Universities' move toward significant corporate collaborations raises issues of autonomy, integrity

March 12, 2012

More desperate to secure larger sums of funding, Canadian universities are increasingly entering much more complicated donor relationships, resulting in the challenge of building proper governance structures that allow universities to accept funding from outside sources while also protecting their autonomy and integrity. The Canadian Association of University Teachers has spoken out against York University's new agreement with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) on an international law program, as well as the University of Toronto's partnership with gold-mining magnate Peter Munk on the Munk School of Global Affairs. "A third party, a donor, an interest group, has no business involved in discussions about academic affairs within the university," says CAUT executive director James Turk. "There is no place for that if a university is to have integrity." A CIGI VP says "academic freedom is as important a value to a think-tank as it is to a university. In order to ensure that everyone feels good about the collaboration, there have to be firewalls built in." Still, how each party qualifies these protections is at the centre of the growing debate. As universities become more responsive to market forces, "this has forced too many to accept donations without due diligence and, sometimes, even bend to donor directives," observes Ramesh Thakur, who says he lost his job as the inaugural director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs (whose partners are CIGI, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University) for that very reason. In an investigation into Thakur's firing, CAUT released a scathing report about the lack of governance structure at the Balsillie School. The 3 partners dismissed CAUT's findings. Still, they have since developed a "squeaky clean" governance structure that was unanimously approved by the board of governors of all the partners and the universities' senates. Financial Post