Former governor-general Michaëlle Jean has postponed a speech she was to give at the University of Toronto following pressure from academics who asked her to respect the formal censure imposed on U of T by the Canadian Association of University Teachers over a controversial hiring decision at the law school.
Ms. Jean is one of several speakers to cancel or postpone presentations at Canada’s top research university in recent weeks. The CAUT, the organization that represents more than 70,000 faculty and staff across Canada, voted 79-0 last month to censure the University of Toronto for what it deemed a violation of academic freedom. The censure vote asks academics to decline speaking invitations or job offers at the university until the violation has been addressed.
Ms. Jean, who is chancellor of St. Paul’s University College in Waterloo, was scheduled to speak on systemic racial discrimination at an online event put on by the School of Social Work on May 10. She released a statement Thursday in which she said she had decided to postpone “in view of an ongoing issue of most fundamental importance.” The Globe and Mail asked Ms. Jean to clarify but a representative did not respond.
“We stand together with the whole community at the University of Toronto to protect academic freedom for all and find common spaces to promote inclusion and the continued efforts to eradicate systemic racial discrimination,” Ms. Jean said in the statement.
An open letter signed by more than 300 professors and students earlier this week called on Ms. Jean to cancel her lecture over the CAUT censure. Ms. Jean’s statement echoed its opening line, which called the CAUT censure “an issue of most fundamental importance.”
The decision to censure the university stems from the aborted hiring of Valentina Azarova, an international legal scholar, after a major donor raised questions with a university administrator and mentioned Dr. Azarova’s work on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell said in a report on the affair that he wouldn’t draw the inference that the donor’s intervention influenced the decision to abort the hiring. The university has maintained that immigration issues were the primary barrier to the hiring. The CAUT disagreed, calling the decision “politically motivated.”
Dexter Voisin, dean of social work, said he had consulted with Ms. Jean and social work alumni and they had mutually agreed to postpone the speech.
Many other events have similarly been postponed or cancelled recently.
Former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes cancelled a forthcoming speaking engagement. Raed Hawa, who teaches in the faculty of medicine, cancelled his professorial lecture scheduled for May 19. In a letter to the dean of medicine, he laid out his support for the CAUT motion and wrote: “I hope the university takes accountability and provides meaningful restitution for the harm it has caused, so that those of us who are proud members of the U of T community continue to carry this pride and not be burdened by the university’s ‘scarlet letter,’ as articulated by one of our Faculty of Law colleagues.”
Events were also cancelled in political science, at the Centre for the Study of the United States and Institute for Islamic Studies, among others.
A U of T spokesperson said the cancellations and postponements were all individual decisions made at the faculty level, and in some cases by individuals. The university continues to be a place where people want to work, study and do research, the spokesperson added.
Law professor Kent Roach resigned his post as faculty chair of the advisory group to the Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights over what he described as a matter of principle. He disagrees with the university’s view that it is relevant that Dr. Azarova was being considered for a managerial, rather than an academic position, and therefore the CAUT would not have jurisdiction, as managers are not subject to the same rules of academic freedom.
“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,” Prof. Roach wrote in his letter of resignation.
The university has launched a committee to examine what protections should exist for non-academic employees at the university.
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