Friday, October 29, 2010

Dollars bring academic freedom under fire

By Michael Valpy, Globe and Mail, October 29, 2010
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 thank created by Mr. Balsillie, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

The inquiry report, written by professor Len Findlay of the University of Saskatchewan, vice-president of the Humanity 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.

(Dr. Thakur is quoted about the future):“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.”
If this is not a "canary in the coal mine" story, then I don't know what to call it. In Canada, public funding of universities covers a portion of the actual costs, including buildings, staffing and research. However, the balance comes from the private sector and there is increasing evidence that the private sector is having trouble keeping its hands off the levels of decision-making. Most of the business schools have a corporate donor's name attached to their "brand." Some universities have stadia named after corporate sponsors.
The Asper School of Busines, University of Manitoba
The DeGroote School of business, McMaster University
The Desautels School of Business, McGill University
The Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary
The John Molson School of Business, Concordia University
The Odette School of Business, University of Windsor
The Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario
The Segal School of Business, Simon Fraser University
The Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary's University
The Sprott School of Business, Carleton University
The Joseph L.Rotman School of Business, University of Toronto
The Kenneth Levene School of Business, University of Regina
The Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia
The Shannon School of Business, University of Cape Breton
The Ted Rogers School of Business, Ryerson University
The Telfer School of Business, University of Ottawa
It is in research funding that there is most cause for concern. If a corporation wishes to donate millions, or even billions, to a university, through capital projects, for "vanity" purposes, there are few academics who will object. However, when the grants come from the companies seeking to have their products and/or services warranted by the researchers who are recipients of those grants, not only academics but also the public has cause for concern.
If the recent story in The Atlantic about the research being conducted on medical interventions is any indication, the research has to be "sexy" to attract the funding, and it also has to be "newsworthy" to achieve the status of publication in peer review journals. Both of these observations, by a team of researchers in Greece, make any reader concerned, and perhaps even worried.
When the federal government announces research funding at local colleges and universities, anyone listening carefully to the proposals knows that the government is seeking "positive consideration" at the next election from the voters in that constituency.
The university system, it seems clear, needs a transparent board to receive grants for research, to be administered by that board, whose members are at arms reach from the individual universities, and the academics whose reputation is so vital to their professional credentials must take this charge upon their collective shoulders.
While they have an legitimate interest in the firing of Dr. Thakur, because of the unwelcome influence from the RIM executive, they also have to think and act forward in their own, and their students' ethical interests.

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