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October 28, 2016
Canadian Excellence

Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe & Mail moderates discussion at the Perspectives on Academic Freedom Conference Sept. 6 in Waterloo
Jeffrey Simpson of The Globe & Mail moderates discussion at the Perspectives on Academic Freedom Conference Sept. 6 in Waterloo

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Communications, Public Affairs & Marketing

Conference on academic freedom fosters discussion on key issues

Sep 10/12

Engaging in difficult conversations on academic freedom and academic integrity is essential for the future of post-secondary education, and is exactly the type of debate the Perspectives on Academic Freedom was intended to foster.

The Sept. 6 conference was co-hosted by Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, in partnership with the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (AUCC) in Waterloo. Its aim was to have informed discussion around issues of academic freedom and integrity in the context of partnership agreements.

“It is truly a profoundly nuanced discussion that we have embarked upon,” Max Blouw, Laurier president and vice-chancellor, told the conference. “Identifying what is critical in partnerships, what we are trying to achieve, what we are trying to protect, what it is we are trying to encourage – I think those are the key issues.”

The conference brought together a number of international experts including Gary Rhoades, a professor and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. In his keynote address, Rhoades lauded the hosts for choosing to have this discussion in a public forum.

“What you are doing is really important,” Rhoades said. “My hope is that, given your ability to work through difficult conversations better than we do in the U.S., you will help map some distinctive ways to co-operate, to innovate, to energize the best possible relationships between universities and civil society and the corporate world.”

In addition to general discussions on the nature of such relationships, a key objective of the conference was to allow debate specifically on governance arrangements relating to the Basillie School of International Affairs (BSIA). The BSIA is a partnership between Laurier, Waterloo and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), which is a private think tank founded by former RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie.

Last April, the CAUT announced its intention to censure Laurier and Waterloo if they did not amend the governance structure. CAUT President Jim Turk clarified his stance during the conference.

“This talk is not about academic freedom,” Turk told the audience. “It is about academic integrity – namely what strings may universities appropriately allow over the operation of a donor-funded university entity, whether it be a school, an institute, a centre, program or chair.”

Turk mentioned CAUT’s concerns with the wording outlined in two documents: the BSIA donor agreement and the BSIA governance document.  

Blouw thanked the CAUT for making sure the universities considered whether they had the right wording, the right elements and the right degrees of separation in the BSIA governance documents in order to confidently move forward.

“Have our Senates got it right? I think we do. I hope we do,” said Blouw. “We need clearly to elaborate further on some of the detail of the interaction and partnerships.”

Feridun Hamdullahpur, president of the University of Waterloo, said he believed the discussions at the conference were a good beginning.

“I am privileged enough to be here and talk about a subject that is very important, sometimes controversial,” he said. “This was, as suggested, an open-ended dialogue and we hope to be able to continue with this.”

Several of the international experts at the conference spoke to the BSIA issue, as well as about governance in general. Among all experts on the panel there was a deep consensus on the importance of academic freedom.

Robert O’Neil, professor of law emeritus from the University of Virginia, said it is his abiding belief that scholars and teachers must find a way to blend the two themes of academic freedom and university-industry collaboration if universities are to take full advantage of the intellectual and corporate sources of the 21st century.

“The challenge isn’t simply to declare such an imperative – that’s easy,” he said. “We all do it in different terms. But to apply it in myriad situations that don’t always fit the mode – that is the task.”


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