Back to top

University of Toronto under censure

University of Toronto under censure

Vince Wong happily assumed the final arrangements were underway in hiring Dr. Valentina Azarova last summer as the new director of the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the Faculty of Law.

He was on the three-member hiring committee that had combed resumes from more than 140 applicants, conducted interviews with final candidates and unanimously chosen Azarova, an international law and human rights scholar based in Germany. “I thought it was done,” he recalled in an interview.

Then, in early September, Wong found out otherwise. He received an email with the disturbing news “out of nowhere” that then Dean of Law Edward Iacobucci had terminated the procedures to bring Azarova on as Director of the IHRP. “I’m wondering what the hell happened?”

The Dean had abruptly halted the hiring process. Although Dean Iacobucci cited work permit and start date issues, Wong and others learned that he had stepped in only after U of T alumnus and major donor David Spiro, a sitting federal tax court judge, inquired about Azarova’s appointment with the faculty’s chief fundraiser.

Judge Spiro cited a memo he’d received from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, where he previously had been a director, referring to Azarova as “a major anti-Israeli activist” and advising that top university officials should realize that “a public protest campaign will do major damage to the university, including fundraising.”

After confirming the Dean would not change his mind, Wong registered his “vehement protest” by resigning his job at the IHRP. Professor Audrey Macklin had already resigned as chair of the hiring committee and as a member of the faculty advisory committee of the IHRP after expressing alarm over the Dean’s decision.

The Dean denied that Spiro’s call had influenced his decision to cancel hiring proceedings. In response to the controversy, the University ultimately appointed retired Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas A. Cromwell to investigate. He took the Dean at his word and concluded there was no influence. CAUT Council, like others, found it implausible that the donor call was not a factor in the dean’s actions.

Alison Hearn, Chair of CAUT’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, and a professor at Western University, notes: “Cromwell does not consider whether or why the Dean, after being largely uninvolved in the hiring, suddenly took an intense interest over a long weekend and turned relatively routine administrative matters into insurmountable obstacles. All this happened immediately after the Dean received word of the Donor’s objection. Even as the Dean denied the relevance of the Donor’s influence, the peremptory way he dealt with routine issues in an international hiring strongly support an inference that the Dean was influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by the very thing that caused the Dean to pick up the file in the first place — the Donor’s concerns.”

CAUT Council voted on April 22nd to censure the University of Toronto. Censure calls on academic staff in Canada and around the world to decline appointments, speaking invitations, conference attendance or any distinction or honour offered by the censured institution.

“The decision to censure was not taken lightly,” CAUT Executive Director David Robinson said in a statement after the vote. “It is a measure of last resort used only when we are faced with serious violations of academic freedom and other principles that are fundamental to higher education.”

It was CAUT’s first motion of censure ever against U of T, the first since 2008 and only the third since 1979.

“Censure is a very big and courageous move,” said Wong, who was an adjunct professor and the William C. Graham Research Associate with the IHRP and now is a PhD student at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. It will “create enormous reputational damage” to the U of T, considered by many as the most prestigious university in Canada, he said. Wong noted the events have already “completely undermined” the credibility and reputation of the human rights program.

University of Toronto President Meric Gertler was quoted in the media after the Council vote saying it would be business as usual and asserting that CAUT has no jurisdiction because the directorship at the human rights program was an administrative rather than faculty position.

That’s just “avoiding the question,” says long-time University of Toronto law professor Denise Réaume.

The University’s suggestion that legal clinic directors are not entitled to academic freedom prompted the resignation on April 23rd of Kent Roach, professor of law at the University of Toronto, as faculty chair of the Advisory Group for the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights.

“It is shameful and dangerous for the administration to maintain that our clinical colleagues are managers who do not enjoy the formal protections of academic freedom that faculty (including teaching stream and contract faculty) and librarians do,” he said in a resignation letter.

Robinson notes that CAUT policy describes academic freedom as “indivisible and undiminished in all academic and public settings, whether or not these settings are aligned primarily with teaching, research, administration, community service, institutional policy, or public policy.”

Réaume called the CAUT censure an important stand for academic freedom and against political influence since no other body exists for that purpose. “What happened here was the appointment of a highly qualified candidate who the selection committee was over the moon about was aborted at the last minute ostensibly for reasons that now no longer apply,” Réaume said, referring to time constraints and a work permit.

If these were the only constraints then why not hire her, Réaume and others ask? “The University needs to demonstrate that it does not take this kind of objection to somebody’s scholarship and professional work as a good reason not to offer someone a job. And the only way to show it is to offer a job to this woman who was head and shoulders above the other candidates when the selection committee went through the process.”

The position of Director of the IHRP remains vacant, although the University has now said that the program itself is under review.

Censure is to remain in effect until Council is satisfied that the matter has been satisfactorily resolved.


May 2021

Academic Advisor

M.V. of Ottawa writes I teach on a per-course basis and have taught 3 courses in the fall and... Read more
May 2021

Book Review / The Empowered University

By Michael Dabrowski We live in a time of change, disruption, and innovation. From this... Read more
May 2021

Highlights from CAUT Council / News

University of Toronto administration censured over Azarova hiring controversy CAUT Council... Read more