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York abandons plans to accept $30-million from Balsillie's think tank

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 abandoned contentious efforts to partner with a private think tank after its law faculty rejected the deal for the second time, maintaining it threatened York's autonomy and academic freedom.

The proposed collaboration with the Centre for International Governance Innovation would have funded 10 research chairs and 20 graduate scholarships over a decade. Former Research in Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who founded CIGI, had pledged $30-million, to be matched by another $30-million in provincial funds.

The deal became a flashpoint when hundreds of professors rallied against it, first quietly within York's Osgoode Hall Law School, then more publicly when some 300 faculty members signed an open letter arguing the agreement would give the Waterloo, Ont.-based think tank "unprecedented" control over academic matters.

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On Monday, Osgoode's Faculty Council voted 34 to 7 against a revised version of the partnership, with eight abstentions, sealing the initiative's fate.

"Obviously we're disappointed. We tried very hard to develop a framework that we thought would provide protection," said York provost Patrick Monahan after the meeting. "It wasn't really possible to imagine how you could proceed without the law school."

After Osgoode professors complained last fall that the original agreement offered CIGI officials too much sway in matters such as chairs' research plans and the shortlisted candidates, the deal went through months of alterations, with York administrators attaching two new protocols and more recently drafting an "academic governance framework" with notable changes to the chair selection process. York's Senate was expected to review the newest version later this month, but Osgoode's rejection made that pointless.

Fred Kuntz, vice-president of public affairs at CIGI, has repeatedly said the think tank shares York's esteem for academic freedom, but lost its taste for agreements where it was "seen solely as a funder," preferring to "show an interest in the area that we're funding, and who's doing the research."

On Monday, Mr. Kuntz said CIGI was willing to compromise, but had drawn a line at keeping its say in descriptions of the chairs' topics – for example, a chair in international trade regulation – which Prof. Monahan called "standard procedure."

"That was as far as we were going, that was the big scary thing that we were asking for," Mr. Kuntz said. "It seems so benign. It's our money that we were investing."

But Craig Heron, a professor and member of the York Senate who openly opposed the agreement, thinks CIGI asked to narrow the scope too far, among a host of other red flags.

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"I'm glad that it didn't go forward," Prof. Heron said. "This was not just a CIGI issue, it was a much larger issue of principle of how we're going to deal with external private sponsors."

Mr. Kuntz said CIGI is "not likely" to pursue the partnership with another university, having already failed to reach a similar agreement with the University of Ottawa last year.

"This is a missed opportunity," Prof. Monahan said. "This would have been a very significant initiative."

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About the Author
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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