York University is closing in on a $60-million deal with a think tank launched by BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie to create 10 research chairs and 20 graduate scholarships probing modern challenges of international law.
The partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation would invest a $30-million gift from Mr. Balsillie and another $30-million in provincial funds first promised in the 2010 budget. In financial terms, it would be a major win for York, comparable in scale to landing 10 of the prestigious federally financed Canada Research Chairs in one year.
But the agreement, which is expected to be sealed within weeks, has not come together without controversy. Administrators encountered objections from faculty members who worry the terms could threaten academic freedom and autonomy, a criticism CIGI faced over its shared governance of an international affairs school with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.
To allay fears, Mr. Balsillie has put his name to a protocol designed "to promote and protect academic freedom," and plans to set up a full-fledged global law centre tied to York's Osgoode Hall Law School have been scrapped in favour of a more overarching funding partnership.
"There were concerns," said Patrick Monahan, York University's vice-president, academic, and provost. "We have negotiated now, and signed, a binding protocol on academic freedom, specifically to address some of those concerns."
For four years, CIGI has pursued the plan with various schools, but serious discussions with the University of Ottawa last year did not yield an agreement. A university spokesperson said "benefits were not foreseen by both parties."
More recently, some Osgoode faculty embraced CIGI's proposal, but others contended an early framework agreement York signed with Mr. Balsillie's centre last August could have left the door open to infringements on academic freedom, and questioned the governance structure of the proposed centre. York declined to provide a copy of the original agreement.
The think tank came under scrutiny in 2010 when Ramesh Thakur was ousted as director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a CIGI-led project housed at Waterloo's two universities. In an interview at the time, Dr. Thakur said the school had become "a wholly owned subsidiary of CIGI" without full academic freedom, an opinion supported by Professor Len Findlay, who conducted an inquiry for the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Its findings were strenuously disputed by both universities.
"I'm sure [the Osgoode faculty are]aware of that report … which I think was completely driven by an agenda," said Fred Kuntz, CIGI's vice-president of public affairs. "We're a think tank, and a think tank lives on ideas. We're not a lobby group."
A large majority of Osgoode faculty voted to support the initiative, but with conditions, including the negotiation of suitable safeguards for academic freedom. But when talks produced no agreement, Mr. Monahan and York president Mamdouh Shoukri drafted and signed their own protocol with Mr. Balsillie and CIGI executive director Thomas A. Bernes.
Among the document's nine points are a commitment from both sides to "uphold the academic integrity, academic autonomy and academic freedom of the chairs recruited," and a provision that the document "may be augmented from time to time by the mutual agreement of the parties."
The chairs and scholarships will be open to any faculty proposing a project focused on international law. Two thirds of the chairs will be based at CIGI's offices in Waterloo, commuting to teach at York, in an effort to help build CIGI's capacity in fields that could range from international financial regulation to global environmental law.
"Ultimately, all decisions about the hiring of chairs will remain with the university," Prof. Monahan said. "We see it as really building, at York, the leading group of scholars in the field of international economic law."
Many details remain to be worked out before the deal is final, and Mr. Monahan is seeking endorsement from the academic policy, planning and research committee of York's Senate. But he and Mr. Kuntz both believe it will proceed.
"It's not jeopardized. It's completely on track, and it'll open this September," Mr. Kuntz said.