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The Globe and Mail

Turnover at Balsillie school raises questions of academic freedom

Jim Balsillie, the co-chief executive of Research in Motion, is photographed after announcing a $212.5 million offer to buy the Phoenix Coyotes in Toronto, Ont. May 5/2009.

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

The construction crews are still at work on the new Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., but already there are cracks in the plan to build a world-class hub for global studies in Canada's high-tech heartland.

The school, a collaboration between the neighbouring campuses of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier universities, aims to be a go-to place for future leaders and renowned scholars. Those ambitions are fuelled by a $33-million gift from BlackBerry entrepreneur Jim Balsillie, which flowed through donations from his private think tank, the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Less than two years ago, the fledging school lured Ramesh Thakur, a scholar and former top UN official, to be its first director and signal its arrival on the academic map. Prof. Thakur, familiar with Canada from his days as a graduate student and fresh from a stint as vice-rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo, appeared an ideal match to execute the school's vision.

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But that perfect pairing did not last for long. On a recent Friday, the first long weekend of the summer just hours away, Prof. Thakur was removed without cause from his post as director less than halfway through his contract. That decision follows several changes in key posts over the last six months at CIGI.

Prof. Thakur did not want to be interviewed, but in an e-mail he hinted at a tension that is blurring the lines between the public universities and the private organization. "Academic freedom is the bedrock of the university, and autonomy from outside interests (however well-meaning) is important in protecting that academic freedom."

The turnover of key positions at both institutions is raising questions about their unconventional relationship. Academic independence is a fiercely guarded principle in higher education - as Canadian campuses experiment with joint ventures and seek support from industry and individuals who expect results, there are fears that the firewall between donor and scholarly study is being chipped away.

Details of how Mr. Balsillie's $33-million gift flowed through CIGI and to the new school, outlined in the donor agreement and internal e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail, show an expectation that CIGI will be consulted on strategy and staffing at the new school. Faculty hired for the Balsillie school - including Prof. Thakur - were also given appointments as fellows at the think tank.

A spokeswoman for CIGI said it was not involved in Prof. Thakur's dismissal, but will take part in picking his replacement.

"Going forward I believe there will be greater consultation between the three institutions," said Neve Peric, vice-president of operations. Because the new school is a partnership, she said, "The strict rules of universities do not apply." The director post, Ms. Peric said, is the head of a partnership, not an academic appointment, although the think tank also has a right to be consulted on those. "Consulting is the key word," she said. "We will be consulted, but that is different than being involved in an academic process."

But some argue the difference is minimal, at best. "What appears to be happening here is the influence of private money trumping academic principle," said Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, a group that represents faculty unions across the country.

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As part of the donor agreement, the two universities that run the Balsillie school pledged to consult with CIGI over "the selection of individuals" to receive fellowships and to fill the appointments it helped to fund with its gift - 12 academic posts called "CIGI chairs" divided between the two universities. The agreement also contains an unusual clause that lets the donor move the money after 10 years if there are differences that cannot be resolved - a request CIGI says was made by the universities.

CIGI executives have asked to be "at the table regarding all of the academic discussions," according to an e-mail sent by treasurer Cosimo Fiorenza to Prof. Thakur in October. Mr. Fiorenza also asked to see lists of candidates for fellowships and academic appointments.

Laurier provost Deborah MacLatchy said all academic appointments, including the director, are governed by the universities. But what if CIGI had disagreed with the appointment of the school's new interim director? "We didn't have to cross that bridge because there was full agreement," she said.

"What is happening at Waterloo is at the cutting edge of the experiment of connecting academic scholarship to the real world of policy choices," said Paul Evans, the director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. The partnership forged in Waterloo has high ambitions of influencing public policy, he added - expectations that are difficult to fulfill given the current government's lack of interest in outside advice on such matters.

"People who make a donation want to see a difference made," Prof. Evans said. "This is a really challenging moment for anyone to demonstrate effects on our federal government."

Indeed, no one could accuse Mr. Balsillie of thinking small. Over the past eight years, the tenacious businessman has focused on creating a cluster for global studies on the old Seagram's distillery site in downtown Waterloo.

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He created CIGI in 2002, followed in 2007 by the gift to create the Balsillie school, including a new building at the distillery site. There are additional plans for this "Balsillie Campus" that include a law school and a school for trade and innovation.

His goal for the Balsillie school is for it "to be the best school on international relations in the world," he said in an e-mail. Asked about the timing for that goal, he said that is "the responsibility of the director."

The University of Waterloo declined to comment on the departure of Prof. Thakur from the Balsillie school. He remains a professor on the Waterloo campus. "The universities are preparing and will be implementing a hiring process that respects all of the core academic principles and procedures," dean of arts Ken Coates said in a written statement.

As for Mr. Balsillie, Ms. Peric said the co-CEO of Research in Motion plays a limited role at his think tank. "He is a lot less involved than you think," she said. "He has a full-time job. He chairs board meetings, but that is about all he does."

And she makes no apologies for his bold ambitions. "Does he expect success? Absolutely," she said. "I don't know that we can fault him for that."

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