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The Jackman Law Building at the University of Toronto on Oct. 14, 2020.

Carlos Osorio/Carlos Osorio

Bonnie Patterson has stepped down from the inquiry into the aborted hiring of a new director of the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto law school, citing public doubts about the impartiality and credibility of the review.

The inquiry will now be led by former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell, University of Toronto president Meric Gertler announced Monday.

It’s the second significant shift in an inquiry into a hiring decision that has prompted the Canadian Association of University Teachers to pass a motion of censure against the university. Mr. Gertler had already altered the terms of the inquiry so that it would report to him and not to some of the administrators who could have been involved in the incident.

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Prof. Patterson, a former president of Trent University, was appointed in October to look into the controversy around the decision not to hire Valentina Azarova, who said she had been offered the post only to have the offer rescinded, an assertion the university has disputed.

According to a report prepared by CAUT, Dr. Azarova was offered the IHRP director’s job in August only to have the offer withdrawn after an intervention by a sitting judge. Allegations surfaced that the appointment was blocked over concerns about Dr. Azarova’s work on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Dr. Gertler announced that Prof. Patterson had resigned after doubts were raised about “the credibility of the report she was to have prepared.” Faculty inside and outside the university had raised concerns about procedural fairness since she had been appointed by people whose conduct could come under scrutiny.

“While neither she nor I accept the validity of these claims, Prof. Patterson has determined that the review would be best served if she were to withdraw from this role,” Dr. Gertler wrote in a statement. He thanked her for what he described as the generosity of spirit to protect the integrity of the process.

Prof. Patterson declined an interview request.

The appointment of a former Supreme Court justice could address some of the concerns about fairness that have been raised.

“It appears the university is responding to serious gaps in the review and the ongoing mishandling of the matter,” said David Robinson, executive director of the CAUT.

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“It’s important that Prof. Patterson has stepped down because the fact that she was initially appointed by those who were implicated in the controversy, and who had made strong public statements denying any wrongdoing, seriously compromised the legitimacy and appearance of impartiality of her review.”

The CAUT, which represents more than 70,000 academic staff across the country, last month passed a motion to begin the process to censure U of T over the aborted hiring of Dr. Azarova. The university has six months to address CAUT’s concerns about a possible violation of academic freedom before censure is imposed. On the rare occasions when censure is imposed, academics are asked not to accept appointments or speaking engagements at the offending institution.

In his statement Monday, Dr. Gertler added further detail to the terms of reference that will guide Mr. Cromwell, including whether policies relating to academic freedom, if applicable, and confidentiality in the search process were followed.

Samer Muscati, a former director of the IHRP, said he is concerned by the way academic freedom is accompanied by the “if applicable” caveat.

“Throughout this affair, I keep hearing the university [administration] try to portray what happened as not connected to academic freedom since the director is a ‘non-academic position.’ Using that lens can sway the investigation when one of the key issues that we need to get to the bottom of is whether academic freedom was infringed upon,” Mr. Muscati said.

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