As Carol Goar noted in her recent column on the ongoing saga of Jim Balsillie, The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), the student voice has been missing. Accordingly, I will take this opportunity to share my personal experience as a PhD Candidate at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, which is composed of academic programs at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.
Like all new endeavours, the Balsillie School has struggled through its share of growing pains, not least of which has been how to manage relations between the partners, including two very different university systems. Six years into this effort, the school is beginning to flourish and students are key evidence of success. Supported by talented faculty, my colleagues are some of the most intelligent, thoughtful and innovative scholars in Canada and globally. Many of them win prestigious external academic awards and they leave here to embark in impressive careers in the academy and the public and private sectors. This is a community of which I am proud to be a part.
This growth has included a new governance arrangement that has recently been approved by the senate at each university. In light of this process, it is not clear to me why the school is now being threatened with censure by CAUT. I have spent several years working in the not-for-profit sector, and I am aware of the strings that often come attached from would-be donors. And I hope to pursue an academic career, and recognize the value of CAUT in protecting the freedom of scholars to pursue research with integrity. From my experience, there is both freedom and integrity at the Balsillie School. This testimony is based on my involvement as a student representative in the drafting of the governance document, a process made purposefully tedious by the rigorous requirement of academic freedom for the universities and their faculty and students. I also participate in the school’s regular council meetings, at which members get together to advise on everything to do with the school, from the monumental to the minute. And I am currently a member of the academic body that governs the PhD program, and have witnessed the process by which the universities exercise exclusive authority over academic issues.
I believe that the future of post-secondary education in Canada needs to be carefully considered as the world around us changes. Part of this discussion must include financing, as the student strike in Quebec and the criticism of “public-private partnerships” make clear. But more important, we need to consider the value of education to both students and society. Goar suggests a dichotomy between academics and the skills that are valued by the private sector. The Balsillie School is not evidence that skills trump academics, but rather that academic skills are in fact valued by the private sector. If this is not the case, then we need to re-evaluate why Canadian universities are training so many academics. But censure is not a productive way to engage in either of these discussions.
To answer Goar’s question, I think this controversy has largely been manufactured through ignorance of what has admittedly been a complex process to bring the Balsillie School to where it is today, and perhaps fear of change. Whether or not any malice is intended, harm is being done by these accusations, including to students. And while my counterparts in Quebec speak of revolution, I am thankful to have funding to study at one of the most innovative institutions in Canada.
Now I have to get back to my work. While I engage in this discussion, my classmates are collecting research in Sarajevo, Stockholm, Geneva, Qatar, Auckland and Johannesburg (and that’s just my cohort). The key marker of the Balsillie School is not its governance, but rather its spirit and vision: a call to action to find solutions to humanity’s critical problems. Come join us. But you won’t meet Jim Balsillie lurking in the hallways.
Jessica West is a PhD candidate in global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University.