Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Juvenal

Falsehood may serve the short-term interests of some, but only truth can serve the greater good. Unfortunately, the powerful in society are often more interested in the former than the latter.

This is why it is vitally important to protect the principle of academic freedom in our universities. Without it, no one in society would be empowered to seek truth without fear of sanction, and in the long run all would suffer as a result.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, or CAUT – a private, non-governmental umbrella group representing 70 faculty associations and more than 66,000 academic staff at 122 universities and colleges – has taken it upon itself to act as the country’s primary guardian of academic freedom.

Since its creation in 1951, it has performed a number of valuable services in this regard. But there are worrying signs that the association is straying from its mission. I know this because I have been called upon temporarily to lead an institution against which CAUT has decided to mount a crusade.

The Balsillie School of International Affairs, or BSIA, is a unique collaboration between two universities – the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University – and a non-partisan public policy think-tank, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), founded by Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of Research In Motion.

Founded in 2007, BSIA has two components: a series of academic programmes mounted and staffed by the two universities, and the functional equivalent of a research institute in which all three organisations participate equally.

This research institute arm acts as a ‘force multiplier’ for the academic programmes, offering faculty and students opportunities to engage with the real world of public policy that no other school of international affairs can offer.

Censure threat

At its most recent meeting, CAUT passed a motion stating that “unless Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo amend the governance structure for the Balsillie School of International Affairs so that academic integrity is ensured, censure will be imposed on the administrations of those two universities at the next meeting of council”.

Censure is a largely symbolic gesture, but is intended as a scarlet letter. Its wearers are presumed to have violated some sacrosanct principle.

What principle?

Tellingly, CAUT is not accusing Waterloo and Laurier of violating academic freedom. It can’t. The BSIA governance document fully and explicitly protects academic freedom.

CAUT has not even tried to make the case that it might not, because there’s no plausible scenario under which a violation of academic freedom could occur, assuming the document’s provisions are faithfully implemented. This fact was apparent to the senates and boards of both universities when they approved the document overwhelmingly.

Instead, CAUT charges that the BSIA governance document compromises ‘academic integrity’. Nowhere does CAUT define this amorphous term, but its recent “Guiding Principles for University Collaborations” refers to it repeatedly.

A largely unobjectionable document, the Guiding Principles seems primarily and correctly designed to prevent scholars from being bought or otherwise coerced into serving business interests.

But there is no danger of this in the BSIA case, because CIGI has no business interests. Its legal mandate is to promote the free and open exploration of creative ideas for improving global governance.

It has no product to sell; it serves no political masters; and it has no ideological proclivities. It is true that Jim Balsillie used to be in the business of selling BlackBerries, but no one ever even tried to tell a plausible story about how endowing either CIGI or BSIA would boost Research In Motion’s revenues.

So what is going on?

The charitable interpretation is that CAUT does not understand the BSIA governance document. While charitable, this explanation is unsettling. The senates and boards of both Waterloo and Laurier understood it readily enough. It would be a very sad commentary indeed if Canada’s only national watchdog could not.

Less charitable but more plausible interpretations point to personal, organisational and ideological agendas: CAUT has a long record of waging battle against both Balsillie and CIGI, a battle on which some of its most senior executives have staked their reputations; academic freedom violations are now comparatively rare in Canada, leaving CAUT with relatively little to do; probably not least importantly, the CAUT executive is known for its anti-business, pro-union views, and yearns for a world in which universities are fully funded from public sources.

(Tellingly, as part of its anti-BSIA campaign CAUT commissioned a law firm to make the case against the necessity of BSIA incorporating, apparently blissfully unselfconscious about the fact that CAUT itself is so incorporated, presumably for exactly the same innocuous reasons of administrative convenience and sound governance.)

BSIA is flourishing, a fact that not even a CAUT censure will change. I do not worry about BSIA, and as a strong believer in academic freedom and integrity I am proud to be associated with it.

But I do worry about CAUT. Through its quixotic campaign, CAUT is damaging both its reputation and its legitimacy. We need an objective, well-functioning academic freedom watchdog in Canada.

CAUT would do well to reflect on the fact that while falsehood may occasionally serve the short-term interests of some, only truth can serve the greater good.

BSIA is flourishing, a fact that not even a CAUT censure will change. I do not worry about BSIA, and as a strong believer in academic freedom and integrity I am proud to be associated with it.
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.