The Canadian Association of University Teachers says the issues at stake in its dispute with the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University are academic freedom and academic integrity.

According to this account, Jim Balsillie and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) want to torque academic research within the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a collaborative project of CIGI and the two universities. They want to influence the school’s hiring and what its faculty members study and teach. And they have created within the school an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that erodes the free pursuit of truth.

Moreover, according to this account, what’s happening in Waterloo is emblematic of a much larger problem: the creeping corruption of Canadian academe by private capital.

These claims are sheer nonsense, as my colleagues and I have documented. So what’s really going on?

In its essence, the Canadian Association of University Teachers is a special interest group. It’s a national association of academic professionals and staff that lobbies on behalf of its members. Understandably, though, the association would rather not be seen as motivated solely by the narrow interests of its members. Instead it would like to be seen in a more noble light — as an organization striving, mainly, to serve the broader public good.

So the Canadian Association of University Teachers portrays itself as the defender of academic freedom. Because the public generally regards academic freedom as an unalloyed good, the association gains enormous legitimacy and goodwill by defending it with passion.

The association has in fact arrogated to itself the right to define what academic freedom means in practice, to identify occasions when and where this freedom might have been violated, to set up quasi-judicial procedures for deciding whether a violation has taken place, and to impose sanctions against violators. Put simply, when it comes to academic freedom in Canada, the Canadian Association of University Teachers has made itself the legislator, police, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one.

One might reasonably ask whether any single organization can effectively discharge all these potentially conflicting responsibilities. More importantly, given that the university teachers’ association’s central mission is to defend the interests of its members, it can’t possibly be an unbiased adjudicator of claimed violations of these members’ rights. When it comes to adjudicating possible violations of academic freedom, in other words, the association is caught in a fundamental and inescapable conflict of interest.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers uses the principle of academic freedom to equate its members’ narrow interests with the broader public good. The association then stipulates that only it can decide when this principle has been violated. And somehow it has managed to convince most Canadians, and especially Canada’s largely unreflective journalistic community, that this entirely self-serving outcome is reasonable and fair.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ vendetta against Jim Balsillie, fuelled by a fervid mix of righteousness and arrogance, needs to be viewed in this light. Balsillie is a sharp-elbowed, brusque, American-style capitalist who’s largely disdained by Canada’s business and cultural elites and intelligentsia, because he often doesn’t play by their unspoken rules. As an ex-CEO of a hi-tech giant in free fall — Research In Motion — he’s also an easy target in a country prone to scapegoating and Schadenfreude.

By painting the issue in black-and-white terms and as a simple matter of protecting the pursuit of truth from a predatory rich person — a person many Canadians are inclined to dislike anyway — the Canadian Association of University Teachers can rally its members and, most importantly, reinforce its noble public image, just when public anger at coddled university faculty members is rising.

So far, most media have been happy go along with the association’s account, because simplistic good-versus-evil stories make the best copy. In any case, too many journalists don’t have the time, resources, or interest to do the hard background research to find out what’s really going on.

It’s all very convenient for the Canadian Association of University Teachers. But is it good for Canada, its universities, and for Waterloo?

Thomas Homer-Dixon is the Centre for International Governance Innovation chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.