreement, and I still think that’s right,” Prof. Monahan said. “We’re not creating any new programs. It’s a funding arrangement.”
The deal in question would see York and CIGI join forces to create 10 research chairs and 20 graduate scholarships in international law, funded with a $30-million donation from Mr. Balsillie, former co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, and another $30-million in provincial funds. Both partners hail it as a chance to build a world-leading hub in the subject.
Yet discussions of a similar arrangement with the University of Ottawa had already failed, according to a spokesperson for that school. And the York partnership has since been plagued by stops and starts as faculty voiced concerns that it gives CIGI too much control in selecting the chairs and framing their research.
When university administrators and York’s Osgoode Hall Law School’s faculty council failed to agree on a document protecting the school’s autonomy, Prof. Monahan opened the chairs to all faculties, and later drafted a pair of new protocols with CIGI to assuage lingering fears.
At the heart of the matter is a provision allowing two CIGI employees on the partnership’s steering committee to review the shortlist of candidates for the chairs. The latest protocol promises the committee would appoint an arm’s-length panel of “scholars and experts” to settle any dispute about who should be interviewed, but a letter from 14 senators counters that allowing CIGI a seat at the table to shape hiring decisions is still “a shocking departure from our established practices.”
Prof. Monahan got unanimous support for the deal, with its proliferating protections, from the senate’s academic policy, planning and research committee. But even that failed to calm anxious professors, who say it remains a threat to York’s integrity. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has been the most vocal critic, warning it may formally censure York.
“I’ve never seen a donor agreement as egregious as what York agreed to with CIGI,” said Jim Turk, the association’s executive director.
CIGI intends to let the debate at York run its course, and believes the initiative is “still worth doing,” said Fred Kuntz, the think tank’s vice-president of public affairs. But he also hinted CIGI is unlikely to cede all its influence.
“There have been times when CIGI has been seen solely as a funder, where we are sort of an ATM and people withdraw from it and go on their merry way. … [That]has sometimes, in our experience, led to the money being used for something completely disconnected from the mandate of CIGI,” Mr. Kuntz said. “We live and learn, and we’ve learned that when we show an interest in the area that we’re funding, and who’s doing the research, that we have more comfort that it’s actually related to what we do.”
History professor Craig Heron, one of the senators rallying against the initiative as it stands, argues senate cannot be ignored when a new graduate program with chairs and scholarships is involved.
“The core of this is not to say, ‘Get rid of this agreement,’ ” he said. “It’s more a matter of going back to the drawing board to say, ‘Let’s put better safeguards into the agreement.’ ”
Prof. Monahan is listening, and plans to propose that the academic policy, planning and research committee now draft a “governance framework” outlining the university’s participation, which he would ask senate to approve.
“Given the concerns that we’ve now heard ... I want to get senate’s advice on this,” he said. “There’s nothing being rammed through [Thursday] We’re going to have a discussion.”