Who won and who lost this past week, when faculty at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School voted against a proposed partnership with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI)?

Under the plan, CIGI and York would have created a 10-year, $60 million program of research and studies in international law, with 10 research chairs and 20 scholarships for graduate students. Half of the funding would have come from CIGI, through a donation from its founder and board chair Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Research In Motion, and half was from the Government of Ontario, through the universities ministry.

So it’s immediately obvious that York has lost a rich program of research chairs, which might have enabled it to attracted talented new faculty, and its top graduate students have lost access to a wealth of support. York’s provost said he was deeply disappointed.

As for the citizens of Ontario and Canada, did they win or lose? To answer that yourself, consider the stake we all have in the promised research. Canada is a trading country and Ontario has a significant manufacturing sector. Our prosperity hinges on success in the global economy, where trade is conducted through a legal framework of treaties and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Beyond the politics, it’s all law. We cannot afford to be naive, uninformed or unskilled in these arenas. We need to enhance Canadian capacity to act on the world stage, through higher education and policy research.

Was the rejection of the York proposal a victory for “academic freedom,” the ostensible cause of its most vociferous critics? Lamentably not, given that the phrase — standing for a truly important value — was cheapened as a rallying cry for an agenda-driven assault on personal reputations and responsible philanthropy.

CIGI itself puts the highest value on academic freedom and integrity in independent research — it is a hallmark of our work. In 10 years of activity, we have funded world-leading scholarly research, publishing hundreds of reports online, accessible to all. As a non-partisan think-tank, governed by an esteemed operating board and advised on the research by a deeply informed international board of governors, CIGI depends entirely on the credibility of its research.

Fuelling the campaign against the York program was the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), which trotted out the most egregious claptrap imaginable. Disguised as an investigation into the termination of the previous director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, CAUT’s distorted 2010 report alleged that the firing was the work of CIGI or its board chair. In truth, as proven in documents that are now public, the director was terminated in a University of Waterloo process, entirely outside of CIGI’s jurisdiction.

The highly regarded academic freedom committee of the International Studies Association conducted a more serious inquiry, and found no violation of academic freedom, noting that the ex-director of the school kept his professorial role at the university. Yet CAUT’s baloney continued to feed into the York debate. As a result, this sorry episode was no victory for the intellectual pursuit of truth.

What is most inane about the conspiracy theory is that everyone at CIGI, including its 50 staff and dozens of fellows, knows that Jim Balsillie does not assert his own policy views on global affairs (I’m assuming he has them) into the research activities, nor do other members of the operating board. The entire bugaboo is a fiction.

Signed agreements and protocols in place for the York proposal guaranteed academic freedom under York’s existing policies and practices, and left all faculty hiring decisions, curricula and student admissions solely and rightly in the hands of York. As is proper and usual in such donations, CIGI’s role would have been to identify only the broad themes of research it was funding (such as international trade, or intellectual property rights), given its accountability for the charitable donations and taxpayers’ dollars it receives.

CIGI, meanwhile, has gained valuable lessons and will seek winning ways to go forward. As CIGI’s executive director Thomas A. Bernes has stated, “CIGI remains committed to its goal of pursuing active research and policy debate on law and the international economy and we will continue to search for new and innovative ways to do so.”

J. Fred Kuntz is vice-president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an independent, non-partisan think-tank on global governance issues, based 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.