To the Editor:
Canadian universities spend $10 billion annually on research. While the federal government is the largest “external” funder at $3 billion, the bulk of the funding comes from provincial taxpayers who pay professor salaries, many of whom devote much of their time to research.
Individual philanthropic support provides only a small portion of university research funding. And, given York University’s recent rejection of a $30 million offer ) to establish a school in international relations, that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
This is a sad outcome for York, but the reasons behind their rejection of Jim funding from Balsillie’s Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) underline a much more disturbing governance dysfunction that pervades virtually all Canadian research universities.
Three weeks before the York rejection, the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee of the 66,000 member Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) served notice of a motion to censure York University, the University of Waterloo and Sir Wilfrid Laurier University in relation to cooperation agreements with CIGI. CAUT Executive Director Jim Turk defended his union’s censure motion by asserting that “CIGI has no business at the table deciding what areas the (research) chairs will focus on and who will be hired”. This begs the obvious question: If those with the vision to develop and sponsor such a program have “no business at the table”, then who does?
Clearly, York’s executive leadership was firmly in support of the CIGI proposal. York Provost Patrick Monahan stated, “We believe that this initiative held tremendous opportunity and promise for the university. We also believe that . . . we had developed an academic governance framework that would have provided strong protection for academic freedom and institutional autonomy”.
So who killed this generous and promising philanthropic initiative? Taking their cue from the national union, dozens of York professors argued that the proposal would threaten “academic freedom”. On April 2, the university’s law school faculty council voted against it and the following day York Administrators caved in to their professors’ vote.
Faculty councils aren’t just opposed to outside funders having input on hiring and research decisions, they’re opposed to university presidents and provosts making such decisions without their approval. They also have veto power over the creation or termination of teaching programs.
Moreover, in their personal employment, tenured professors can pretty much do whatever they want. They are free to do research on practically any subject, resulting in vast quantities of research relevant only to their personal academic interests, with little or no chance of creating material economic or social value.
Many professors prefer to focus on research and dislike teaching, often sending their graduate students to teach those lowly undergrads. And when professors do teach, salary and promotion decisions are largely unrelated to the quality of their classroom work.
How can it be that, in the name of so-called “academic freedom”, those appointed to lead our publicly-funded universities are rendered impotent by their own employees? And where else in the private or public sectors do employees decide who else is hired and what the organization delivers, while being free to spend most of their time doing what they choose?
In the aftermath of the York rejection, internationally known author Thomas Homer-Dixon, CIGI Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs wrote, “protection of academic freedom... won’t be any stronger because neither CIGI nor Mr. Balsillie threatened it in the first place. But we can be sure that wealthy individuals... will now think twice before they contribute financially to Canadian universities.”
This is not only a travesty against a person whose only motivation was to strengthen our country’s international relations expertise in a complex and rapidly changing world, but a dreadful signal for the future prosperity of our country.
The latest available data published by the Conference Board of Canada shows that, despite spending the highest share of GDP on government funded university research, Canada ranks second last in the G7 for the number of patents per capita. A big reason for this poor performance is the lack of research collaboration between universities and the private sector.
But how can that happen when the private sector has, in the words of CAUT’s Executive Director, “no business at the table”?
Gwyn Morgan, Troy Media Corporation.