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Embassy
Jeff Davis
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jim Balsillie can be in described many ways: billionaire, Research in Motion CEO, Harvard graduate, innovator and hockey nut.

However, with philanthropy becoming his new diversion of choice, a new title could soon be added: the godfather of Canadian international scholarship.

Mr. Balsillie, chequebook in hand and organizational know-how in head, is leading a mission to raise the quality of international research and education in Canada.

With a trio of top-calibre institutions under his belt, and a magnetism that is drawing the best and brightest to his side, the Blackberry dynamo is changing the face of international education in Canada.

So why the big push?

"You gotta do it while you're needed and do it while you can," he says. "I can, not just because of the resources, but because I'm young, I got energy, and RIM has credibility."

Besides, he says, the need for high-quality international affairs scholarships is self-evident.

"It's like asking, 'Why does oxygen matter?'" he says. "When you face the important issues of our time, you need to build capacity, to deal with them to the best of your ability."

To meet these challenges, Mr. Balsillie has donated over $130 million to launch three new institutions: the Balsillie School of International Affairs; the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI); and the Canada International Council.

Mr. Balsillie says he has faith that the highest caliber of international minds exist right here in Canada. What is missing, he says, are quality places for them to ply their trades.

"My view of it is that we have no shortage of talent, we just had a paucity of institutions," he says. "The problem was just that not enough resources were put on the table, and the institutions hadn't been organized and nurtured."

Such was his thinking when he established Waterloo, Ont.-based CIGI in 2002, an internationally oriented think tank designed to address international governance challenges through world-class research.

Mr. Balsillie says he aimed to make CIGI "not unlike the Brookings Institute," the world-class, Washington-based think tank on whose international advisory board he sits.

As he predicted, soon after CIGI was set up, distinguished minds "came out of the woodwork."

Among them were former United Nations deputy secretary-general Louise Fréchette, former Canadian ambassador to Washington Allan Gotlieb, and international political science guru Anne-Marie Slaughter, just to name a few.

"It's been magical; it's been effortless, actually," he says. "There are all kinds of people wanting to come. We're flooded with applicants."

Next came the creation of the Canadian International Council, an organization Mr. Balsillie prdeicts "will very, very quickly be on par with the Council on Foreign Relations."

The CIC has its roots in the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, a national but woefully underfunded body he says lacked the resources to play in the big leagues.

"It had been starved for resources," he says. "A $10,000 corporate donation was a huge donation for them.

"It was so clear that the capacity of the CIIA had to increase by one, if not two, orders of magnitude."

Thus, with the CIIA's 12-office national network and Mr. Balsillie's money, the CIC was born and now has 28 research fellows providing "deep, rich, focused foreign policy studies," he says.

And the revitalized institution will continue to grow, with Mr. Balsillie predicting the number of research fellowships will double in the not-too-distant future.

Aiming to be the Best

The final and likely most brilliant jewel in Mr. Balsillie's philanthropic crown is the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a joint venture with the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University.

With $100 million from Mr. Balsillie and other funding from various levels of government, the school's construction is still in the planning stages while the search for brains to fill it has already begun.

The school's first high-profile recruit is Thomas Homer-Dixon, who is leaving the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto to join Mr. Balsillie's team.

The Governor-General's Award-winning author of The Ingenuity Gap says Mr. Balsillie is the best kind of donor.

"He's the kind of funder universities love," he says. "He provides funding and some general ideas of how he would like the funds to be used, and then doesn't interfere very much."

With a clean slate to write on, Mr. Homer-Dixon intends to create a truly interdisciplinary school that is a cut above the current Canadian fare.

Leading international affairs schools such as Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, he says, "just don't have the resources to do the job."

Plus, he says, "some of the institutions are not structured in a way that really encourages collaboration and research across disciplinary boundaries."

This feature is essential, he says, because "most of the problems the world is confronting, just about all of them, are problems that can't be understood by one discipline.

"We're very keen on making sure we're not just a whole bunch of political scientists," he adds.

Flush with money and anticipatory buzz, this shouldn't be difficult.

Competition for the 24 unoccupied faculty spaces is already fierce, and Mr. Homer-Dixon says a very large number of talented applicants have already thrown their hats in the ring.

Mr. Homer-Dixon says the school intends to hire only "distinguished scholars with international reputations for academic and public contributions who will be widely recognized as global leaders in their field of study, and will immediately be able to make high level contributions."

If all goes according to plan, he says, the school will experience a rapid rise to the top.

"If we get the right people," he says, "it will put the Balsillie school in the top tier of institutions in the world almost immediately."

Changing the Face of Waterloo

As for students, the school will take only the best.

"My only criteria are that they are absolutely top calibre," he says, adding that he intends to compete for students with top tier schools such as Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

Among the programs offered will be a master's degree in international public policy, comparable to those found at NPSIA and the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins in Washington D.C.

"This will be a professional degree that will be designed to stream people into work in international organizations and government agencies concerned with international affairs," he says.

On a more academic tack are the masters and PhD programs in global governance, which will cover a broad range of issues from climate change and human rights, to international trade and nuclear proliferation.

Classes are already underway at Waterloo and Laurier universities, but come September 2008, students and faculty will enjoy a freshly-built campus.

The school will be built around the newly restored Seagram's distillery, which currently houses CIGI. The new buildings will be constructed on adjacent lands given to the school by the city of Waterloo.

Besides academic buildings, Mr. Homer-Dixon says, a residential building with dining facilities will be built to house students and visiting scholars.

With millions budgeted on construction, he says, "that whole section of Waterloo is going to change dramatically."

Even before construction has begun, the indomitable Mr. Balsillie is considering a possible next phase: a graduate-level international law school and a college dedicated to enhancing the skills of the Canadian civil service.

"I'm really quite bullish on everything," he says. "I believe if you focus on essentials and apply yourself, you can do quite a bit in this world."