By Sarah Tomlinson
UPDATE: On Sept. 17, 2021, the Canadian Association of University Teachers called for a “pause” on their censure of the University of Toronto in response to the school’s decision to re-offer Valentina Azarova the position of director of the International Human Rights program, which Azarova has reportedly declined.
Ryerson law professor Joshua Sealy-Harrington turned down an invitation to guest lecture on critical race theory at the University of Toronto (U of T) following the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) censure over a hiring scandal involving Valentina Azarova.
On Sept. 10, 2020, U of T rescinded its offer to Azarova for the position of director of its International Human Rights Program (IHRP). Azarova is a human-rights lawyer and scholar based in Germany who specializes in international law and foreign territorial control, and has researched Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The school had previously made a verbal commitment to Azarova the previous summer.
Following the Toronto Star’s announcement of Azarova’s rescinded offer, rumours began circulating that the decision was influenced by Justice David E. Spiro, a judge in the Tax Court of Canada and a major donor to U of T’s law school. Spiro allegedly spoke on the phone to a high-level university administrator about Azarova’s work on the Israel-Palestine conflict. He allegedly suggested her appointment would damage the university’s reputation.
Since then, Audrey Macklin, who chaired the search committee and was part of the selection panel for the director position, resigned from the board, as did all three members of the program’s faculty advisory as well as Vincent Wong, one of the program’s two research associates.
In a statement released by U of T’s faculty of law, the university said negotiations were at an advanced stage, no formal job offer had been made or rescinded, and that external influence did not play a role in the decision-making.
In March 2021, former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell conducted an independent review into the controversy, the results of which echoed the faculty’s statement. According to Cromwell, the main issues concerned immigration and employment law. Azarova had requested to have her summers off, which the university alleged could inhibit her ability to attain a work permit.
“My conclusion is that the inference of improper influence is not one that I would draw,” wrote Cromwell in the report.
On April 23, 2021, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) voted to censure the university due to the controversy, which it deemed “a violation of academic freedom.” Academics were asked to not accept appointments or speaking engagements at the institution.
In August 2021, Sealy-Harrington received an invitation to guest lecture on critical race theory, an area he specializes in. On Aug. 23, 2021, he tweeted that he refused the offer and referenced the university “suppressing speech about one of the most oppressed racialized communities in the world.”
In an interview with The Eyeopener, Sealy-Harrington said he declined U of T’s invitation in solidarity with both the CAUT’s censure and the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid.
“What the censure is doing is trying to mobilize mass politics as an alternative means of accountability in the midst of an institution which is seemingly unwilling to respond to more conventional forms of accountability and redress,” he said.
Sealy-Harrington added that Azarova’s specific work on the conflict between Israel and Palestine is a “crucial lens” to understand the context of the issue at the university. “There’s boatloads of literature exploring the suppression of voices critically analyzing the Israel-Palestine conflict,” he said.
Discourse on Israel and Palestine has been an ongoing “site of political struggle” across academic institutions, Sealy-Harrington said. However, due to an emerging solidarity across various justice movements globally, universities are having more discussions about the atrocities in Palestine. “A lot of these different conversations are converging on one another as more people gain an appreciation of the ways in which these struggles are joined,” he said.
According to Sealy-Harrington, Cromwell failed to acknowledge Spiro’s impact on the decision-making process.
“From my standpoint, it strains credulity to think that after a lengthy and rigorous selection process unanimously selecting Azarova, that Justice Spiro’s Friday call was not the origin of the decision over the Labour Day weekend,” he said. According to the timeline in Cromwell’s report, Justice Spiro expressed his concerns about Azarova’s hiring to an administrator on the Friday before Labour Day weekend.
“There’s boatloads of literature exploring the suppression of voices critically analyzing the Israel-Palestine conflict”
He also said the reasons that the university provided for not hiring Azarova—such as timing and immigration—are “illogical.”
“There’s no logic to abandoning a hiring process, which has already proceeded a significant amount, with the view to hiring someone else more quickly. And indeed they obviously haven’t hired anyone in the intervening time,” he said, adding that the university presumably navigates issues with immigration frequently as an international institution.
Likewise, David Robinson, executive director of the CAUT, told The Eye that the conclusions in Cromwell’s report were “unsatisfactory” and actually “raised more questions than it resolved.”
“Cromwell’s mandate was actually quite limited, and quite unusual for an internal review in that he states at the very beginning that his mandate did not include judging who was telling the truth or dealing with conflicting claims. So when conflicting claims come up, he just moves on,” he said.
Nevertheless, Robinson said the report did provide a “clear delineation of the timeline” with regards to Spiro’s call and the contacting of the Faculty of Law to convey the donor’s concern, which seemingly led to an “abrupt” end to Azarova’s hiring over the course of a long weekend.
“All the chronology points to a certain conclusion, but Cromwell said [he] can’t make that conclusion,” Robinson said. “In the end, the report didn’t help the university, and most people who read it found it unsatisfying, in terms of not coming to any real conclusion about what the balance of probabilities were.”
In support of the censure, Amnesty International, a non-governmental human rights group, suspended its relationship with the university on May 18, 2021, writing in a letter that it found the conclusions drawn in Cromwell’s report unsatisfactory.
Several organizations have shown support for the censure, including CUPE 3906, the American Association of University Professors division at New York University and the American Studies Association.
Robinson said such instances are a “remarkable show of solidarity” both in Canada and internationally.
“It comes with some sacrifice,” he said. “So I certainly appreciate the effort of people who want to respect the censure and want to stand up for principles of academic freedom, because all of these cancellations and all these public statements by academics hurt the reputation of the university and encourage them to do the right thing to resolve the matter.”
“It’s been a really good learning opportunity for students, following the lead of folks like Joshua Sealy-Harrington to think about what is integrity and accountability when engaging with academia within the legal profession,” she said. Nevertheless, as a student, she said it’s “disappointing” to not be able to learn from guest speakers or centre them at the university.
“I cannot imagine a person who’s qualified not having the integrity or set of principles to deny the position during censure. So hopefully that just increases pressure for the university,” she said.
“All these cancellations… hurt the reputation of the university”
Robinson said it’s likely the university will agree to hire Azarova in the next couple of weeks. This would involve not only rehiring Azarova, but rectifying the protections for academic freedom, particularly for people who do “this kind of clinical legal work, which does offend people in powerful positions,” he said.
“Even in Cromwell’s own report, he recommended that they do that. If they do those two things, I think the censure will go away,” he said.
In the faculty’s statement, they said they have adopted all of the recommendations in the Cromwell report, including improving its policies around confidentiality, and are “strongly committed to upholding the principles and practice of academic freedom.”
According to Sealy-Harrington, another issue is the decrease in funding for post-secondary institutions, which he said can leave them more susceptible to donor influence.
“The university has to establish policies and procedures to ensure that it’s run like an academic centre, not a business enterprise,” he said.