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York, professors wrangle over think-tank cash from RIM's Balsillie

BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie started the private Centre for International Governance Innovation in 2001. 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.

York University has a plan to settle a dispute with professors dismayed over a partnership with a private think tank founded by business giant Jim Balsillie. But if it can't get approval from the university's senate, it will kill the initiative.

More than 270 professors have signed an open letter that argues an arrangement with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) gives the Waterloo, Ont.-based think tank "unprecedented" influence in academic matters. The letter demands that the senate, the university's highest academic authority, be allowed to change the deal to maintain autonomy, and then approve it.

A packed senate meeting on Thursday featured a lengthy discussion of the joint initiative, a lucrative arrangement that would fund research chairs and graduate scholarships in international law for the next decade using a $30-million donation from Mr. Balsillie, and another $30-million in provincial funds.

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At the meeting, York provost Patrick Monahan said that rather than throwing out the original agreement, he will work with the senate's policy and planning committee to draft an "academic framework agreement" that sets out how the chairs will be recruited, their research plans determined, and their academic freedom safeguarded, and which also includes an "oversight mechanism" to track the partnership once it's under way. The committee will then ask the full senate to approve the framework at a meeting a month from now.

Prof. Monahan has repeatedly insisted it is not up to the senate to approve or deny the agreement – something many professors contest. But after emphasizing that he wants senators' advice on Wednesday, he said for the first time on Thursday that the initiative with CIGI will not survive unless the senate agrees to the new framework.

"We're just not going to proceed unless senate endorses a governance framework," Prof. Monahan told The Globe and Mail. "Hopefully senate will approve it."

Many professors, including more than a dozen senators, have balked at the current terms of the agreement, fearing it gives two CIGI employees on a five-member Steering Committee undue sway over who fills the chairs, and what they plan to study. Despite assurances to the contrary from York administrators, the professors insist the deal would undermine fiercely guarded principles of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and could erode York's reputation for independent thought.

But Craig Heron, a professor and senator who has helped lead the charge to rejig the current deal, called Prof. Monahan's proposal "a step in the right direction."

"[The University's administrators]clearly were listening," Prof. Heron said. "Now there's a need to make sure that all the voices that have been raised up to this point have a voice in that [policy and planning]committee's deliberations. We want to make sure that we're going to be heard."

Whether any new framework will be agreeable to CIGI also remains to be seen. Fred Kuntz, CIGI's vice-president of public affairs, has said the think tank has little interest in being a funder without oversight of its investment.

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"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," Mr. Kuntz said.

York's next senate meeting is scheduled for April 26.

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Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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