The dean of the University of Toronto’s law school is denying allegations that he rescinded a job offer to an international scholar because of political interference from a judge on the Tax Court of Canada, over the scholar’s work on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
In a written statement to what he described as the “faculty of law community,” which he shared with The Globe and Mail, Edward Iacobucci did not deny that a Tax Court judge contacted the administration to express concerns about the candidate, Valentina Azarova. A three-person hiring committee had unanimously recommended her for the job of director of the school’s International Human Rights Program.
But Mr. Iacobucci said political considerations were not involved in the school’s ultimate decisions on the hiring of a director, and no job offer was made.
“Assertions that outside influence affected the outcome of that search are untrue and objectionable,” his statement said. “University leadership and I would never allow outside pressure to be a factor in a hiring decision.”
He added: “Even the most basic of the conjectures that are circulating in public, that an offer was made and rescinded, is false. While conversations with a candidate had been ongoing, no offer of employment was made because of legal constraints on cross-border hiring that meant that a candidate could not meet the Faculty’s timing needs. Other considerations, including political views for and against any candidate, or their scholarship, were and are irrelevant.”
Dr. Azarova said in an e-mail on Thursday that she was offered the position on Aug. 11 in a Zoom call by the assistant dean and accepted it through another Zoom call on Aug. 19.
“This call [on Aug. 11] included a clear statement that the hiring committee is making me an offer and included a detailed read out of its terms, including the salary, benefits, pension contribution.”
Two former directors of the human-rights program, Samer Muscati and Carmen Cheung, have alleged political interference in a letter to Mr. Iacobucci. They said a Tax Court judge had expressed concern to the administration about Dr. Azarova, after which, an offer to her was rescinded. They did not name the judge.
International scholars from Israel and Britain have also criticized the law school in letters to Mr. Iacobucci for allegedly pulling back from Dr. Azarova.
The chair of the hiring committee, law professor Audrey Macklin, has now resigned from that post, and on Wednesday, the school’s three-member advisory board also resigned. On Thursday, a second member of the hiring committee, Vincent Wong, one of two research associates in the program, resigned from his paying job.
In an interview, Mr. Wong said he is confident that political interference did occur. He said that, as far as he understood, Dr. Azarova’s hiring had been under way. The third member of the hiring committee – assistant law dean Alexis Archbold – had told him it was happening.
“It was a matter of figuring out the immigration issues. From what I heard from Alexis, those were all going positively,” he said.
“There was some sort of external political influence. That is my strong belief. Primarily the reason for me is there was a complete 180 in the attitude of the administration pre-this alleged phone call and after the alleged phone call.”
He said he was updated on Aug. 21, after the committee recommended Dr. Azarova and before any contact from a Tax Court judge to the university: “Our university’s employment lawyer confirmed that we can hire her as an independent contractor” until she could receive a work permit. After the contact from the judge, “all of a sudden the dean was saying this immigration issue was improper, there was no way we can get around it. It was non-negotiable."
In his resignation e-mail sent to Ms. Archbold, he said that the “sudden turn of events and the withdrawal of Valentina’s offer raises serious concerns about abuse of process, improper external influence, and academic freedom.” He added: “If I am to be completely honest, I feel like trust has been irrevocably broken.”
The Globe attempted to reach Ms. Archbold by phone and e-mail on Wednesday and Thursday. She did not respond.
The program’s future, at least for the current academic year, is uncertain. Mr. Iacobucci said in his letter that he had hoped to have someone in place for the current year, but “unfortunately, the opportunity to consider other candidates in a timely way was derailed by this unnecessary controversy, and the search was cancelled.” He suggested that Dr. Azarova and all other candidates would be welcome to reapply when the search resumes.
Dr. Azarova, who has academic experience in Britain, Germany and the Middle East, has published articles in legal journals on Israeli occupation and other subjects.
Mr. Wong said the hiring committee had not discussed her work on the Israel-Palestine issue with her. Instead, they looked at her work on the supply chain and corporate accountability for harm and abuse. They liked her approach, which is to follow the money “for who was complicit in supporting and enabling human rights abuses.” He said she offered a concept of “holistic accountability” that went beyond criminal accountability to involve corporate conduct, arms transfers that enable conflict, climate justice and tax justice in global finance.
“When she explained the work that she did, we thought it was very interesting and dynamic.” As for her work on the Israel-Palestine issue, “I never found it was relevant to picking that out of everything she had done.”
The statement from Mr. Iacobucci did not satisfy Emily Tsui, a fourth-year law student, who found it hard to square with the resignations.
“As law students we’re taught about the importance of an independent judiciary and the importance of independent academic thought and I think both may have been compromised here,” Ms. Tsui said.
She said she would like to the see the law school be forthcoming about what actually happened.
“The silence is extremely upsetting,” she said.
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