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A person walks past the University of Toronto campus on June 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The group that represents Canadian university professors has voted to censure the University of Toronto, imposing an internationally recognized sanction for its handling of the aborted hiring of a new director of the law school’s international human-rights program.

The motion of censure against the university administration was passed by a vote of 79-0 Thursday by delegates to the council of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the organization that represents more than 70,000 faculty and staff across the country.

It means CAUT members are now asked to turn down all job offers, speaking engagements, conference invitations, honours or distinctions from the University of Toronto until it rectifies the situation. It also means that CAUT commits to publicizing the events in question, including in academic publications around the world.

The controversy stems from the search for a new director of the law school’s human-rights program in the fall of 2020, a process that was abandoned after a donor raised concerns with the university administration about the chosen candidate’s academic writing.

In a report commissioned by the university, former Supreme Court judge Thomas Cromwell said he would not draw the inference that the decision to abandon the hiring process was based on improper considerations resulting from the donor’s intervention. The university has said it changed course because of timing and immigration concerns, and there was no violation of academic freedom.

Imposing censure will have real consequences for the university, according to CAUT executive director David Robinson.

“The delegates did not accept the conclusions the university reached, that there was nothing to see here and there was no interference from the donor,” Mr. Robinson said. “U of T is now the only institution in Canada under censure. That’s certainly a black mark on their reputation. But I think it sends a signal to the international academic community that this is an institution that has failed to live up to the fundamental, core principles we expect our universities and colleges to adhere to.”

Censure has been imposed relatively rarely in the past to deal primarily with what CAUT considers threats to academic freedom. The last time it was used was in 2008 over governance issues at First Nations University in Saskatchewan.

University of Toronto president Meric Gertler said he was disappointed with the outcome of the vote and disagrees with its conclusion. He said the university stands by the findings of the Cromwell Report.

“He’s pretty clear that there was no infringement of academic freedom,” Dr. Gertler said.

Dr. Gertler added that the CAUT has no jurisdiction in this case because the position for which the university was hiring is managerial, not academic.

The controversy began last fall with a search process to hire a new director of the International Human Rights Program at the university’s law school. A selection committee chose Valentina Azarova, a respected scholar living in Germany, to fill the administrative role.

Dr. Azarova believed she had accepted the university’s job offer and only the details remained unresolved. But in early September, a sitting tax court judge and major donor, David Spiro, raised concerns about the hiring of Dr. Azarova with an administrator in the fundraising office. He mentioned that the university should do its “due diligence” and referred to her writing on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, which had been flagged by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, where Justice Spiro had been a director.

Within hours, law dean Edward Iacobucci was briefed on the donor’s call. Although he had previously not been involved in the hiring process, and although he said the fundraising office should back off, Prof. Iacobucci spoke with other top administrators about the situation over the Labour Day weekend. Prof. Iacobucci soon concluded that Dr. Azarova could not be hired. He cited immigration hurdles that would mean it would be several months before she could legally work in Canada, and that working from Germany, where she resides, might entail legal complications.

An outcry erupted over what some inside and outside the university perceived to be improper donor influence in a hiring decision. Dr. Gertler subsequently commissioned Mr. Cromwell to look into the affair.

A group of seven lawyers at the university’s law school wrote a letter to Dr. Gertler this week in which they expressed doubts about the conclusions of the Cromwell Report and said it raises more questions than it answers.

The letter says the university could address the “lingering suspicion” that the decision to deny the job to Dr. Azarova was a result of improper donor influence by offering her the still-unfilled position, since issues around timing and immigration are less of a barrier at this point.

Mr. Robinson said such an offer could allay the CAUT’s concerns.

However, the university said the law school is undertaking consultations on how best to reform the program and must await those findings before proceeding with a new hire.

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