The dismissal of Balsillie school director Ramesh Thakur was the consequence of the universities’ serious lapse of judgment & loss of commitment to institutional autonomy & academic integrity. [Photo: Mathew McCarthy/Waterloo Region Record]
An investigation has found that the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University unjustly fired the director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs after he objected to inappropriate pressure by the school’s principal private partner, the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
The investigation, commissioned by CAUT and undertaken by distinguished University of Saskatchewan professor Len Findlay, found that Dr. Ramesh Thakur’s dismissal in May was the consequence of the universities’ “serious lapse of judgment and loss of commitment to institutional autonomy, academic integrity, due process, and natural justice.”
The Balsillie school, an academic institute offering graduate degrees in association with Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier, was established as a partnership between the two universities and CIGI, BlackBerry entrepreneur Jim Balsillie’s private think tank.
In 2007, Balsillie pledged $33 million to the two universities and the governance centre for a collaborative effort resulting in the creation of the Balsillie school. One section of the agreement allowed CIGI to decide at its own discretion not to participate in a collaborative project during the 10-year-life of the donor agreement. In addition, the centre could terminate the agreement after 10 years if it disagreed with what the universities were doing.
Thakur, an internationally renowned scholar and former vice-rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo and UN assistant secretary-general, was appointed inaugural director of the Balsillie school in September 2008 for a two-year term.
In early 2009, he was offered and accepted a three-year extension of his contract as director, until August 2013.
Difficulties developed later in 2009 when CIGI sought representation in all academic matters being discussed at the school, not only to monitor their financial implications, but also their consistency with CIGI’s mandated themes. Thakur objected, citing threats to institutional autonomy, intellectual freedom and academic integrity. Several months later Thakur was removed from his post as director.
“Dr. Thakur was unfairly treated … (and) had every right to expect support from the presidents of UW and WLU … when he sounded the alarm on CIGI’s proposals,” Findlay wrote in his report
. “Insofar as his academic freedom depended on the protections of institutional autonomy, it became increasingly vulnerable to threats from the outside and complicity on the inside.”
The report noted Thakur took the position that the academy has the primary responsibility to ensure that donors, no matter how generous, do not overstep the mark separating financial support from academic control. If they do, Thakur maintained, the consequent diminishment of academic autonomy may bring about similar diminishment in credibility, especially in areas where “global excellence” is the objective, as at the Balsillie school.
The report calls on the universities and CIGI to issue a public apology to Thakur over his dismissal.
It also calls for changes in the governance structure of the Balsillie school to ensure Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier universities have independent control of the school’s academic affairs.
In addition, the two universities are urged to develop clear and comprehensive guidelines to deal with current or potential donors and for other collaborative initiatives such as the Balsillie school, to ensure the academic autonomy and integrity of all university-associated institutes, centres, or schools.
“The reputations of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier and the Balsillie school have been badly tarnished because of their unjust firing of Dr. Thakur,” said James Turk, executive director of CAUT. “But they have a chance to do the right thing by accepting the report’s recommendations so something like this couldn’t happen again.”
The Australian National University has offered Thakur a senior professorship which he will be taking up in the coming academic year.