Dismissal results in an inquiry at the Balsillie school

In May 2010 distinguished professor and researcher Ramesh Thakur was dismissed from his position as inaugural director of the privately funded Basillie School for International Affairs (BSIA).

Upon investigation, it was revealed that academic freedom and incompatible goals of private investors and educators had a hand in the dismissal.
In an investigation commissioned by the Canadian Association for University Teachers (CAUT) and conducted by Len Findlay from the University of Saskatchewan, it was found that “insofar as [Thakur’s] academic freedom depended on the protections of institutional autonomy, it became increasingly vulnerable to threats from the outside and complicity on the inside.”

The “threat from the outside” as far as the report is concerned is the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) which is also funded by Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion.

“Complicity on the inside” refers to the involvement of other staff at BSIA as well as representatives from Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) and University of Waterloo (UW) which are the other principle partners of the school.
WLU and UW are academic institutions and contributed this aspect to the BSIA. CIGI, however, is considered the private investor.

When Thakur resisted attempts by CIGI to be present for meetings regarding the curriculum and academic direction of the school, it led to his dismissal.
Thakur refuses the idea that private institutions that fund a school should have the ability to influence curriculum.

“That would require a fundamental change in the basic philosophies and principles in the way Canadian and western universities systems have operated to date,” he said.

“Think of it this way, [universities’] major funders have tended to be governments. Does that mean government should chair effective decisions or have a say in academic matters? And if you think about it, governments at least have some legitimate claim to be acting in the public interest. Private benefactors can’t even claim that.”

According to Thakur, the issue reaches even farther than this. It also could affect students who obtain a degree at any of the three schools. “It affects the academic integrity and issues of academic reputation of the institutions and the universities. And therefore in the long run also the marketability and reputation of their degrees,” he said.

In Findlay’s report, he offered recommendations that, if followed both at BSIA and other similar institutions, could help prevent these issues in the future.

Specifically for WLU and UW he wrote “UW and WLU should develop clear and comprehensive guidelines for dealing with current or potential donors and for collaborative initiatives such as BSIA, so as to ensure that the academic autonomy and integrity of all university-associated institutes, centres or schools.”

However, Thakur thinks a precedent may be set by this case. BSIA is not the only such institution in Canada with private donors and academic goals, and with governments cutting back on educational funding, this could become a real issue for public universities as well.

“The issues are important and I think they might even become more important in the future because rather unfortunately governments have been cutting back on the level of their funding for universities and universities have been scrambling to make up the short fall with financial input from private donors,” he said. “If that is the case then it becomes extremely important to make sure that the restrictional boundries are clearly understood and are respected on both sides.”

While it is a difficult situation that has risen from the BSIA, Dr. Thakur hopes something constructive comes of this.

“I hope it spurs a debate and discussion and clarifies the issues and principles for the university community locally and nationally.”

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