Of academic freedom and institutional integrity: A Canadian prequel to the ANU rejection of the Ramsay Centre millions

Oct 8, 2018

At the University Chancellors’ 11th national conference in Adelaide on 4 October, the Australian National University Chancellor Gareth Evans delivered the inaugural Chancellor’s Oration. One section of his speech dealt with the imperative to defend university autonomy.

In that context, not surprisingly, he reprised the controversy over the ANU decision to reject up to $60 million on offer over eight years from the Ramsay Foundation to establish a degree course in Western Civilisation. The controversy was addressed in June in the pages of The Australian by Gareth and ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt, with a reply by Ramsay Centre CEO Simon Haines.

In his Adelaide speech, Gareth repeated that the ANU remains ‘adamantly unwilling to … compromise our academic autonomy, integrity and freedom in any way in pursuit of financial support’. In particular, the ANU failed in efforts to have assuaged ‘concerns about the extraordinarily prescriptive, micro-managing, controlling approach by the Ramsay Centre to its governance, particularly in relation to curriculum and staffing decisions’.

Not only do I have ANU connections going back to the mid-1990s. In addition, it is no secret that Gareth and I have been friends and colleagues for a long time. Therefore it will hardly be a great surprise to anyone to learn that I support his and the ANU stance wholeheartedly. But few Australians will be aware of a similar controversy in almost identical terms (including the $60 million amount!) in Canada, both while I was there (2007–11) and shortly after my return to Australia.

In April 2012, in a saga played out publicly to an incredulous national audience, York University in Toronto rejected a CAD $60-million deal with the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) for a shared law program. Negotiations had earlier fallen through for the same deal between CIGI and Ottawa University. In a climate of straitened finances for public universities, this was quite a vote of no confidence in the terms of the deal.

In a letter to the York University Senate on 22 March, 17 professors called for a Senate discussion of the agreement that the university had already signed with CIGI, on the grounds that the responsibility for the university’s academic life was vested in the Senate. Their first concern was institutional autonomy, with reference to which they recalled how in 2010 the ‘internationally acclaimed director’ of the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA), ‘was forced out over conflict with the CIGI board’.

Two professors from York’s famed Osgoode Hall law school, Gus van Harten and Stepan Wood, explained in an article in The Record, Waterloo’s main newspaper, that in November 2011, after several months’ work, Osgoode faculty had approved a framework agreement that would have protected academic freedom. In January 2012 York’s senior administration reneged on this and signed a new deal that reinserted several critical concerns, such as CIGI role in curriculum and academic programming, veto over the program’s annual budget, ‘alarming rights regarding the appointment, renewal, and termination of faculty, and individual research plans’, asymmetric enforcement of York and CIGI obligations, and a clause permitting secret amendments by CIGI and York administration.

On 2 April 2012, Osgoode faculty voted 34-7 to reject the deal, with 8 abstentions.

Later in the month, affiliates of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) voted almost unanimously (‘consensus minus one’, in Asian political parlance) to impose censure on the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University (the BSIA was a three-way partnership arrangement between CIGI and the two local universities) if after six months the universities had failed to address remaining concerns on the BSIA governance arrangements. This is not a step that the CAUT takes lightly. Only 12 Canadian universities had been censured by the CAUT since 1968, with the last one in 2008. The censures, widely publicised in Canadian and international academic circles, discouraged academics from taking up jobs, doing research, accepting awards and attending conferences at institutions under sanction.

The threat of censure was removed when CIGI signed an MOU which included two crucial provisions. First: ‘None of CIGI, BSIA, the BSIA Board and the Director has authority over any academic matter whatsoever in connection with BSIA Academic Programs’. And second, the BSIA Director ‘has no role whatsoever in any academic matter related to any program offered by either university, including no decisive role in appointment of faculty and chairs and selection of students’.

What is my connection with all this? I was the inaugural, ‘internationally acclaimed’ in the earlier quotation from the York University law professors’ letter, BSIA director at the centre of these events and raging debate on academic freedoms and institutional autonomy-cum-integrity. My name is splashed all through these newspaper accounts in Canada’s leading newspapers. The 2010 CAUT report on my case can be found here. The revolt by the York University faculty and the decision by the University Senate was the most emphatic public vindication of my fight with the spineless administrators of my two hometown universities ‘in pursuit of financial support’, as Gareth put it in Adelaide. This is why the ANU decision on the Ramsay Centre gives me such great satisfaction.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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