CAUT investigates Balsillie School

Violations of academic freedom alleged in dismissal of school’s director

While his Research In Motion business partner is enjoying the glow of Stephen Hawking’s presence at the Perimeter Institute, Jim Balsillie’s own foray into high-level academic research has been steeped  in alleged violations of academic freedom. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) announced last week that it will be investigating the removal of Ramesh Thakur as director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The school is affiliated with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

In a letter addressed to the presidents of both institutions, CAUT director James Turk alleged that Thakur was fired “without any stated cause, without any fair procedure and in violation of his contract.” Thakur’s tenure as director of the Balsillie School was to last until 2013. He will retain his faculty position at the University of Waterloo. The national professors union has appointed Len Findlay, a University of Saskatchewan English professor, to investigate the case and file a report by Sept 1.

Attracting the attention of the CAUT follows a report in the Globe and Mail about Thakur’s dismissal that raised questions about the relationship between the Balsillie School and the Blackberry entrepreneur’s private think tank, the Centre for Innovation in Global Governance (CIGI). A donation of $33 million to help create the school was funneled through CIGI, and faculty appointed to the Balsillie School are simultaneously appointed as CIGI chairs.  Summarizing the donor agreement and emails obtained by the Globe, the newspaper reported that there was an “expectation that CIGI will be consulted on strategy and staffing at the new school.”

The CAUT suspects that Thakur’s firing was motivated by his “opposition to giving CIGI a larger role in the governance of the Balsillie School.” It is a claim that appears to be supported by Thakur himself, who told the Globe, via email, that “Academic freedom is the bedrock of the university, and autonomy from outside interests (however well-meaning) is important in protecting that academic freedom.”

No one from the University of Waterloo or Wilfrid Laurier agreed to be interviewed by Maclean’s. However, both institutions released brief statements through their communications offices. “The departure of Dr. Ramesh Thakur as director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs is a personnel matter and therefore subject to confidentiality requirements,” read the Wilfrid Laurier statement.

A statement from the University of Waterloo similarly cited confidentiality issues, but also defended the institution’s commitment to academic freedom. “The university considers academic integrity and freedom as the most fundamental element of our foundation and existence,” the statement read.

Prior to coming to Waterloo, Thakur was Senior Vice Rector of the United Nations University and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations.