It was a clash at the intersection of private money and public education, with a big-name cast of characters: BlackBerry titan Jim Basillie, Governor General David Johnston and Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations diplomat renowned as one of the world’s leading scholars on peace and security studies.
The story of Dr. Thakur being bounced out of his job as inaugural director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont. has led to claims of violation of academic freedom and demands that Dr. Thakur receive apologies from Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Waterloo, led at the time by Mr. Johnston, and the private think-tank created by Mr. Balsillie, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).
An academic inquiry into Dr. Thakur’s dismissal, made public Thursday, concluded that the two universities – which jointly run the Balsillie school – misled him about their commitment to his directorship and buckled under pressure from CIGI, “possibly in the form of a threat to walk away from multiple commitments…”
Mr. Balsillie in 2007 pledged $33-million to the two universities and CIGI for a collaborative effort resulting in the Balsillie school. But one section of the agreement allowed him to decide at his own discretion not to participate in a collaborative project during the 10-year life of the donor agreement. In addition, he could terminate the agreement after 10 years if he didn’t agree with what the universities were doing.
The inquiry report, written by professor Len Findlay of the University of Saskatchewan, vice-president of the Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada, said Dr. Thakur was treated as an academic star until the moment he resisted CIGI’s intention to “sit at the table” in the school when academic matters – such as what courses would be taught – were discussed. Dr. Thakur considered the academic content of the school to be the province of the universities, not of Mr. Balsillie’s private organization.
The two universities said in a statement that they “strenuously” disagree with the report by Prof. Findlay, one of Canada’s leading experts on academic freedom.
The report, commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, concluded that “Dr. Thakur had every right to expect support from the presidents of UW [Mr. Johnston] and WLU [Max Blouw] and their designates when he sounded the alarm on CIGI’s proposals for tripartite partnership on the BSIA.
“Insofar as his academic freedom depended on protections of institutional autonomy, it became increasingly vulnerable to threats from the outside and complicity on the inside. Dr. Thakur was unfairly treated in the months leading up to his dismissal as director of the BSIA.”
Neve Peric, CIGI vice-president of operations, said “Mr. Balsillie does not comment on matters he was not involved in, including Dr. Thakur’s dismissal.” A spokeswoman at Government House said, “Mr. Johnston will not give interviews.”
In their statement, the two universities said the CAUT report is based “on a flawed and incomplete interpretation of the circumstances and rationale for the decisions.” They said privacy and legal matters limited the information that could be shared, but it referred to a letter from UW Dean of Arts Ken Coates to Dr. Thakur saying that a review of his work had revealed sloppy management of the school, bad communications and negative comments from some of the school’s senior scholars.
Prof. Findlay, in his report, said a review at that time was unjustified.
Dr. Thakur, in a telephone interview Thursday from Nairobi where he was attending a board meeting of the Institute for Security Studies, said he felt exonerated by Prof. Findlay’s report. He also said he is leaving Canada and taking a job at the Australian National University in Canberra.
And he reminisced about hearing Janice Stein, director of University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, talk about how her funder, Barrick gold-mining magnate Peter Munk, kept a respectful distance from the school. He was interested in her work, she said, but never interfered.
“I was envious,” Dr. Thakur said. “Had it been clear to me that the school was a wholly owned subsidiary of CIGI, I would never have taken the job.
“I think it’s the way of the future. As public authorities cut back on spending, universities are being forced into more and more private-donor partnerships, and getting the balance right will be critically important.”
James Turk, executive director of CAUT, said, “The fact that a donor may want to influence academic decision-making is not surprising. The fact that universities would not stand up strongly against it is surprising.”