OISE, the grey concrete fixture on Bloor West, may be the seat of academic feminism and other lauded lefty scholarship, but that hasn't saved it from an ongoing dust-up over military research. It seems Toronto-based Atlantis Systems Corp, a company that has subcontracted learning systems to the U.S. and Saudi Arabian armed forces, is hoping to team up with an OISE research centre, the Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology (IKIT).
But will it be allowed to? Not if faculty and students in People Against Militarization of OISE (PAMO), a group aiming to prevent the taint of dealings with dictatorships, is able to keep the noise level high enough.
The new research project was, everyone admits, a bit of a sleeper. The only folks who noticed Atlantis's announcement of the partnership back in September were activists from the ever-vigilant Homes Not Bombs. Suddenly, there was a flurry of interest in the once innocuous IKIT, a research body focused on innovation in knowledge building and information technology.
"I have a problem with the fact that IKIT's specialization, knowledge and research that goes into understanding technology and simulation, may be, once they are partnered with Atlantis, helping people bomb people better," says Bonnie Burstow, a lecturer in OISE's department of adult education.
On its Web site (www.atlantissi. com), the firm is an open book about being a subcontractor, through intermediaries like Bombardier and Boeing, to the world's militaries. Eight of its latest integrated maintenance training systems, for instance, were developed for Boeing's F/A-18 multi-role fighter aircraft, which are being delivered to the Canadian and Australian air forces.
But the delivery in 1999 to the Royal Saudi Naval Forces of Atlantis's Action Speed Tactical Trainer, which offers battle group and team training, particularly stands out for OISE critics upset about dealings with human rights violators.
At a December 8 meeting of the faculty council, a motion was passed that called on research partnerships to be consistent with the values and procedures of OISE (an arm of U of T). Now the Atlantis/IKIT project is officially on hold. IKIT research director Marlene Scardamalia announced "a moratorium" until "a policy on research partnerships" can be established.
OISE dean Jane Gaskell is certainly leaving her options open, explaining that the proposed partnership fits within the U of T's guidelines regarding "academic freedom and academic responsibility." That is, it does not contravene either the Criminal Code of Canada or the Ontario Human Rights Code.
"Given that [Atlantis] is a publicly traded company and defence is what we pay our taxes for, it is not something that is against the Human Rights Code or Criminal Code," she says.
But according to Rinaldo Walcott, an OISE associate professor of sociology, the academic freedom/responsibility argument is a "red herring. OISE, whether people agree or not, is a place that sees itself involved in questions of social justice. Partnering in any way with any aspect of the military-industrial complex simply diminishes its reputation and credibility."
IKIT's funding, says Walcott, points to "a set of deeper structural issues" related to the "channelling" of publicly funded university research into the private sector and the military-industrial complex. He is calling for greater scrutiny of research partnerships.
That's also the view of Daniel Schugurensky, an associate professor of adult education and counselling psychology and director of OISE's Transformative Learning Centre. He says partnering with a company that delivered tactical trainers to Saudi Arabia, a country criticized by Amnesty International, "is inconsistent with Article 26, Section 2 of the United Nations Universal Declaration Of Human Rights." Academic freedom, he says, "must be balanced with the principle of social responsibility."
But Scardamalia, a cognitive scientist, counters that this kind of thinking will only lead to the "censoring" of academic research. "Partnering with OISE/U of T could become a liability, making it increasingly difficult to establish partnerships and engage scholars of world renown." She further believes PAMO has created "fear and trauma, making a travesty of the peace agenda they hide behind."
Coincidentally, the chief knowledge officer for Atlantis, Blake Melnick, is listed as a co-founder of IKIT. The OISE PhD candidate makes it clear that he thinks students and faculty have distorted his company's mission. His firm, he says, is moving much more into civilian projects and is now researching the challenge of "information overload" in the knowledge age.
But protestors say the problem with dealing with military suppliers is that one never knows where info gleaned from a scholarly relationship will be used. They point as an example to the fact that IKIT is currently doing research in two Toronto elementary schools and the University of Toronto Schools focusing on how young people develop ideas with each other at their computers using the IKIT Knowledge Forum software.
PAMO coordinator and OISE masters student Ivona Vujica wonders where in the future Atlantis might make use of this info and if it will end up in some simulation exercise in an unnamed country's armed forces. "Do parents whose children are subjects in this project know about the new partner in the [IKIT] research?" she asks.
John Schmied, a spokesperson for the Toronto district school board, is positive about the impact of IKIT's software in the early grades. "We are aware of the concerns of some people, but at the same time we are excited by the potential for student learning."