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The Jackman Law Building which also houses the Laskin Law Library are part of the Faculty of Law campus at the University of Toronto, as seen on Oct. 14, 2020.

Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

The Canadian Association of University Teachers executive has begun censure proceedings against the University of Toronto for alleged violations of academic freedom in the aborted hiring of a new director for the law faculty’s International Human Rights Program.

The CAUT executive voted unanimously to begin the censure process at a meeting Thursday. The issue will be brought forward at the next meeting of CAUT council in November and, if passed, the University of Toronto would have six months to address the CAUT’s concerns before censure is imposed.

Censure is a measure that, among other things, asks the CAUT’s more than 70,000 members across Canada not to accept appointments or speaking engagements at the offending institution. It has often been threatened but rarely enacted.

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The controversy stems from a dispute that arose in the hiring process for a new director of the law school’s International Human Rights Program, or IHRP. Valentina Azarova, a human-rights scholar and the unanimous choice of the hiring committee, has said she was offered the position on Aug. 11 and accepted the offer on Aug. 19, only to see the offer rescinded in early September.

Allegations surfaced that a judge on the Tax Court of Canada attempted to block the appointment over concerns about Dr. Azarova’s work on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Dean of law Edward Iacobucci has denied that an offer was made to Dr. Azarova and denied that he rescinded the offer because of political interference from a judge.

The Canadian Judicial Council, a disciplinary body, is looking into complaints about Justice David Spiro related to allegations that he attempted to influence the hiring process. Justice Spiro has provided fundraising advice to the university and his extended family has donated millions.

“The facts that have emerged strongly suggest the decision to cancel Dr. Azarova’s appointment was politically motivated, and as such would constitute a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom,” David Robinson, executive director of CAUT, said in a statement Thursday.

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The university announced this week that it has called an inquiry into the affair that will be led by former Trent University president Bonnie Patterson.

The CAUT was critical of the format of the inquiry. The report will be delivered to three administrators – the dean of law, the provost and the vice-president of human resources and equity – whose conduct could be under scrutiny, Mr. Robinson said.

“We have confidence in the impartial review we have launched pertaining to the recent search for a new director of the [IHRP], a non-academic staff position within the faculty of law. It will promote transparency and inform best practices for future staff searches,” said a University of Toronto spokesperson in an e-mail.

The CAUT took issue with the university describing the IHRP director’s job as “non-academic.”

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“In framing it this way, it appears the university is trying to avoid any consideration of whether academic freedom might have been breached,” Mr. Robinson said. “This should be of concern to all academic administrators at the University of Toronto who should be afforded academic freedom in their academic duties.”

On Thursday, Mr. Iacobucci announced that Rebecca Cook, an emerita professor, will take the job of IHRP director on an interim basis. The focus of her work will be planning a range of possible future directions for the IHRP, Mr. Iacobucci said. It will continue to be a critically important program for the faculty, he added.

Some students and staff had expressed concern at a recent faculty council meeting about what the absence of a director would mean for the program’s future.

“As the founder of the IHRP, a significant scholar in international human rights, and an effective leader in this field outside the academy, we could not have a better person to help chart the future course of the IHRP,” Mr. Iacobucci said in an e-mail to law faculty and students.

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